DALLAS, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Which part of a presentation or speech is usually more interesting? The straightforward speech or the question and answer that follows? Most people would pick the Q&A session because it's interactive.
A good speaker engages the audience at the very beginning of the speech. I recently heard Jim Barksdale, founder of Netscape, and now an investor and philanthropist, speak at a conference. He started by recognizing a few people in the audience and then asking everyone with a certain amount of experience to stand.
His "news flash" was predictable: Technology will continue to be a major influence, change will continue to be at light speed, and it's a global economy. All 800 people in the audience hung on every word because he is, after all, Jim Barksdale, but also because of the way he said it. He did everything right, and -- in standard presentation skills teaching -- everything wrong, proving again that a speaker doesn't have to be perfect.
Let's focus on what he did right. He wasn't stuck behind the podium. He moved all over the stage. He seemed to be speaking to each person individually. At least 50 percent of what he said was designed to make the audience laugh. He used a prop, pulling out a Wall Street Journal article to read from. He asked how many people had seen it. Only one had, so he made a joke of that. He had a great ending, climbing on a segue scooter, zooming around the audience before disappearing through a black curtain.
Now Barksdale has a long history in understanding how valuable audience interaction is. In 1998, he made an appearance before a Congressional investigating committee and used the technique of audience interaction to reinforce his contention that Microsoft had created a monopoly. Seated on a panel facing the members of the Congressional committee, he twisted in his chair to those attending the hearing, and asked, "I would like to take a poll. Who uses a PC with an Intel based system?" He excluded the Mac users and told them not to participate. Hands were raised. He continued, "Who has a computer without Microsoft's Operating System?" All the hands came down. He turned back to the committee, and said, "That's a monopoly."
The technique was so memorable that the evening news used it as a clip that night. Barksdale could have just said, "Microsoft is a monopoly," but by involving the audience, he made it the single most interesting point in the entire hearing.
"Raise your hand if..." is 101 in audience participation. It always works -- if only because it increases the circulation flow of the listeners, pushing more oxygen to the brain. It's an excellent technique for beginning speakers.
Candidate, and now Congressman, Michael Burgess had three decades as an obstetrician in North Texas delivering 3,000 babies before he was recruited to challenge the son of Minority Leader Dick Armey in the Republican primary in 2002. Dr. Burgess had integrity, deep knowledge of the health care system and a way of connecting with patients one-on-one. He had no experience speaking to groups.
North Texas is turning itself into Los Angeles as fast as possible, and boasts gridlocked traffic on all major arteries. To get himself up and running, Dr. Burgess started asking each group of voters some simple questions. "Who got stuck in traffic coming over here?" All the hands would go up. "Who wants to spend more time stuck in traffic?" All the hands come down.
Drew Lebby, a consultant and author, has an exercise where he draws three sets of boxes on the board, labels them A-A, B-B and C-C. He asks the members of the audience to draw the diagram on their own piece of paper and instructs them to connect the A-A, B-B and C-C boxes without going through any of the boxes or running off the edges. Then he walks through the audience to see how people are doing. A few people get it, and most people don't. He uses it to make a point about how people approach problems.
Audience interaction is limited only by one's imagination. The best interaction, like Barksdale's example, use the technique to highlight the main strategic point the speaker is making. But the second best use is to get the audience interested and wanting more.
-- Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations for President Reagan, is President of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator on public radio and television.
-- Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers on subjects of public interest.