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Audiences Are Changing in Fundamental Ways

Is the backchannel a vocal minority or the sign of something bigger happening? If nothing else, the backchannel is a symptom of some key underlying changes among audiences today.

People no longer need to go to presentations to get information

It used to be that live presentations were an important place people would go to get new information. But that has changed with the click of the mouse.

Now people can get the same information from websites, blogs, YouTube, and Twitter, among other sources. With all these places to go for information, audiences don't need to get it from presenters on a stage (Figure 4-4).

Figure 4-4

Figure 4-4 Audiences already have access to a great deal of information online, so they are looking for new things from presentations.

When information is readily available elsewhere, audiences start looking for other things they can get from face-to-face meetings. For example, they look for opportunities to collaborate and network.

Audiences have higher expectations

Events expert Jeff Hurt writes in a blog comment that audiences have even higher expectations these days and are more willing than ever to express how they feel:

  • As someone who plans education events, hires presenters, and culls through presentation evaluation data, I'm finding that my attendees are becoming less tolerant of speakers that do not provide relevant, current, and timely content. Attendees' written comments have become more critical of speakers than I've ever seen in the past 15+ years. I speculate it's because attendees view their time and attention as their resources, equivalent to money. They don't want to waste their time, their attention, or their money.

This means audiences no longer tolerate boring PowerPoint presentations (Figure 4-5).

Figure 4-5

Figure 4-5 Audiences have grown frustrated after years of enduring presentations in which presenters simply read the bullet points from their slides.

Instead, audiences today demand information they can't get elsewhere, along with compelling graphics and engaging multimedia. Audiences now insist presenters get to the point, speak clearly, and avoid corporate-speak. They want presentation experiences to be human and authentic, not impersonal, overly slick, or based on a one-size-fits-all PowerPoint template.

Though audiences today say they don't like PowerPoint loaded with bullet points, they do still like visuals. The quality of the visual material you choose to present needs to be as good as what your audience is accustomed to seeing on an everyday basis. This expectation will continue to raise the bar on the quality of presentations from keynote-level speakers. At the same time, the trend toward more audience-driven experiences reduces demand for professional lecturers and increases demand for professional facilitators.

Audiences want more participation

One of the core questions audiences are asking today is: When is presentation (the one-way delivery of information) the best fit and when is conversation (the two-way exchange of information) the best fit.

The traditional lecture format is biased toward a particular subset of an audience that can learn by sitting quietly and listening. But most audiences today simply don't want to sit quietly as passive vessels receiving wisdom from a speaker upon high (Figure 4-6). Instead they expect to be more involved as active participants, helping to create the experience.

Figure 4-6

Figure 4-6 Most audiences no longer sit still.

The general trend is for audiences to turn the dial from presentation to conversation, from passive reception to active engagement, and from speaker-driven to audience-driven formats. As audiences become active participants, they want more of a say in determining the agenda. They influence meetings from the preplanned toward the spontaneous, from the linear to the modular—and they want a say in the matter.

There are many situations in which a speaker-driven model is appropriate, but there is a rapidly increasing number of situations where this model is no longer a good fit. Hosts are tasked with the ever-important challenge of finding the right position on the dial between presentations and conversations.

Audiences will vote with their feet if they don't find what they want

With so many options available, audiences are no longer willing to tolerate situations where they feel their time is being wasted. And why should they?

Rather than sit in the audience and take it, they're now either surfing for more interesting topics on the web or simply walking out of the room altogether (Figure 4-7 on the next page).

Figure 4-7

Figure 4-7 Audiences simply leave a presentation if they feel it wastes their time.

Many of these changing audience expectations are related to an important trend in meetings called Open Space.

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