Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #6 — People Need To Feel Safe To Participate

Picture of Bobby McFerrin on state
Bobby McFerrin is a master of safe participation

The best performance I’ve ever been to (the best music, dance, theatre, speech — any kind of performance)  was by Bobby McFerrin. His performances involve music and extensive audience interaction. I saw him in a 1500-seat theatre in a small city in Wisconsin. The theatre was full, and from the start the audience was appreciative but reserved. But by the end of his 1.5-hour performance, he had the entire audience on the edge of their seats ready to do anything he asked of them, including coming up on stage. Bobby McFerrin is a master at getting people to participate.

Slow commitment and social validation — How does he get 1500 people to switch from being passive audience members to being part of the performance? Everyone is sitting in a theatre with strangers, and they don’t want to look silly. He gets them to first make just one small noise — sing a single, simple note, for just a second. Everyone makes the sound and then everyone laughs a little. He then builds on that one single note, and asks the audience for a little more, and a little more, often using his face and gestures only  — until everyone is freely participating. By the end of the night people are singing, jumping up to come on stage with him, laughing, and fully involved in the performance.

If you’ve never seen Bobby McFerrin engage audiences, you may want to see a little bit of him in action in this 3-minute video:

A master at safety — Bobby McFerrin is really a master at making people feel safe. He never ridicules or makes fun of anyone. His body language and comments make everyone feel that they are doing great—doing exactly what he expects and knows they can do. It feels safe to participate.

If you want people to participate in an exercise, or group activity in your presentaton then you could take some hints from Bobby McFerrin:

  • Start slow. Have people do one small activity before an activity that is longer or more complicated.
  • Make sure it’s always safe. Don’t ask people to do anything they are not comfortable doing, especially at the beginning.
  • Humor is good for making people relax, but don’t make fun of people as a form of humor, or the entire audience will start to feel unsafe.
  • Research shows that synchronicity bonds people together — when people do something together, such as clap, laugh, raise their hand to a question, it bonds the group. A bonded group feels safe, so ask your audience to do something all together and the group will bond.
  • Be confident. If you are the leader people will follow you.

What do you think? How do you make people feel safe during your presentations? What is your technique for encouraging participation?

If you are interested in improving your presentation and speaking skills then come join me for a 2-day workshop in Chicago.


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2 Replies to “Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #6 — People Need To Feel Safe To Participate”

  1. inspring. i watched it twice and i’ll watch it again tonight. some trainers i work with are hesitant to get students involved because they don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or on the spot (plus many of our students tend to be shy and introvertive). we try to help learners feel that it’s safe by explaining training is a good environment for making mistakes or experimenting (as opposed to out in the real-world), and making the activities feel fun, and getting them happy and laughing. i can’t wait to share this with my trainers and try to work your great points into our classes.

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