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Speaking doesn’t mean just speaking anymore.

Whether you’re speaking on a stage in a big room, at a conference table in an office, or on a virtual platform, you’d best be prepared to do more than talk.

You’ll need to create ways for your listeners to participate if you want to engage, inform, or persuade them.

Professional speakers have heard for a while now that the people who hire them want meaningful interaction. The days of an orator holding forth from the stage while their audience passively takes it all in? Those days are already over for most of us, and on the way out for the rest.

The demand for interactivity extends to anyone who finds themselves talking to a group, not just the pros who get paid for it. And interaction means more than the old, “Raise your hand if …”

Technology can help.

Speakers used to encourage those in the audience to put their phones away so they wouldn’t be distracted during the program. Not anymore. Now smartphones pave the way for listeners to participate, and for you to get instant feedback about what you’re saying and how it lands with them.

Audience engagement tools provide a chance for the people in the seats to answer poll questions, play a game or ask a question.  There are dozens of apps for that—some of the big ones are Mentimeter, Slido, and Vevox.

On the other hand …

You know me, I’m a little retro. I do audience interaction the old-fashioned way: talking and listening.

It’s not exactly like my talk show days—I’m not asking anyone to call 591-8900. I do invite them to chime in though, and often to participate in some physical way as well. Sometimes we all become visual aids to support each other’s learning.

I’ll admit to some trepidation before a speaking engagement last week for a corporate marketing team. I was there to talk about the Secrets of Professional Presence and Influence, and I was convinced I needed to do more than just talk if the group was going to learn something valuable.

It’s not enough to hear about Presence or read about it. We need to experience it, to get it in our bodies. That means doing actual, physical practices as well as taking in information from me. And that made all the sense in the world when we were planning for a group of a little more than 100.

Then the marketing meeting grew. So, I would be asking 340 people, give or take, to practice the elements of professional presence. Getting grounded, standing strong, making eye contact, and using powerful language in a voice that carries some weight.

Um, I was about to ask 340 marketers to turn to a partner and talk, while engaging in steady, strong eye contact. And then I was going to ask them to stop talking. Yikes!

photo of Catherine Johns on stage

It worked out well, the talking started and stopped, and people did learn a few things. They told me afterwards how useful it was to really experience their challenges, and to have a way to meet those challenges so they could show up and shine when they went back to their desks, conference rooms, and Teams screens.

Also, they had some fun. And I always think the fun facilitates the learning. Without interaction, they would have had information—by itself, that doesn’t always facilitate real learning.

Interaction is the key, on an even bigger scale.

You’ve heard a lot of analysis of last week’s State of the Union speech, I’m sure. One thing that jumped out at me as I listened to commentators of all stripes was this. President Biden, some of them said, has made the State of the Union speech interactive.

You remember how it used to be. The president stood at the front of the House chamber speaking, while senators, representatives, cabinet members, and various dignitaries and guests sat in the chamber and listened to him.

Yes, they would stand and applaud—too often, it sometimes seemed to TV viewers.  Beyond that, the SOTU was very much a one-way affair. Not anymore. At least not with this president doing the speaking.

The Atlantic’s Jennifer Senior put it this way. Biden has the “ability to read a room, to sweep in the energy that’s already there, and to make the most impersonal settings feel deeply intimate, like one-on-one discussions. And, in his State of the Union address—generally the dullest and most choreographed of presidential rituals—he did just that.”

President Biden read most of his lines from the teleprompters, of course. He and his speechwriters had labored long and hard to produce those lines. And, he also engaged spontaneously with the hecklers, teased the opponents who put up roadblocks to his every idea, kidded the boo-ers, and spoke to Lindsay Graham by name.

Which is to say, the president and his audience interacted. And those moments of connection were the most engaging part of the SOTU for the people in the seats and those of us who were watching from afar.

My guess? Biden set a new bar for future presidents and their annual messages to Congress about the state of the nation. They’d better be able to think on their feet, ad lib, and connect.

Back to us, speaking in our auditoriums, conference rooms, and virtual meetings.

We also need to think on our feet, ad lib, and connect with our listeners. Because that’s how we make an impact and have some influence. And isn’t that what speaking’s all about?