conference technology

Audience Response System
Conference Messenger App



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This document sets out to explore uses for audience response systems in conferences. It doesn’t claim to be definitive and no doubt others will have new and different approaches not addressed here. The ideas are based on my experience over twenty years of supplying this type of equipment. If in places I appear to be a little patronising then I apologise. It is because I want to try and make the pros and cons as clear as possible. It assumes that the reader has an understanding of what an audience response system is.


It seems to me the where it is used in a conference can be categorised under four different headings:


1.      Incorporation in an existing presentation.

2.      As a tool for a chairman to link between presentations.

3.      As a tool for the chairman during panel discussions

4.      Presentations constructed around the response system.


The way it is used will be determined by the response you are seeking from your audience. For example, are you trying to entertain by making them laugh or having fun? Perhaps you are seeking to underline a serious point and make them think about it more? Maybe you want to know their opinion as a group on a particular issue or whether they have understood information given to them? It could be just to keep them awake! Perish the thought. Whatever it might be this is an important matter to consider before you embark on the expense and trouble of including a system in your conference.


Incorporation in an existing presentation.


Of all the uses I have seen,  I think this is the most difficult. More often than not speakers present their material in a didactic way and aren’t seeking any input from the audience. They are merely there to tell their story and that’s it. I have seen speakers add a question into a presentation just for the sake of including the technique. Having got the response graph on the screen they look at it and say something like “That’s interesting” and move on. If I was in the audience I would expect a little more than this. The point, even if a little obvious, is that the question needs a purpose. In an ideal world, having got your response, you would tailor your presentation to that particular audience. From a practical point of view this is both difficult and hard work. For this reason it is unlikely that most speakers would agree to do it. Although in many cases a presentation does not lend itself to this approach, there are ways it can be used to hold an audience’s attention or to underline a point being made.


Some examples:


Suppose you are a marketing manager for Joe Soap’s supermarket and you know that you are losing customers because they have to wait longer at your checkouts than your competitors. Research has shown you that this is their biggest complaint. You are going to present to the store managers and tell how the problem will be resolved.


You could first ask the question:


What do you think shoppers dislike most about supermarkets?


  1. Lack of availability of items

  2. Unhelpfulness of staff

  3. Time queuing at checkouts

  4. Lack of parking facilities


Once you have the result, if everyone pressed button 3, then congratulate your audience on being perceptive. If not, tell them the correct answer. Then explain that research shows whichever supermarket shoppers use, they hate this most.


Now ask:


Which shop do you think has the longest average queuing times?


1.      Asda

2.      Sainsbury’s

3.      Joe Soap’s

4.      Tesco


Again the actual results don’t matter. It allows the presenter to underline the problem by explaining their company is worst and then go on to explain how it is going to be solved.


All of this could just as easily been done without audience polling. However, using it allows the point to be reinforced and makes the audience concentrate on the matter in hand.


People it seems are interested in statistics. This is borne out by the plethora of surveys that we see in magazines and newspapers on just about every subject. People like to know whether they are in majority groups or not. This fascination can be used to enhance a presentation. For example, I might be presenting a paper on why I believe it is uneconomic for the government to give more money to the railways.


I could ask:


Do you believe that government investment in the railways should continue to rise?


1.      Yes

2.      No


This would allow the speaker to know whether the audience was hostile or not but much more importantly the audience would know if their opinion was held by the majority or not. This process in itself can influence people’s thinking and maintains a level of interest and attention.


Finally, on a practical point, speakers should be aware that for each question they ask their presentation is likely to increase by about a minute. In these time conscious days, when conferences need to be run to a tight schedule, it is as well to be aware of this.


As a tool for a chairman to link between presentations


This is where audience response systems start to come into their own. They give the chairman or host the opportunity to take a measure of the audience’s opinion or knowledge before a presenter speaks on a particular subject. For example suppose that a speaker is about to present a paper on implementing new health and safety regulations to a group of engineers responsible for this task. The host could ask a series of questions along these lines..


Do you believe that these new regulations will improve safety?

Will introducing these new regulations put more pressure on your job?


This allows the host to introduce the next speaker with comments related to the results perhaps suggesting the difficulty or otherwise of the task ahead, and providing a smooth link into the presentation. It also allows the speaker to make some initial comments now knowing the opinions of the audience.


Although I have never seen this done it occurred to me that one could mimic the style of those “tip of the day” message boxes you see in many computer programs. For example going back to Joe Soap’s Supermarket we might want to introduce the Finance Manager’s presentation with a question like:


Which supermarket showed the largest percentage increase in turnover in the last financial year?


1.      Asda

2.      Sainsbury’s

3.      Joe Soap’s

4.      Tesco


It would of course be Joe Soap’s, giving the speaker a nice lead into the presentation.


A variant on this might be to emulate the TV shows “Call My Bluff” or “They Think It’s All Over”. By using three people to read out a statement each you could then ask the audience which they thought was true.


For example the statements could be:


Joe Soap’s supermarket showed a larger percentage increase in turnover in the last financial year than Asda, Sainsbury’s or Tesco.


Asda increased its market share by 5% in the last financial year.


Sainsbury’s profits more than doubled last year.


Having taken the vote and presented the results the first would be declared to be true and the others false. Further to this the latter two statements would have been written so that the host could build up Joe Soap’s still further by using these false statements to lead into other good news about the company.


Some words of warning on asking questions not carefully thought out. I saw one host as at the end of a meeting.


How do you feel about today’s discussions?


1.      They were very useful

2.      I’m glad I attended

3.      Fairly useful

4.      Could have been better

5.      I shouldn’t have bothered coming


Needless to say someone voted for option 5 which made his closing remarks a bit awkward. I heard him chatting after the event saying someone in the group had an attitude problem.



If you don’t want to know the answer don’t ask the question.


As a tool for the chairman during panel discussions


This can be very effective and generate lively discussion which otherwise might not occur. Essentially the format would be like the TV programme “Question Time”. After all speakers have delivered their papers they come up on stage for a panel discussion hosted by a chairman. Typically questions will be asked from the floor and duly answered by the appropriate speaker. By using the audience response system the chairman can ask at anytime a question with the responses “Agree and Disagree” or “Yes and No”. This way it can be established whether the audience actually agree with the comments being made by the panellists. For example a professor might say that he believes that a particular drug should always be used for treating a disease because of its lack of side effects. This might be a controversial point so could ask the audience whether they agree or not that side effects are low. Should the audience disagree then the professor could be asked to justify his stance.


Presentations constructed around the response system.


There are a myriad of these and I am sure that what is covered here will just be the tip of the iceberg. My personal favourite is the approach where a story unfolds and the audience is regularly asked to choose whether a correct action has taken place or what they believe should happen next.


A large DIY store had a problem with “shrinkage” (theft to you and me) in their warehouses. As part of a managers’ conference they wanted to discuss how this problem should be addressed. The way they chose to do it was to have actors playing out various scenarios and the audience saying how they felt a situation should be handled by using an audience response system. In one scene a lorry driver goes to the manager’s office and says that he has just unload 100 gallons of paint and he’s in a bit of a hurry as he has to make his next delivery in Birmingham before 5 o’clock and it’s already 4.30 now. For this reason he needs the manager’s signature on his delivery docket so that he can make a quick getaway.


What do you do now?


1.      Call the Birmingham store, tell them he’ll be late and check the delivery

2.      Sign the docket and delegate someone to check the delivery

3.      Sign the docket and not check the delivery


A vote would be taken and the results displayed and a facilitator would then discuss the pros and cons of each action with a view to emphasising a particular approach. The scene would then continue as the situation was handled in the way that senior management wanted.


I’ve seen this approach used using video and slides, as well as actors. It’s been used in sales situations, courtroom scenes where a fictitious case is used to argue a company policy, a doctor counselling a cancer patient and many more, all to great effect.


Probably the most popular and obvious use for tailor made presentations is a quiz. There are too many different styles, to cover them all, so I will cover the basic format that tends to be used. The system can essentially only do four things:


1.      It can identify which keys are pressed on every keypad.

2.      If you request more than one key to be pressed it can identify the order in which they are pressed.

3.      It can measure the time it takes from the start of a vote to the key being pressed.

4.      It can identify what actions have taken place on each keypad.


Normally a question is put on the screen with no answers. The possible answer options are then displayed on the screen with the question and a countdown starts during which the contestants must answer using the keypads. When the countdown is complete the correct answer is highlighted. This repeats for ten or so questions and a scoreboard is displayed. Generally the audience is divided into teams with their scores being displayed.


The scoring can work in a number of ways but normally I give a total of ten points to a team if they all get the answer right. If not, then their score is calculated by taking the number who got it wrong and decreasing the score accordingly. Also, to avoid a tie, I often include a timed question at the end whereby the more quickly they answer the higher the score.


Also, the questions don’t need to be multiple-choice. You could for example have a spot the ball question where a position on a grid is the right answer and the contestants to type in the co-ordinates. You might ask, “When was the Battle of Hastings?” and have a year as an answer.


The number of variants is vast and I’m sure you can come up with plenty I have never seen.


I have seen debates successfully enhanced by taking a vote after every speaker instead of just at the start and finish. Because it is possible to store the votes and recall them later it is possible to see how each speaker sways the opinion of the audience, rather than the overall effect of the four speakers.


Finally, the system can of course be used purely to collect data. This really needs no explanation and could be used in the same way as a questionnaire or indeed using many of the techniques available to market researchers (like Chinese pictures or Boston boxes).  Do take care though. Too much of this can bore the audience.


This technique has been used for subsequent follow up. If you know which number keypad each delegate has it is possible to know how they answered each question. Follow up mailings could then be sent out with the letters personalised to that individual. You could even use it if members of the audience want more information on a presentation. For example, if they want more information you could either ask them to type in their delegate number or, if you know which keypad they hold, ask them to press any key and the material could be posted to them.


In conclusion then, to include an audience response system into your conference is not necessarily trivial, but doing so can add an enjoyable extra “dimension” to the event. It is difficult to pinpoint this “dimension”  but it can probably best be described as creating a more involved and interested audience.


I hope this document is of some value and has given you some ideas of how you can usefully apply this approach in a conference.



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