Engaging Audience Members in Conferences

When attending large conferences, often the biggest challenge I face is selecting which of the 5 overlapping sessions I want to attend. It can be frustrating when there are several sessions that look interesting, and the one you choose ends up not being what you expected. This is apparently a common problem among attendees, as audience members will often get up and leave in the middle of a presentation.

As a presenter, you aren’t always sure who is in your audience and with a large conference it is typically a diverse crowd. During this conference, I noticed several different approaches to addressing this concern. One presenter started by specifying exactly who her target audience would be and then stayed true to that goal. A few people left at the very beginning of the session, but it was the only session that I attended that the entire audience (after the initial exit) stayed for the duration of her presentation. By clearly stating the purpose and intended audience, the presenter reduced the likelihood for the audience to be disappointed by the content presented.

In another session, a (very energetic) presenter used an online service (to poll the large audience before he began). He then tailored his examples and suggestions specifically around the audience members (instructional coaches, teachers of different grade levels, administrators, and researchers). It was clear that he had structured his presentation in a way to accommodate a wide range of interests and included video and written examples for multiple grade levels. He also strategically placed these examples throughout the presentation which kept everyone engaged throughout the hour-long presentation. By polling the audience first, the presenter was able to tailor his presentation to increase the likelihood that everyone in the audience gained new knowledge.

The third way that I saw presenters differentiate were during the poster sessions. I had the pleasure of presenting a poster with one of my faculty members, and she explained that she first asked the participant where they were from and what they did, then she was able to provide relevant information about our study to that participant. Prior to her suggestion, I was simply launching into my 1-minute overview speech for anyone who walked up and asked to hear more. Her approach and suggestion made a lot of sense and seemed to increase the interest of the people who visited our poster. Participants were asking follow up questions more often than when I was simply giving the same introductory speech.

These experiences all reminded me that as presenters (especially at teaching conferences), we should be practicing what we preach. Engage your audience, differentiate, get to know your learner, provide clear explanations, and use multiple means of representation.

Updated: February 12th, 2018