In the period leading up to Christmas, I was caught driving just above the speed limit. Instead of getting a fine and points deducted from my driving licence, I was offered a chance to attend a Speed Awareness Course. I did attend the course, and I did learn a thing or two about speed limits. For instance, I learned that a series of street lights placed at no more than 200 yards from each other, in a built up area, indicates a speed limit of 30 miles per hour (unless otherwise indicated, for instance by a 20 mph sign – more here). Interestingly, though, the course also showed me a few principles about audience engagement, which I am going to copy for my own teaching and public speaking practice.
- Acknowledge the mood in the room
There were 23 people in the room. Twenty-three people that did not want to be there. Twenty-three people that resented giving up four hours of their lives (and a lot of money). Twenty-three people who were sure they knew everything, already (we estimated that there were more than 500 years of driving experience in that room).
The trainers acknowledged the mood right from start, for instance by saying things like ‘I know that you would rather be elsewhere on this Monday, afternoon’. Another way was to ask a series of anonymous questions about perceptions and attitudes, and displaying the results. This served a number of purposes:
- It normalised the situation – once you saw that everybody in that room, and in previous sessions, felt the same, you felt more relaxed;
- It set expectations about the importance of honesty during the session, including with yourself and about what you did not know;
- As the questions were repeated at the end of the session, this gave the tutors an instant assessment of the change and, therefore, how effective the session had been.
Two other things that the instructors did and that I thought were particularly effective at dealing with the mood in the room was to:
- Empathise with the audience, by referring to situations where they felt the same;
- Focus on the behaviour, not the person. They mentioned several times that driving above a safe speed was dangerous. But, equally, they said several times that it did not mean that we were bad drivers or, indeed, bad persons.
- Focus on one take away message
The session was clearly about one message: do not drive above the safe speed level. Every piece of information and example were geared towards that end, and supported it. For instance, when we talked about road signs, we only talked about those relating to speed; and when we talked about road conditions, it always about how those impacted on safe speed levels.
Roughly the session was structured this way:
- Clarify audience perceptions about safe speed levels
- Show (not tell) why driving just a couple of miles above the limit is dangerous for others as well as you (e.g., what happens to your internal organs, if you come to a sudden stop)
- Explore why we drive over the limit
- Discuss how we can ensure that we drive at a safe speed
Occasionally, there would be references about how people could find more information about related topics such as road or car safety. But the conversation stayed firmly within one topic.
I am entirely guilty of trying to cram too much content into one single talk, or blog post, or lesson. This is because I want to share all I know with the audience. However, I can see that by trying to give the audience ‘more value’, I may be actually confusing them. I suppose this is one of those cases of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
- Make it highly interactive
The mixture of topic (dry) and audience (unwilling) means that the default attention span in the room was quite low. To deal with this, the tutors first instructed us to put our mobile phones away and were very clear about the negative consequences of failing to do so. Then, they made the session highly interactive by interspacing short bursts of content with:
- Questions (and answers), sometimes to the audience, sometimes by the audience
- Group discussions (for instance, about a driving scenario)
- Short tasks (e.g., fill a short form)
- Surveys via audience response systems
I was quite impressed with the use of the audience response systems. It was a quick and non-intimidating way of gauging the audience’s opinion on something (for instance, attitudes towards speeding, as I mentioned earlier), as well as a great way of gauging knowledge levels about some sub-topics… and, then, adapting the delivery, accordingly. Now if only I could I find a system that is as interactive and anonymous as the automated response system, but more flexible and less expensive to use in my classes. Maybe using mobile phones… Any ideas?