Adding Interaction Concern #1: Losing Control of the Content

Perhaps the most pervasive concern I hear presenters raise when contemplating interaction is that they will lose control of the session.

Newsflash: you ain't never had it. At any given moment, people are talking about unrelated topics, scanning the program book for the next session, buying something on their smartphone, or sneaking out early to get to lunch.  But we feel like we are in control because we are the only ones providing content and we do so on our own terms. It's a false sense of security.

When adding interaction, you do transfer some control to participants because you now rely on them to generate and share relevant information with each other.  The presenter's job is to do everything possible to make sure this happens smoothly and that the interactive element surfaces meaningful content and conversation participants can apply to their own needs. Let's look at how this sometimes unfolds. 

Have you experienced a presenter introducing a small group exercise and everyone at your table just looks at each other, unsure of what exactly you are supposed to do? This is not good. It is the presenter's job to provide sufficient structure to prevent this from happening.  And different learners require varying degrees of structure and detail in the instructions in order to full engage with the interactive element. Here's a bit of what I have learned in the process of doing this myself.

An exercise I use in some sessions is to have participants think about the lenses through which they see the world and the implications of those lenses. I created it for a workshop with a group of highly creative, big picture thinkers.  The slide on the left contains the instructions I offered, and it (along with me briefly talking about how we each need different glasses or contact lens prescriptions to see 20/20) allowed most people to fully engage with the activity as I intended. The discussion was lively and the content surfaced led to meaningful insights being shared.

When I next used this exercise it was with a group of more analytical, detail-oriented thinkers.  I used the same instruction slide, but this time was met with blank and confused stares.  Participants didn’t track as well with my lenses metaphor, nor did they have a sufficient idea of what content I was asking them to generate. I had to verbally provide a lot more detail just to get the exercise started.

After this experience I created the slide on the right, improving on the original in three ways: (1) expanding the initial question posed with more examples to illustrate what I am asking, (2) visually revealing another common analogy—the photo filter—to further illustrate my intent; and (3) offering examples of my own possible responses.  This is now my default slide to introduce the exercise.  While some participants still nod with understanding when only the initial question is posed, I now see everyone else "get it" when I provide more information, including my own possible responses to the exercise.

Since then I have made one other significant modification. With the first two groups, I simply posed the question and asked them to turn to a partner and start sharing. While this worked for most people, it put a huge pressure on each participant to generate this content on demand, essentially doing it as they shared it with each other.  As a result, I really marginalized more introverted learners. 

I now ask participants to first note up to 10 responses to the question on their own, enabling introverts to reflect and do this work internally. I then invite them to stand and partner with one other person sharing some of their lenses and the possible implications they might have. This approach, one I've written about in greater detail here, is much more inclusive and has consistently produced a higher quality exercise that almost all participants seem to value. Asking participants to stand and select a partner instead of simply turning to someone near them picks up the energy in the group a bit and gives individuals some control over their conversation companion.

What I just described is part of the core work we do when adding interactive elements to a session: determining how to structure the conversation and introduce it so that participants can easily engage and generate the content you wish them to share. To do so: (1) consider how participants might normally process information or receive instructions, (2) examine the nature of what you are asking them to do and how they might view the exercise, and (3) generate the most inclusive framework to support people in having the intended conversation.  This often means that we create structure for an exercise that differs from what we might need if we were participating in it. In other words, we have to look at adding interaction through the participants' lenses and perspectives, not just our own.

Lecturing or talking at participants indeed allows us a greater degree of control over the content. But it keeps individuals passive and doesn't allow them to share their own ideas and insights with each other, something that many participants and conference planners increasingly value.  The opportunity for us when designing a presentation is to calibrate an appropriate mix of the expertise we can contribute and the knowledge that participants possess. 

When introducing interactive elements to engage participants' perspectives, presenters must provide sufficient structure so that the learners can conduct the conversation we invite them to have (either with themselves or each other) and that valuable content and insight will surface during the interaction.

During a lecture or presentation segment, we only learn what content resonates with learners when we actually present it to them. The same is true for introducing interactive elements into a program: only through experimenting will you glean what works with what learners and how to best structure the interaction for success.

Next in this series I address the other control presenters rightfully fear losing: control of the clock.

Previously in the series: "You Need to Make Your Presentation Interactive."