Presenting with Clickers and Interaction

A trend in academia has finally reached the world in which I make professional presentations.  Audiences are being armed with clickers or asked to react to polls in Webinars.  The folks arranging these presentations have started to mention the need making them more interactive.  I must admit that this term is a bit loosey-goosey for me.  It makes me think of The Music Man, with Harold Hill singing the “Trouble with a Capital T” song, doing jazz hands around the River City city-zians.


The first time this came up, the audience was given clickers.  The presentation was to about 70 lawyers who were coming from outside Ontario to practice in it.  In my experience, lawyers tend to be reluctant participants.  The more mandatory the session is, the less interactive they can be.  In the past, I have tended to rely on inquisitive participants to help break up my knowledge dumps.  There are usually one or two people who will respond to a generic “Any questions?” sprinkled through the slides.

Using clickers changed the structure of the presentation a bit more formally.  First, the slide deck needed to incorporate the questions so that the results could be properly incorporated.  I tend to rework this slide deck every time I give this presentation – biannually – anyway but I wanted to incorporate the clicker slides properly.

I read a number of articles about using clickers in universities and they tended to suggest that less was more.  First, only use questions that are meaningful.  Even the anonymity of the clicker will not make people want to ask irrelevant questions.  Second, too many questions reduced the value of the overall presentation.  Most of the papers seemed to think one clicker-related poll every 15 minutes was plenty.  I took this to heart and created 4 questions for my hour long session, directly tied to an issue I had just raised in the slides on confidentiality.

It seemed to work out well.  The response rate was always near the 70 mark, so most people participated.  The questions never really had a right-wrong answer so there was no embarrassment in giving one or another.  This was important because I figured the clicker was only the starting point.  After each poll, I would ask specifically for someone to talk a bit about why they chose their answer or to describe their practice environment given their answer.  This was more specific questioning on my part than in the past and it seemed to elicit more of a discussion rather than just the talkative participants.

Online Polls

The other time this happened recently was on a Webinar.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to incorporate polls in our online slide deck to the relatively late training we received on our speaking platform.  Since Webinar systems usually support only flat – none building, transitioning slides – I had kept more than usual to slides that had pictures or very little text, and it was an after thought compared to the information we would share orally.

I expect these online polls would receive the same level of participation as in-person clickers would.  However, I’m not sure that, even now that I know I could pose online polls, I would do so.  Webinars tend to throttle the interactivity between participants and speakers.  Questions are filtered through intermediaries, participants are on muted phones, etc.  While a poll could be interesting as something visual to watch, and to bump attention, there would be no good way to follow up on the answers other than to validate them or use them to return to a concept that was not, perhaps, understood.  I’d have a harder time finding the interruption worth it, and will probably stick to “any questions?” prompts to encourage people to send their questions to moderators.

The use of the term interactive still seems overly dramatic for what’s actually happening.  I am probably still missing the kernel that inspires this concept but continue to see it as an overblown term to encourage speakers to be less boring.  Since I already avoid written presentations and utilize mostly visuals, not words, in my slides to discuss concepts, I feel as though I’ve already shed many of the items that can come between a presenter and the audience.

One thing I will be considering is how to include this sort of Q&A – more direct, more open-ended but not just a general call for people who are lost – in sessions that are in-person but without clickers.  I tested this idea out a bit in a video conference with a law school class in January and it worked tolerably but I think my questions weren’t quite right.  Another work in progress.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.