7 Deadly Interaction Sins and How to Fix Them

Juraj Holub
Speaker on stage during a Q&A session

Despite our best intentions, each of us has committed a sin or two against audience interaction when organizing an event. Despair not, dear fellow event professionals. It’s not that hard to repent and fix our mistakes.

1. Packed agenda

More speakers on the line-up don’t necessarily mean more value for your attendees. As a participant, I’m usually completely drained after two to three sessions, especially when there is no dedicated time for interaction.

Yet, many conferences insist on packing their agendas with eight to nine “keynote” speakers, with the last session finishing at 5:30p.m.

Keeping audiences engaged in the late afternoon then becomes a massive challenge even for the most seasoned speakers or moderators.

How to fix it:

Don’t be scared to loosen up your agenda and leave out a session or two. Instead, build in some buffer time so people can catch up on the emails or tasks that they fell behind on during the day.

Or if you organize a multi-day conference with evening clubbing, give people enough time to refresh themselves before the night out.

2. Long sessions

As per neuroscience research, we humans are able to pay attention for a maximum of 10 to 20 minutes before we start losing focus. We can get through the first 40-minute keynote, but it gets hard with the second one and becomes almost unbearable with the third session in a row. You can bring top TED speakers on stage, but if there is no change in the delivery, our thoughts will most likely drift away.

The combination of various formats and physical movement keeps people energized. Click To Tweet

How to fix it:

The Conventa Crossover conference was an excellent example of how to leverage the sequence of various session formats in order to keep people engaged. Each block was no more than 60 minutes long and consisted of a series of presentations.

After each block, the audience needed to grab its chairs and turn the other way to face the alternative stages – content bar and marketing ring. The combination of various formats and physical movement kept people energized.

3. Monotonous speakers

Uninspiring speakers are one of the biggest challenges in the industry. As the presenters form the backbone of your event, making sure that they deliver an engaging talk should be among the top priorities.

Of course, it’s easier said than done.

While we might have a certain amount of control over the speakers that we pay fees to, the situation gets complicated when we have presenters who agree to speak for the benefit of “exposure.”

How to fix it:

Coaching speakers requires a lot of work. It all starts with the proper briefing so the speaker can get a better idea of who is sitting in the audience and what the participants expect. Outlining and reviewing the presentations before the event should also be one of the standard practices. TED gives lots of great ideas in its guidelines, check them out.

Finally, not leaving things to chance and hiring a professional coach could be a great investment with potentially a massive impact on the content delivery and overall event engagement.

4. Overruns

There is nothing more frustrating than a speaker who overruns an already long session. To patch the hole in the agenda, most events cut off the Q&A session or shorten networking breaks, which leads to even less time for actual interaction. And that makes people even more frustrated.

How to fix it:

The danger of overruns can be mitigated by lots of practice on the speaker’s part. Or if you don’t want to leave things to chance, simply have your speakers consult with seasoned coaches who can help ensure that the talk will be delivered within the allocated slot.

Also, you should always have a time keeper so speakers can adjust their pace. If even this doesn’t help, your moderator should step in and bring the talk to an end. You’ll find more tips on how to prevent overruns in this article.

5. No time for participation

This is probably the most deadly sin of all. Getting people to only passively listen to a series of presentations is unforgivable in the 21st century. And a five-minute Q&A session at the end will not fix it.

People want to be part of the experience. They don’t want to be spoken to all day long; they want to speak.

Participants don’t want to be spoken to all day long; they want to speak. Click To Tweet

How to fix it:

In order to create a meaningful dialogue, there are three main elements that you need to get right.

  • First, ditch one-way formats and pull off interactive formats like fireside chats, Ask Me Anything sessions or interactive panels instead.
  • Second, brief a moderator who will lead the conversation on behalf of your audience.
  • Third, equip your moderator with live interaction technology that will allow her to crowd-source audience questions.

6. Short breaks (no peer-to-peer networking)

With the 75%, networking has been indicated one of the top attendance drivers, second only to education. Yet at most conferences, networking is completely left to chance.

Even worse, to ensure that the attendees get the chance to hear out all the keynotes, breaks that are meant for networking are scheduled with barely enough time to run to the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee. 

I’m convinced that for many, breaks are the main reason why they attend your conference. Click To Tweet

How to fix it:

People love breaks. I’m convinced that for many, breaks are the main reason why they attend your conference. Therefore, make sure that your attendees will have ample time not only to refresh themselves but also to network. PCMA Convening Leaders allocated as much as up to 45 minutes to breaks.

You can take it a step further and give people a gentle push to go meet other delegates by giving them a small task to complete.

There are many ways to create networking opportunities for your delegates, but more on that here.

7. Dull space arrangements

The venue and room arrangements have the maximum impact on audience engagement. Traditional theater setups are dull and hardly inspire interaction. On top of that, they often remind us of our school days when we hesitated to ask questions for fear of looking stupid.

How to fix it:

In his book, “The Architecture of Happiness,” philosopher Alain de Botton emphasizes the power of the physical space to influence people’s emotions by making them happy or moody.

Stimulate your attendees by offering them flexible meeting spaces, creative environments for group work, leisure areas for networking and unusual design solutions for different formats (e.g., a real boxing ring for Q&A sessions).

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