How many times have you walked out of a meeting only to wonder whether everyone "bought" what you were saying? Were they nodding in agreement -- or hoping it would hasten the end of your talk?
Now, imagine walking into a presentation knowing that the people in the room won't hold anything back. Rather than staring in dumbfounded silence, they'll tell you exactly what they want you to talk about. Instead of rolling their eyes when your back is turned, they'll lay all their doubts and disagreements on the table. And if you're boring them stiff, they'll say so.
In the real world, such honesty is muzzled by common courtesy and the fear of embarrassment or reprisal. But there is a way to help your audience break through the shell of decorum -- and all it takes is the tap of a finger. Organizations across the country are using interactive keypad systems to set meeting agendas and ask for feedback on critical or sensitive issues. By giving audience members a chance to voice opinions anonymously, they're uncovering hidden areas of agreement and disagreement. And not least importantly, they're finding that interactivity can make presentations more engaging and more fun.
React to feedback while it's still fresh
One such organization is CompuCom Systems of Dallas. The computer-systems integration firm recently purchased an audience-response system after company employees attended a keypad-enhanced meeting hosted by Novell. "It's fun to use, and it gives the presenter a lot of help," says Ken Rose, CompuCom's marketing vice president.
Rose explains that the company's Quick Tally keypad system is used mainly during large internal management meetings.
"We'll have a series of questions that we want to get the managers' feedback on, and we'll have them rank things," he says. In a typical meeting, the presenter may ask the managers which challenges will require the most attention during the next 90 days. Based on their ideas, the presenter types in a list of 10 challenges on a notebook computer that runs the keypad-system software. Then, as each challenge is shown in succession on a projection screen, the managers use their keypads to rate its importance. "That way we can direct the meeting based on what they feel the issues are," Rose says.
And while many companies gather feedback on presentations with traditional evaluation forms or follow-up e-mail, Rose explains that the keypad system provides feedback when it's most relevant -- during the presentation. "If you were to do a survey after the meeting, someone would have to tally it and the results would be stale," Rose says. "With the keypads, you can do it on the fly and have immediate feedback.
"It's a good way to survey 200 people without having them stand up and be counted," Rose continues. "It's really good stuff."
Your audience has something important to say
While some organizations invest in keypad services or systems to make internal meetings run more smoothly, others obtain the technology for more extroverted purposes.
The life sciences group of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, one of the largest law firms in California's high-tech Silicon Valley, sponsors several conferences each year to bring together executives of medical device and biopharmaceutical companies with analysts and venture capitalists. Before each conference, speakers are informed that the meeting rooms will be equipped with interactive keypads, and they're encouraged to submit questions to use during their presentations. "Each speaker always comes up with a series of questions to ask," says Ashley Heinze, the firm's marketing manager. "We have fun with it."
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati contracts with a company called Reactive Systems to provide interactive-keypad services during the conference, and the vendor takes care of all the details -- from setting up the Fleetwood keypads and interfaces to running the system (using its own software) during each presentation.
"People love the response system and the fact that it's so interactive," Heinze says. "You can find out how many people in the room are from startup companies vs. $100 million companies and get a quick view of who you're actually speaking to."
Between sessions, the keypads serve as trivia-game consoles; a typical question might ask which venture-capital firm financed the most companies in 1997. "For our medical-device conference, I order these really cool [artificial] body parts like hearts and skeletons -- all sorts of fun things," Heinze says. "If you answer a question right, you get a body part."
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati has used interactive keypads for the past four years, so the technology is no longer new to most conference attendees -- but Heinze insists that novelty was never the intention. "People will always appreciate being asked who they are and what they do," she says. "And when part of the room is saying one thing and part of the room is saying another -- 'Wow, half the room thinks I'm wrong about this' -- they find that very interesting."
Wired or wireless?
Rent a system, then decide
Novel or not, complete audience-response keypad systems aren't as costly as some of the other audiovisual equipment your organization probably owns. A basic wired-keypad system, complete with 16 to 25 keypads, a keypad interface box and the necessary software, can be purchased for as little as $5,000, although you'll pay more for certain hardware and software capabilities. Typically, you'll also need to supply a computer to run the system software and a projector or some other display device so you can share the results with your audience.
Wired systems are ideal for cost-conscious organizations and in certain environments, especially where permanent installations are desired. For the portability and convenience of wireless models, you'll pay somewhat more; the street price for a starter system with 20 Fleetwood Reply keypads ranges from about $9,200 to $16,000 or more, depending on which software capabilities and keypad options you need. Many suppliers offer Fleetwood's wireless keypad systems in addition to their own hard-wired models; see "Where to get it."
The majority of keypad-system suppliers derive most of their business from rentals, and all can provide on-site help to set up and operate the system. By renting, your organization can try different systems before making a purchase, and you may decide that renting is better than buying.
Capabilities depend on programming prowess
Once you get beyond the wired vs. wireless question, software is arguably the most important differentiator among interactive-keypad systems. The system software, which resides on a host computer (usually your own notebook or desktop machine), determines the types of questions you can ask and controls how the questions and response graphs will appear on your display screen.
With the exception of Fleetwood -- North America's largest manufacturer of wireless keypad systems -- each of the suppliers listed in "Where to get it" writes its own system software, which means a wide range of options exist in terms of functionality, appearance and user-friendliness. (Fleetwood relies on its value-added resellers to add the software component.)
The system software's basic job is to display the questions, sort and tabulate the responses based on the information it receives from the interface box, and display the results in graphic form (usually a bar graph or pie chart). Audience polling is the most basic function of audience-response systems and is used for presentation support, training, balloting and forum or town-hall events. Most audience-polling software includes data-manipulation features, making it possible to conduct demographic analyses based on previous audience responses and export the data to a spreadsheet.
Some advanced functions, such as strategic planning and group decision-making, are supported by some software packages but not others. Another example is the pre- and post-test function, in which a question asked at the beginning of a session is repeated at the end. Both results are displayed side-by-side to illustrate how the audience's perceptions changed during the course of the presentation. Gaming applications that enable audience members to play as individuals or as members of a team make up another popular set of options.
The software for certain systems is built to support videoconferencing, distance learning, corporate training and other specialized functions, usually in conjunction with special interfaces and other auxiliary hardware. Some suppliers have systems that can mix the keypad-software input with inputs from analog or digital video for group role-playing sessions and other mixed-media applications.
In addition to software capabilities, you'll want to pay attention to user-friendliness issues -- especially if the system is to be operated by you or other people within your organization. Is the program easy to learn and use? Is the process of keying in and programming questions intuitive, or does it require frequent use of the manual or online help? Does the software offer choices in terms of how the responses are presented (for instance, bar graphs or pie charts)? Does the stylistic appearance of the response graphs suit your needs? (Some keypad software still uses the pre-Windows DOS interface, so if a slick appearance is important, pay close attention in the demo room.)
Keypads: Variations on a theme
Wired or wireless, most audience-response keypads resemble hand-held calculators. They typically have numbered keys from 1 to 10, and some have additional keys for yes/no, true/false or multiple-choice questions. Some also have blank keys that can be programmed to perform special functions. Most have an LED or LCD indicator, so audience members can see which response they just entered.
In the past, some wireless keypads used infrared remote technology to link with the interface, but radio-frequency (RF) technology was found to work better because it doesn't require a clear sight line to the server collecting responses. For years, Fleetwood has enjoyed a broad North American patent on RF-based wireless keypad systems and has more patents pending, but other companies -- including Iris and Quick Tally -- are expected to introduce new RF-based wireless keypads later this year.
Built-in microphones are another feature found on some wired and wireless keypads. These are typically used to provide a voice link between the presenter and individual audience members in large-venue, satellite conferencing and distance-learning environments.
A specialty feature found on some keypads from Columbia, Fleetwood, ORTEK and Quick Tally is a continuous sampling dial or slider. This feature makes it possible to collect moment-to-moment group reactions to speeches, debates, movies, commercials, courtroom deliberations and other presentations. The audience's feedback is sampled every second or so, and the averages are plotted on a scrolling line graph. Synchronous overlay software allows the graph to be replayed over the source material to illustrate the audience's reaction to any part of the presentation.
Consider these issues before taking the plunge
Unless your budget for AV equipment is unrestricted, it's a good idea to rent an audience-response keypad system before you buy. The payoff for investing in a company-owned keypad system may be immediately evident -- or you may find that your organization isn't ready to let electronic keypads change the way it does business.
Before buying a keypad-response system, find out how much training your colleagues will need to operate it -- and make sure your organization is willing to invest the necessary time and resources to make it usable. Check with the vendor about hardware warranties, software upgrades and the availability of online or on-site support.
Most of all, don't expect an audience-response keypad system to cure all your organization's institutional ills. To get results, keypad systems require users who are willing to learn interactive meeting strategies and to spend extra time preparing for the presentations in which they're used.
Successful implementation will require dedicated presenters for whom the benefits of interactivity will win out over the burdens of yet another new technology. If your organization has such presenters, an audience-response keypad system could be your key to better communication.