Outlandish introductions


What do you like on toast?

A few times a year I’m given the opportunity to present a course offered by my work. One of the biggest problems with the course is that there is very little interactivity built into it. One attendee described it as a “one way course”. Attendees do have the opportunity to ask questions at the end of each module, but there are no pre-planned audience participation exercises. This lack of participation causes many attendees to lose concentration and stop taking in information.

I’ve attempted to add interactive elements by posing questions to the audience so they can shout out the answer. This will often fall flat.  Without having structured audience participation right from the beginning people will not know what is expected of them. People aren’t going to shout out an answer after an hour of sitting in silence.

The only time when attendees are required to say anything is at the very beginning of the course during the introductions session.  Each person is asked to state their name, department and objectives for the course.  Unfortunately after the first two or three people everyone starts to sound the same. People will volunteer as little as they can about themselves and the introductions become monotonous and non-memorable.

I presented the course last week and I was determined to make the course a more interactive experience. Right from the beginning.

I targeted the introductions session as an obvious area for improvement. I decided to draw on two techniques that I’ve seen used in courses I have attended:

1. Asking an off topic or outlandish question

I’ve noticed several teachers beginning a course by asking each member of the audience to tell us “something interesting about themselves” or “what would they do with an hour of free time”.  When I did some training with Link Community Development we were asked to “draw three personal characteristics” on a sheet of overhead projector transparency so it could be shown to the rest of the group.

I decided to ask my own outlandish question: What do you like on toast?, a question that was the theme of a recent Toastmasters meeting. I really like this question: it’s very simple; it doesn’t put anyone on the spot trying to think of something clever to say; and it leads to a surprisingly varied set of answers.

When posing this kind of question it is important to offer your own answer first so people know what is expected of them.

2. Get the audience talking to each other

If the audience knows each other there will be a more friendly environment. People will be less embarrassed about asking questions or shouting out answers. One method I’ve seen used to establish this kind of environment is to get the audience talking to each other. 

I’ve seen presenters ask people to pair up, talk to each other for a while and then introduce their partner to the rest of class.  As my course requires people to pair up for exercises anyway I thought this would be a great opportunity for them to get to know each other.

For this technique to be effective it is important that the pairs should not know each other before hand. If people sit in groups of people they already know, then split them up and get everyone integrated.


I was quite nervous about asking people to pair up and ask each other about toast, but I was pleased with the response. The introductions were exciting and fun. People were laughing, getting to know each other.  Rather than everyone saying the same, boring thing, they exposed a bit of their personality. There was noticeable interest in the introductions, and even suspense before the favourite toast topping was revealed.

By the time I got around to asking my first technical question the audience was engaged and keen to participate.

The only drawbacks I could see were: it is slightly more time consuming than regular introductions and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with late comers. I’m going to experiment with this a bit more.  And for the record I like Whole Earth Chunky Peanut Butter on my toast.

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  1. Mo
    Posted March 23, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I like the two separate. You can sometimes have too much of a good thing going with PBJ. The toast is nicely done though. I hate those questions that force you to think of something witty to say. The simpler the question the better the answer.

  2. Andrew
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I know one person who attended a course where they were asked “which famous person from history would you be?”. I would really hate to get that one. The scope it far too broad.
    And as for PBJ, if it isn’t awesome maybe you’re doing something wrong. Next time try it on freshly baked whole grain bread ;)

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