Making Large Gatherings Interactive/Engaging

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 9 seconds

So if you’ve ever participated in a workshop or keynote I’ve given, you know it’s interactive, no matter what the context, right? Whether it is f2f, online or hybrid, whether there are 5 people or 500 people… I will want to hear from the audience in some way. Of course, when numbers are in the smaller range, it is easier to interact directly, orally, with the presenter(s), and when numbers are reasonably small and breakout groups/rooms are possible, it is possible to have some amount of deep engagement with other participants. But what if you can’t do small group work? Here are some ways to make it interactive:

  • Invite people to answer questions in the chat. This is actually more of an artform than some people realize, because questions in the chat need to be ones the audience can think about on the fly, and have can be articulated in a word, phrase or short sentence you can read easily while you’re in the session. If you need help reading the chat, ask one of the hosts to help you. I personally prefer to read them myself unless one of the hosts is a close friend who understands me well. If you’re in a f2f or hybrid situation, use an open ended question type or word cloud on a polling tool like Slido or Mentimeter or such. I always ask for the chat to be open when someone invites me to speak virtually. If you can’t read everything out, just let people know so no one feels offended. Hopefully most people understand!
  • Ask participants to pause and write (or draw!) a reflection on something relevant to the topic. That will get them engaging with the ideas even if they don’t necessarily share back (but you could totally ask them to share back via chat or take a photo and post to a padlet or jamboard or something, or even Google docs or slides). Spiral journal is great for this, too. Play soft music while they write/draw.
  • Poll participants to get to know who is in the room, and where they stand on certain issues. You could do that early in the session, at the end, or scattered thoughtfully throughout. Find the polling tool that gets you the question types you need for the audience sizes you normally expect and have a backup tool you are familiar with for different situations. I use Slido and Mentimeter. But there are many others.
  • Use Q&A with upvoting to gather questions. This is particularly important with larger numbers, especially in Hybrid mode. I love this approach because it does not privilege the brave person who asks the first question, but helps you prioritize the most popular question among participants. Many polling tools do this.
  • Pre-engage! Post-engage! You could create a Google doc, padlet, anything like that ahead of your sesson where you invite participants to contribute something and you refer to their contributions in the session. You could also invite folks to contribute during or after the session. I’ve also used Twitter for this kind of thing a lot, to quite a lot of success if it’s the right prompt at the right time!! (Mastodon doesn’t yet get me that kind of engagement, possibly because fewer people are there overall).
  • Invite other voices. If possible to let a couple of participants unmute based on their chat contribution, to expand on it, then great. Just be careful to make it “no pressure”, like, “I wonder if X would be willing to expand on what you said in th chat, orally or in writing?”. If unmuting is complicated, play short videos of other people talking, especially if they are, like, students. I tend to want to hear a voice different from mine every now and then, haha.
  • Recognize we are embodied and multidimensional. I know we know this, but when fully engaged virtually we forget to remind ourselves and each other to stretch, look away from the screen, get a drink, etc. People seem to appreciate so much when I start or pause for a stretch or sip and invite them to do the same. People seem to also appreciate when I say kids and pets are welcome. I guess even more so when they hear my daughter responding to the questions I am asking THEM!
  • Share resources, slides, whatever can help. This isn’t interaction, per se, but people are likely to ask for this, so why not prepare ahead? Also, when facilitating alone, I ask someone from the audience to volunteer to keep track of links in the chat and help me out if people keep asking for stuff I already posted. These volunteers are priceless! And I think those who volunteer for it enjoy that role!

Other ideas of things to make a session interactive? Whether they’re things you have seen me do, or someone else? Please share in he chat!

Header image (collage of human faces networked) by Geralt from Pixabay

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