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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Way back in the 80s, when I did post graduate studies in education, all the talk was about “child centred education”, ie, tailoring the lesson to the needs of the child, building the lesson content around the perspective of the learner, taking your starting point from where the learner is etc. It seems strange that business conferences have only cottoned on to this approach some 30 years later but the current fixation with “audience engagement” seems like today’s version of “learner centre education” although  the term, and, indeed, the learning environment and participant demographics are different.

Audience Engagement


From Information to Knowledge

For what is audience engagement if not a process whereby learners become involved in the learning process as opposed to being mere passive recipients of data and information? By actively engaging with the information, with each other and with the teacher / speaker, a kind of alchemy is enacted whereby superficial data points or information becomes deeper, more enduring and more formative “knowledge”.

But enough of the philosophy!

Audience engagement, in fairness, is what most audiences and speakers want from the get go. It’s the primary antidote to boredom which, at a business conference, is as guaranteed as rigor mortis in a corpse, no matter how scintillating the topic. But active engagement on the part of an audience is also enriching for all concerned – speaker and participants alike. We all want audience engagement so why doesn’t it take place?

Audience Engagement


It’s the audience’s fault!

While the speaker can be to blame for lack of audience engagement, in my experience, it’s usually the fault of the audience! Or, better, it’s a fault in human nature as most of us have serious anxieties about giving voice to our views, opinions or questions in a public forum! In a recent survey, in fact, well over 60% of the respondents stated that they’d never ask a question in a public. So most conferences unfold in the presence of a silent majority whose voice goes unheard and whose opinions are rarely captured.

I suppose it was an obvious problem for technology to solve and these days there’s a plethora of technology platforms that give voice to the audience in a variety of ways – through polls, Q&A, live surveys etc. Having used a number of them – both platforms and apps – I have a definite preference for, a platform I first encountered in its native city of Bratislava at a conference there two years ago.

Audience Engagement – your solution is a platform, not an app. This means it’s accessible on desktop, laptop, tablet or smart phone via your usual browser. For me, and for many others, this is a huge benefit as, by now, we’re done with downloading apps which tend to sit there after the event, eating up memory on our devices. With, you simply punch in the event code and you’re presented with a nice user interface with two tabs, one for Questions and one for Polls. The Polls enable you to cast your vote in a variety of surveys and to witness, on the screen in front of you, how the entire audience is voting on the topic. It’s 100% live, dynamic and hugely exciting from a visual perspective. It often  takes the conference session in a different direction, particularly if the outcome of the vote is unexpected or controversial. Likewise, it often gives rise to immediate questions, which is the second tab.

The default option for questions is “anonymous” but you can also include your name or an alias. Once the question is published, it may be seen by the entire audience and, if it resonates with them, they can give it a “thumbs up” which means its rises in the leaderboard. This, of course, is a powerful way of crowd-souring content and making the conference more relevant to the specific needs of the live audience. The burning question is there for all to see and it becomes the role of the speaker or moderator then to address the question, perhaps finding the answer amongst the audience itself! is primarily committed to keeping the process as simple as possible and so it hasn’t complicated the platform with an excess of functionality, most of which would then remain unused. That said, it is constantly refining and innovating and has recently added a beautiful word cloud facility whereby you can quickly create a visual based on the frequency of usage of certain words. The platform also generates a really nice infographic which summarises all of the interaction and engagement on the platform. This may be shared post-event, as a link. currently has a slide sharing module in beta testing.

Audience Engagement


Uses of

Over the past two years I have used in a variety of settings from small, brainstorming-style meetings (6 participants) to large conference-style events – 500 participants. I have discovered that no matter how small the setting, the usefulness of an anonymous platform is massive. Folks will write vitally important stuff anonymously that they’d never give voice or utterance too.

Most interestingly, perhaps, I used in a virtual, on-line setting to get consensus around a brand identity for a client with a multi-stakeholder community (see image above). We deployed during an on-line live meeting with participants at over 35 different global locations. Participants viewed designs on their desktops or laptops via an on-line meeting platform and then used to vote on their tablets or smart phones. They also used the question facility to get immediate input from the designers and we achieved in less than an hour what could have taken months without the technology.

Last week, for the first time, at the FICP Annual Conference in Nashville, I used solo, with no technical backup or support. While you need to be a bit of an octopus using all 8 arms to switch beween PPT, and the admin portal, it does actually work and allows a single handed speaker / moderator manage polls and Q&A for a mid sized meeting.

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum are SoolNua and work with destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training for the meetings industry. In February next Pádraic will assist the team with an innovative session on The Event of The Future to be held in New York city. Details and tickets here.







5 thoughts on “Audience Engagement – at the Heart of Meetings

  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Pádraic, sorry, but I strongly disagree that “It’s the audience’s fault”. In my experience, lack of audience engagement is due to the generally poor PROCESS used during most meeting sessions.

    On Wednesday I led a two-hour workshop in Boston for a national association audience of 160. During the vast majority of the two hours, every single participant was active: discovering the concerns and experience of other participants, moving around the room while forming human spectrograms to learn about each other and the group — I used three participant-created chair sets during the session — and learning and connecting around issues and topics relevant to them throughout.

    The hardest task of the workshop was getting people to STOP talking with each other so we could move to the next part.

    I showed 12 slides during the workshop, but would have been fine without them. Other technology used: cards, pens, post-it notes. No high tech was needed with one optional exception — we projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display all the group feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.

    In my (25 years of) experience I’ve found that most people have a fundamental need and desire to connect with others with whom they share something in common. When you use good group process to safely facilitate appropriate connection, ~98% embrace the opportunity and learn, connect, and engage effectively with their peers. Anonymity, if needed, can be readily supplied by no-tech/low-tech process, but it turns out that it’s needed a lot less than people think.

    Every person in the workshop received a copy of my book “The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action” which explains why participant-driven and participation-rich sessions are so important, how to create an environment for this kind of learning, connection, engagement, and resulting action, and includes a large organized compendium of process tools with detailed instructions on when and how to use them. The participants I spoke with after the workshop told me how excited they were planning to read the book and start putting what they had experienced into effect (all of them are responsible for professional development in the educational arena).

    I’m also running a series of 1½ day experiential workshops in North America and Europe for people to learn how to use these process tools to significantly improve the effectiveness of their sessions and events.

    It’s possible to create amazing learning and connection though approaches I’ve outlined above. When I facilitate longer conferences I can assure you that — despite the 60% statistic you quote above — just about every single person will ask questions in public at some point during the event.

    It all comes down to the group process you use…

  2. padraicino says:

    Adrian – thanks for this great comment which, of course, I fully agree with. You highlight a key deficit in the entire meeting process that you, as a pioneering, skilled and highly experienced meeting professional, are able to provide a fix for. But you’re a rare and beautiful thing, Adrian, and, sadly, there are not enough of you “out there” to lead the revolution.

    Technology, I believe, offers an interesting option as it’s eminently scalable and, these days at least, it’s zeitgeisty too so there’s an openness to it.

    At the end of the day, however, nothing beats a brilliant group facilitator / moderator but, in my experience, there’s a scarcity of supply of brilliant ones like you!

  3. Adrian Segar says:

    Thank you for your kind compliments, Pádraic. Like the Blues Brothers, I’m on a mission to share how to do this work with the world, and I encourage anyone who wants to learn how to join me to 1) (best) sign up for one of my workshops — hopefully there’ll be one in Europe early February — and 2) read “The Power of Participation”. What I do isn’t rocket science; it can be learned and applied…and the benefits are enormous!

  4. Irina says:

    I love and used it on multiple occasions, as an organiser and attendee. What I noticed is that often it comes down to moderator and how he/she can engage the audience and encourage use
    Multiple times I saw moderators who don’t know how to use, didn’t approve questions – so why to “engage” the audience at all, didn’t feel comfortable with event technology, prefer the human interaction etc. I also know few moderators who are brilliant with using this platform and not only can multitask and get questions from but also Twitter and FB Live at the same time – this requires certain skill!
    On two occasions I used alone when I gave talks to university students – these were the two most engaging sessions, the questions just kept coming, very good experience!

  5. padraicino says:

    Thanks for the comment Irina – today I’m in Bratislava, the “birthplace” of We used it yesterday during our MICEDay with about 100 attendees and, once again, it was the star of the show.

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