Associations are in a bind. Their missions—and their events—almost always include attendee education and entertainment. But today’s show-goers are demanding. Millennials expect events to move at the same speed as their device-enabled, electronically enhanced lives. Gen Xers and Boomers aren’t far behind.

But while event formats remain firmly anchored in the old “one-to-many” paradigm, with one speaker talking to many attendees, ample technology now exists to take this dynamic to an interactive level. And now, only seriously old-school speakers feel threatened by audiences immersing themselves in e-mail, games, even fact-checking when speeches lag.

“I don’t ask people to put away their phones, I tell them to keep them out,” says technology speaker and consultant Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, DES, MS. “It’s my job to keep the audience engaged. If I’m not, they have every right to check e-mail or whatever while I’m talking. And if I am, those phones and tablets become engagement tools that help me capture, hold and direct attention.”

The Engagement Toolbox
“Our members are hungry for information,” says Patty Ceglio, conference coordinator for the Seasonal Human Resources Association and Seasonal HR Specialist for recruiting agency CoolWorks.com. “But a poor presentation endangers learning. We have had employment specialists who know their stuff but don’t know how to engage their audience. That makes for a painful four hours. Others can walk into the room and have you wishing for more when the session ends. Our number-one need is for presenters who meet and beat audience expectations.”

Presenters and planners have a growing set of tools to help them do just that. Simply changing the way we talk about events and audiences can make a difference.

“Attendee is not the proper word,” Ball says. “We should all be talking about and thinking about participants. The audience today expects interaction. I use technology tools because I talk about technology. There are many ways to engage your audience.”

Even the much-maligned PowerPoint can be an effective engagement tool. Ball uses slide decks extensively, but rarely bullet points. His slide decks focus on photos, graphics and embedded video and audio. Mobile apps play a growing role.

AskQ boosts engagement by allowing the audience to ask questions online, then vote for questions and rank them by greatest interest. Crowd Mics hooks phones and tablets into the room sound system, turning them into microphones. The app also allows text comments and real-time polling. Presenters can grant access for one audience mic at a time or allow open mic access.

Karen Shackman, founder of Manhattan-based DMC Shackman Associates in New York, likes QnA, an app that lets participants text questions, poll responses and feedback in real time. Session moderators approve, prioritize or close questions on their own screens. Approved questions post to a public screen during presentations or Q&A sessions—no more roaming mics, garbled questions or rambling diatribes from the audience.

Topi allows planners and participants to connect with interest groups, conduct private chats, connect via LinkedIn and view profiles of other participants before, during and after an event. As apps become geo-aware, they can help participants enhance the experience based on physical location.

“If you have downtime between sessions, apps can let you know that a participant you were hoping to find for networking is down the street at Starbucks,” Shackman says. “We are seeing apps that create a hyper-intelligent private system that increases face-to-face interaction.”