January 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio January 1999 Current Issue
January 1999 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics


Using Audience-Response Systems

How to write questions and answers to get the data you want

At events ranging from a four-hour meeting with 25 executives to a four-day conference with 3,000 doctors, audience-response systems are popping up like flowers in springtime. The reasons? Attendees like interactive presentations, and the data gathered can enrich the meeting.

Speakers and seminar leaders can collect important information from their audiences if they know what they’re doing. This means not just knowing how to use the technology, but paying attention to a critical component of these systems: question and answer development.

Three parties can be involved in creating the questions: the speaker, the organization and the technology’s facilitators. Good presenters with flexible programs ask questions that will direct the flow of their time on the dais and help them give attendees information they will value. For the group running the event, using an audience-response system allows them to get details about the people who actually show up for the meeting, thus refining audience demographics. Facilitators can then tailor questions to make them more effective. Also, impromptu questions can be solicited during the presentation. Someone behind the curtain quickly types in a question and possible answers.

Before 500 members of your industry or corporation are sitting in a conference eagerly awaiting the chance to share their collective expertise, make sure you have spent quality time learning about the attendees. You can’t tap into the wellspring of the audience’s knowledge without doing some research into who these people are, what jobs they hold and where they come from. With the basics you can then develop good questions.

Begin by thinking of a few demographic questions to ask at the beginning of the presentation. This serves two purposes: It warms up the audience, allowing them to become familiar with the keypad, and it provides you with valuable information about who is in attendance.

With all questions, make sure the answer choices are appropriate for the group. For example, if you know most of your audience comes from another country, don’t ask a question like, “In what part of the country do you live?” followed by such responses as (1) North; (2) South; (3) Central; (4) Outside the United States.

It is especially important to gather background about the group before asking quantitative questions. Suppose you ask: “How many patients with disease X have you treated in the past six months? (1) Fewer than 25; (2) Between 26 and 50; (3) Between 51 and 75; (4) More than 75.” If the disease is rare, the responses will be weighted toward answer (1). If the disease is common or your audience consists of people specializing in treating the disease, then answers will be weighted toward (4).

When possible, eliminate answers like “None of the above.” When you do use an all-encompassing answer choice, follow up with a clarifying question in case the majority of the group chooses “None of the above.”

Also, try to make sure your answer choices are mutually exclusive. If more than one answer applies, your audience will be confused. Suppose you ask the following question: “Why do you participate in this conference? (1) Education; (2) Networking; (3) Keep up on industry developments; (4) Meet opinion leaders.” In this case, two or more answers probably are applicable. A better approach is to ask, “What is your primary motivation for participating in this conference?” You can then ask about their secondary motivation, keeping the response choices the same. This format helps alleviate confusion and makes the collected data more specific.

To track down a reputable audience-response company, ask for recommendations from colleagues or A/V contacts, search the Supplier Showcase at Meeting Professionals International’s Web site ( or on the American Society of Association Executives’ site (, or conduct a search on a more general Web engine using the keywords “audience response system.”

It might take a meeting or two for you to refine your audience-questioning abilities, but don’t be afraid to try the technology. With the push of a button or two, you can have instant access to the thoughts and opinions of every participant.

Keith Champeau has 10 years experience working with Denver-based IRIS, Inc., providers of audience-response services.

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