Audience participation helps make a point

Audience participation is an important part of effective speeches and presentations. Let’s face it, your audience is more likely to remember your message if they are actively engaged throughout the session. You don’t want them passively sitting back, arms folded and brains in neutral.

So how do you encourage audience participation?

  • You certainly need confident and polished presentation skills.
  • You definitely should have a stock of good, relevant stories.
  • And it helps to have a little something extra… like a mousetrap.

My fellow professional speaker, Joel Hilchey, has all of those qualities: great speaking skills, a story based on Jack and the Beanstalk, and a whole lot of real mousetraps. Let me explain what all speakers can learn from Joel about presentation skills and dynamite audience involvement.

Joel Hilchey was a main stage keynote speaker at the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers’ annual convention. His topic was leadership, and how sometimes we rob ourselves of great opportunities in life or in business because we convince ourselves ‘it’s too risky’. We allow an inner voice to dissuade us from trying something different. So we stick with the status quo. It’s a topic he’s shared with thousands of executives, educators and students across North America.

In many ways it’s a fairly standard leadership message. But not in the hands of Joel Hilchey.


First, he has great presentation skills. He comes on stage juggling, so the audience is quickly engaged. He uses slides – but not those text-heavy slides that derail many presentations. His slides are a mix of personal photos (illustrating his own story) and images from his book, The Time to Climb, based on Jack and the Beanstalk.


Then there are the stories. Throughout his speech, Hilchey told his personal story intertwined with his take on Jack’s adventures with the Beanstalk (boy takes chance on exchanging family cow for magic beans, ventures into unknown by climbing the beanstalk, repeatedly outwits the murderous giant and acquires riches, and finally kills the giant, ensuring the safety and prosperity of the family).

Both the personal story and the fairy tale made the point that it is the stories that we tell ourselves that will either help us grow as leaders and accept risk, or cause us to accept the status quo.

The stories, more than any amount of lecturing, help the audience grasp the insights and enjoy their own ‘ah-ha’ moment.


Finally, Hilchey has a great device for audience participation while reinforcing his main message. Cue the mousetraps. How comfortable would you feel placing the flat palm of your hand on a loaded mousetrap?

In his grand finale at the CAPS convention, Hilchey demonstrated how to place your hand over a loaded mousetrap and then set off the trap by quickly removing your hand. Then he called for a volunteer. The volunteer was nervous, afraid of trying something new that could definitely cause pain. But, after a couple of false starts, the volunteer confronted her fears and quickly lifted her hand from the trap before it could spring closed. There were gasps from the audience – and great applause.

And so we moved to the real audience participation. As the volunteer left the stage, Hilchey revealed there were mousetraps on every table – for everyone. We were told how to load the mousetrap, put our hand over it and then release it. The point was to have us all face our fears.

The room exploded with the pop of the mousetraps and shouts of ‘I did it’ as 250 people set off loaded mousetraps.

Joel Hilchey encourages Halina St James to try some audience participation
Joel Hilchey encourages Halina to try the mousetrap challenge

I was one of them. I can tell you, the sense of facing and overcoming the fear of mangled fingers was exhilarating and liberating.

So next time you’re planning a presentation or keynote, figure out how you can let the audience get involved. See if you can let them experience the point you are making, rather than just hearing you talk.

Work on those stories that will bring your words to life. Facts on their own are forgettable. Stories make raw information memorable.

And work on your presentation skills. It’s all about confidence in your ability to deliver your content, understanding that it’s a conversation with the audience rather than a lecture, and finding slides that are stimulating rather than snooze-inducing.

If you want a quick way to upgrade your presentation skills, check out the books, e-books and videos in our online store.

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