Be Careful What You Ask For

In an earlier column, I wrote about what happens when you give the onstage presenter the mouse, and the control of the presentation.

Now let's talk about what happens when you give a mouse to the entire audience.

Audience polling has been around for a long time. To give you an idea how long, the first time I worked a show that involved audience polling systems, we had to create a window in a 36-projector multi-image slide show to allow a video projector to show the polling results. The projector, an InFlight (Barco) V-Star 5, one of the best available at the time, was an approximately 250-lumen unit that was barely visible in the multi-image window. So audience polling has been around at least as long as I have.

Early polling systems were a cabling and operations nightmare, requiring stringing continuous cable to each seat in the audience. Just getting the cable and gaffing right could take hours. Programming them was a science unto itself, often requiring writing actual code for specific applications. Using these early systems in a show was something that required extensive planning and rehearsal. Even with rehearsal, early polling systems were finicky. In fact, one of the most "invigorating" moments in my life came when, as the new national staging manager of a Canadian AV company (that will remain nameless, eh) we decided to demonstrate an application of our new polling system at our annual client appreciation party. We did some custom programming of a 250-unit system to award a prize to the first correct answer for a displayed trivia question. It all worked in rehearsal, (with a 10-unit test system) but for some reason in the actual show the same unit (and client) kept winning. It took some quick thinking backstage to quickly create some "fake" response screens, so that the clients never realized the error (other than that one especially clever lady won the first three prizes). To this day, she's a legend in the Toronto Trivial Pursuit community.

Modern polling systems are mostly wireless, of course, and modern data projectors can fully support all the things we want to do with them. Polling and interactive software is highly capable and flexible, and can be interfaced with a wide variety of presentation systems.

Sometimes that's the problem.

As you've probably noticed by now (especially in the audio visual business), when things start to look effortless people often begin to believe that they actually are. And that's when the "invigorating" things happen. Because, although they are technically easier to use today, polling systems still require a fair amount of integration expertise and rehearsal time to use well. So let me give you a few of the rules I use regarding the use of audience polling systems:

1. Polling systems should not be used simply to add "glitz." More than once, I've been confronted with clients who were determined to add a polling system to an upcoming show. They just weren't sure why. They'd probably seen them at an MPI meeting and thought they'd add a high-tech look and feel to the show. In fact, I've actually had a system on a show, and shipped to site, and set up, before they reluctantly concluded that they weren't going to use it. Note that, if it ever gets to this point, they ARE going to ask you if they'll still be billed for it.

2. Everything takes longer than you expect. Getting audience response back takes time. More than you think. Plan for this and experiment with it. People will discuss their potential answers, and ask their neighbor to clarify the instructions, before answering. Many of them will also stand and point their response unit at the screen as if it were an infrared television remote. Try not to laugh.

3. Never ask a question you don't know the answer to. I learned this one from an attorney friend. Nothing is as embarrassing as spending the entire morning on a big splash rollout of the new marketing plan, and then in the afternoon being presented with full-screen graphics showing that 61 percent of the audience approves. It throws the rest of the show off track, and sends people home feeling half-hearted about the plan. The point: in internal meetings, polling systems are best used for educational or motivational purposes. Don't ask open-ended questions if you could potentially be thrown by the answers.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice. A meeting with a client who won't show up for rehearsal, or a show with short setup times, is the wrong place for an audience polling system. Polling systems can be an incredibly effective teaching tool, and a valuable part of gathering an audience's opinions, but working with them, especially for the presenter or MC, requires preparation. If the CEO is too busy for rehearsal, he or she is the wrong person to be MC of the interactive polling portion of the show. Ask them to appoint somebody, and practice offsite until everything works smoothly.

The effective use of an audience response system is both a science and an art form, where the technology is less important than the content and composition of the questions, and what you do with the answers.