Until now I have only been addressing public speaking and communication as a means to disseminate information through a one way conversation. For example, when on stage communicating in a public setting, there is not much opportunity for audience participation. The expert is telling a story and conveying information, while the audience listens passively. In these cases generally the only feedback from the audience is nonverbal facial expressions and gestures. There might be time for a few questions at the end, but for the most part this it is a one way street. There is however, another very important venue for communication, knowledge transfer, and public engagement, which is the classroom. Whether you are a teacher at a high school or a professor at a university the skills and techniques needed are different than an “on stage” presentation. In this post we will discuss some of the ways you can improve audience participation and increase the information retention of your audience.
Why is speaking in a classroom so much different than communicating on stage in a public setting? For the most part it has to do with the opportunity for the audience to ask questions and engage the speaker in a way that is possible in other formats. Sure there is time for Q&A at the end of a presentation, but a few minutes of questions is no comparison to the the back and forth discussion that a classroom setting can have. In the classroom you are teaching to the audience, and allowing them to have an active role in learning. Whereas In the public setting you are relying on the audience to pay attention while you are keeping them engaged and interested. Here, when I refer to the classroom I an going to assume that the audience is composed of young adults. There are obviously many different methods for communicating and when it comes to kids, and some of the methods explained here won’t work as well due to different attention spans, maturity, discipline, etc. However, as a communicator knowing a few techniques to manage a back and forth discussion and increase audience participation can be useful for any classroom setting.
Getting your audience involved
The first step to communicating in the classroom is to get the audience involved. It is important to begin by literally telling your audience that it is okay to participate. Too often students are discouraged from sharing ideas or questions for fear of feeling stupid or being ridiculed. When you set the tone so that everyone is part of the discussion (as long as it is respectful) it will encourage everyone to take part. If you are working with a particularly young audience you will need to make sure you can guide the discussion and not let it go off topic. No matter, it is imperative that you involve the audience, for two reasons. The first is that if the students are not involved then they will quickly lose interest. These days most of us (including adults) have shorter and shorter attention spans, and are not often able to stay engaged for very long periods of time. When it comes to communicating on the stage, we are relying on the audience to stay attentive on their own. We help this by being interesting and polished, but the ultimate responsibility is on the audience to stay with us. By involving the audience, it will engage them in a different way because they will want to have their opinion or question heard. The second reason is that everyone learns in slightly different ways and most of us need to experience something first hand to learn about it. That being said, as the communicator you will need to provide a mixture of learning opportunities for the audience, be it from questions, discussion, visual aids , or a hands on activity. Allowing the audience to ask questions, make comments and participate in both listening and speaking, make for a more diverse learning experience. Make sure, however, that you are also prepared with some different kinds of material (visual and hands on) in addition to your spoken word to engage your audience with.
Managing a back and forth discussion
Generally as a communicator you will likely get the most engagement from a discussion setting. Communicators use language as a primary tool and it is no surprise that this would be our first way to connect with the audience. But how do you manage the discussion? The first step is to make sure that you are staying more or less on topic. You can allow a lot of leeway for people to have their comment, but the point is you will need to be comfortable cutting someone off and saying “thanks but we need to stay on topic”. Now you may be thinking that this will only applies to a younger audience, but you would be surprised at how many adults have little concept of how to remain on topic. Ideally you should allow for questions to be answered as they come up, or pause often and see if any questions arise. However questions are not the only thing that you need to allow for, comments should be welcomed as long as they are on topic. Literally saying this to the audience, is helpful since you are setting the rules for the discussion, rather than having the audience make them up on their own. Cite the fact that time is limited (as it always is) and so everything needs to be on topic and be relevant to the subject. The importance of questions and comments is that they can spur others into a new way of thinking they had not considered before. This is helpful to allow the audience to understand the material better or at least remember more of the presentation. Often it is good practice to repeat the question and answer more than once during the presentation. Humans have a better chance at remembering something if it is repeated with short breaks in between repetitions. In general you will want to allow the discussion to happen naturally, keeping it on track and on time, while making sure that repeat all important points.
When should you become a moderator and allow the audience to interact with itself?
There may be a time that you get a good back and forth going between audience members and you should allow this given time constraints. A back and forth between the audience members can be something that is very productive or it can be a complete disaster, you will need to be the judge of how it is going. As the communicator you will need to moderate the conversation, making sure no one is cut off and that the discussion stays relevant to the topic. Imagine that you are the referee that can stop the fight at any time if someone is about the get really hurt. Keep in mind that back and forth within the audience is usually not well organized, so you need to also be aware that some people might dominate the conversation. It is your job to make sure that the conversation stay balanced, even by verbally saying “okay what about what other people who have not commented think?”. Ideally this will not take too much effort because for the most part people are respectful of one another, but you are also there to make sure they follow the rules. Allowing the audience to discuss the topic can vastly enrich the experience of everyone in the room.
Why is this important? and what are the advantages?
When you engage the audience in a classroom setting you are essentially giving them the ability to express thoughts and questions while learning something new. Things may not go as you had planned, but that is what is so unique about classrooms, the discussion is often organic and very interesting ideas can be born from it. As the speaker you are always in control to make sure the right material is covered, however the way in which that material is covered is really up to the audience. This is relevant because of the way that Humans learn, is through trial and error. Allowing people the chance to formulate thoughts and opinions of the material, will drastically increase information retention over passive listening to a presentation. Overall the classroom setting is a very different place when communicating and if done in a respectful and controlled manner everyone will walk away having gained new insights and information.