Two of the biggest challenges presenters face are keeping an audience's attention and obtaining useful feedback. Often, the only response presenters get from an audience is a laugh here and there, or the sound of a few pens dutifully scribbling notes.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. There is a technology that allows presenters to break through that invisible wall of feedback, engage audiences and even find out what people are thinking from moment to moment during a presentation. It's called an audience-response system, and it works something like this:
At their seat, each audience member receives a keypad with numbers or a dial on it. The keypad is connected, either wired or wirelessly, to a computer outfitted with software that automatically tabulates the results. During a presentation, the presenter asks a question – "On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate the effectiveness of our sales campaign this year?" – and each audience member punches their response into the keypad. The results are tabulated by the computer, and placed into a chart, table or other form for both the presenter and/or audience to view.
In this way, audience-response systems allow presenters to solicit instant, specific feedback, and audience members get the chance to see what others around them are thinking. And, since the responses are anonymous, the systems can often help organizations get more honest answers to tough questions or touchy issues than they would from, say, a simple show of hands.
"When using an audience-response system, audience members know their voices and opinions are being heard equally and that their ideas are being considered," says Richard Mitchell, director of operations for Orlando, Fla.-based Option Technologies Interactive. In addition, audience interaction and attentiveness is higher when the systems are being used, says Mitchell, in part because the psychology of being called upon to answer questions is so strong. "Users listen carefully and retain information because they know they will be asked to respond to questions," Mitchell says.
But unlike a teacher who simply throws questions out to students randomly to keep them on their toes, audience-response systems also have the capacity to organize and display the results of a question or poll immediately, giving the presenter real-time information to work with. To be sure, audience response systems are powerful tools that can be used in any venue, from business, education, government and training seminars, town-meeting-type events, marketing focus groups or any other situation where it may be useful to take a group's collective pulse.
More successful meetings
For presenters, the systems also provide a useful and highly effective means of getting inside audience members' heads to find out what they're thinking, on the spot. According to David Paull, vice president of business development and marketing for Portland, Ore.-based MS Interactive, manufacturer of the Perception Analyzer, the key for presenters lies in using the information gleaned from an audience to shape an appropriate, immediate response. In such cases, says Paull, "some of the meeting's content is coming directly from the audience's impressions, as opposed to what the presenters thought the audience wanted to hear." Indeed, audience-response systems offer presenters an instant snapshot of the opinions and concerns of an audience which can then be used to forge a more useful and natural dialogue with an audience.
MS Interactive's Perception Analyzer uses a dial rather than a keypad, which allows for a finite moment-to-moment measurement, says Paull. In market-research situations, for instance, the dial allows for periodic testing throughout a presentation. Aggregate audience responses can then be displayed in a line graph, or superimposed over another table of data, to create a minute-by-minute portrait of the audience's reactions. The data from audiences can be displayed in any number of forms, including tables, charts, graphs or spreadsheets.
Beyond the quiz
Instant quizzes and polls only scratch the surface of what these systems can do, however. For example, Arlington, Va.-based Expert Choice, a consulting firm specializing in portfolio analysis and resource allocation, uses its custom-developed software in conjunction with Fleetwood RF audience-response systems to provide consulting intelligence for various clients. According to Michael Jones, director of business operations, the system is used in project portfolio and IT portfolio management, vendor selection and decision-making, and is designed to create a model based on AHP (analytic hierarchy process).
"Say a CIO is prioritizing about 50 different projects," Jones explains. "He would build criteria using our software, which considers such factors as ROI, cost and timelines. All of the criteria are weighed in the model and used to prioritize these projects." During meetings, says Jones, other key decision-makers can enter their own judgments into the software – which captures, compares and synthesizes all responses using Expert Choice's algorithms – and receive instant, real-time research results, accelerating the decision-making process.
Participants in such meetings no longer have to be in the same room, either. Meridia ARS in Plymouth Meeting, Penn., specializes in audience-response technology that links multisite and single-site meetings. According to Meridia CEO Rick Baker, the company's new Internet-based linking technologies allow organizations to conduct interactive meetings and organize response data between participants in several geographic locations. "Collecting data over the Internet is more cost-effective for our clients," Baker says – and, he adds, enhances the quality of the meetings by making them more efficient and useful.
Choose your option
Such efficiencies are even more important when the number of participants leaps into the hundreds or thousands. In 2002, as the City of New York and its citizens were determining the future of Ground Zero, and how the site should be memorialized, Option Technologies Interactive and its partner, AmericaSpeaks, played a pivotal role in gathering data from a citywide audience of about 5,000 attendees.
According to Mark Fite, president of Option Technologies, tensions over what to do with the Ground Zero site were high, so making meeting participants feel as if they had a voice in the decision-making process was critical. "We were trying to uncover people's concerns so they could all be taken into account as decisions were being made," Fite says – and the company's OptionFinder audience-response system helped them do it.
At the meeting there were 500 tables with groups of 10 people and one facilitator at each table. Each person contributed ideas and voted for five separate draft plans, using the OptionFinder keypads and software that automatically ranked the responses. "They ended up rejecting all of the plans," says Fite, "but the consensus plan they have now would not have been possible without this process, which identified all the key issues concerning this eclectic group of people." It could have taken weeks or months to obtain the necessary information using conventional research techniques, says Fite – but with the keypad systems, the raw data was available almost instantaneously.
Feedback for FEMA
A similar setup was used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to identify community concerns following last summer's unprecedented hurricane devastation in Florida. In partnership with AmericaSpeaks, FEMA officials held four separate meetings in three of the hardest-hit Florida counties. "FEMA's goal prior to the meeting was to conduct a needs assessment for each county and develop long-term recovery plans for discussion with the public," explains AmericaSpeaks COO Steve Brigham. "Citizens had the opportunity to offer feedback to a draft plan that addressed housing, economic and downtown development, transportation and other infrastructure issues."
About 400 people attended each meeting. Each person received a copy of the plan and each was equipped with an OptionFinder polling keypad. Table facilitators initiated and guided short discussions prior to polling.
"The polling keypads created highly interactive and engaging meetings, even with these large groups of people," says Brigham. "One of the great things about this technology is you can pose a wide range of critical questions and still have the ability to ask new questions on the fly, based on the responses. For instance, we asked what people wanted in downtown Arcadia. We were able to quickly theme their responses to create a new question asking for their highest priorities for downtown from among their nine suggested options."
All participants felt they were an integral part of the process, says Brigham. "In public meetings, there are usually a lot of one-way presentations by public officials and then a few citizens with the loudest voices have their say," Brigham says. "In audience response meetings, everyone's opinion counts and everyone gets to see how their opinions and perspectives compare to the rest of the room."
In large groups, once the response data is collected, it can then be sliced and diced however an organization wants. And, sometimes, drilling down deeper provides even more crucial information. An example of this took place in a major international mining company that was using an OptionTech self-assessment system to uncover safety and risk management, waste, fraud, cultural issues and abuse within the organization. Mark Fite of Option Technologies recalls management and miners attended the meeting, during which presenters asked a series of questions measuring 27 factors. It turned out that the miners felt their safety was being jeopardized because of a procedure outlined in a company memo for activating charges in the mines. "It turned out there was a typo in the memo, which should have said not to do such-and-so and the word 'not' was left out," Fite says.
Teachers, too, are discovering that audience-response systems in classrooms can be used in a variety of ways to enhance the learning experience. Denton, Texas-based eInstruction is known primarily for its involvement in the K-12 market, but more than 500 universities use its technology as well. In partnership with the Fleetwood Group, one of the largest suppliers of audience-response system keypads and software, eInstruction now offers the Classroom Performance System, an infrared system that works much like a TV remote control.
"Regardless of the subject area, grade level, or level of the user, teachers can get immediate feedback to see how the entire class is performing – while tracking each student individually behind the scenes," says Darren Ward, vice president of business development for eInstruction. This individual tracking allows teachers to pinpoint specific student needs and identify students who may need extra help – and the classroom tracking allows teachers to gauge how well the class understands the topic under discussion.
Because the use of PowerPoint is growing in classrooms as well, Ward says eInstruction is developing an RF (wireless) system for the higher-education market to be used in conjunction with PowerPoint. The system will gauge classroom comprehension, assist in taking attendance and award classroom participation scores so professors can encourage students to participate in discussions. "We've had universities around the country tell us their attendance is up using this technology," says Ward. Among other things, says Ward, "it's a subtle way of encouraging students to attend class."
April Terreri is a freelance technology journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.