"Don't let them tell you otherwise," wrote professional keynote speaker Mark Bowden on LinkedIn not long ago. "Audiences love audience participation! Especially when they can immediately test the tools, techniques, and ideas being given them in a keynote."
I expressed my hearty disagreement, and commended to him this full-throated piece from three years ago, in which I argued that you can't do meaningful group exercises at conferences, because:
Everyone in the room just met a few minutes ago. Not only do they not know one another, they don't know the speaker—and they barely even know the subject of the session (partly because many are deeply hung over). There simply isn't enough social trust or interpersonal understanding built up for a meaningful group activity. If you're asking them to share their honest ideas with each other, you might as well also ask them to show each other their genitals.
But that doesn't quite get to Bowden's point. Bowden, who describes himself as a "world renowned body language expert," and who does give a rip-roaring talk of his own …
… is actually claiming that audiences are for some reason being disingenuous when they say they hate audience participation exercises. I am disingenuous in so many ways. My loathing of group exercises, I can assure you, is not one of them.
I think it's Bowden who is being disingenuous. Here's how he sells his services as a keynotes speaker:
Book Mark Bowden as the keynote speaker to sharpen up the positive impact communication can have on clients, partners and colleagues. Bowden will tailor a unique keynote presentation from his core expertise of presentation skills training, body language and behavioral neuroscience to guarantee a keynote speech dedicated to your people and the meeting’s objectives.
See any references to that "audience participation" that audiences somehow secretly love? If Bowden really believes audiences dig group exercises, why doesn't he add the following graph to his talk?
"Every Bowden keynote includes at least one moment where you must find pretend to share something about yourself that not many people know because you don't tell your most intimate friends this stuff, let alone professional peers you just met five minutes ago!"
He withholds that graph because he knows that if anyone foresaw that his presence would involve so much as a show of hands—let alone shaking hands, getting up, finding a partner, brainstorming, sharing perspectives, presenting solutions, reshuffling or picking a volunteer to scrawl verbal farts on a flip chart—he'd never work again.
Why do conference speakers insist on group exercises?
In some cases, they surely believe, rightly or wrongly, that said exercises are a way to make the message stick. (But gee, do you specifically remember any audience participation exercise you ever participated in? No, because all such exercises are forgotten in a fog of fear and loathing.)
In most cases, speakers do audience participation because they want the audience to subtly feel implicated in the event. If you feel down by the talk—well, that's partly on you, isn't it? If only you'd given a little more of yourself during the group exercise …