Audience Autonomy: Use It to Power Your Presentations

By Pat Truman

Three years ago…and I still remember four simple words a presenter said to me after his presentation. His efforts had engaged us for 90 minutes. We’d learned a lot. Our enthusiasm was audible. The session had flown by. I shook his hand and thanked him. He said to me: “I am your mirror.” Mystified by these words at the time, I felt as if I somehow had helped him create and deliver a presentation with so much value for my team. I have since learned that this presenter purposefully leveraged what research has proved about adult learners: they learn best when they can be instrumental in their own learning. In a presentation context, it’s called audience autonomy. Some of your own powerful learning experiences may have happened when you had a chance to make choices, offer your own opinions, and take control of a process. That’s learner autonomy. And as a member of many presentation audiences, you probably have sensed when you would have welcomed a dose of autonomy! So the next time you are a presenter, how can you make audience autonomy a force in your—and your audience’s—success? In what ways can you build in opportunities for participants to make choices, offer opinions, and take control of steps in their learning? Focusing on your participants during all the stages of your presentation task—planning and preparation, slide building, delivery, and evaluation— will be important. It seems like a simple enough concept. But it’s easy to get distracted from a focus on audience:

  • you have an outline to fit into a time limit
  • you have slides to build in PowerPoint
  • you have handouts to get printed and content rehearsals to fit in.

And if it’s the first time you are giving a presentation on a relatively new topic, it’s even harder to stay focused on audience needs, including autonomy. But give it a try. If you can hold the focus, if you can keep the audience in your mirror, it’s bound to pay off both for your audience and for you.

Hold on to the concept

Focus. Engage and involve. Interact. Vary and stir. Personalize and customize. Reinforce. Ask for a commitment. It’s not all “smoke-and-mirrors.” Continually holding these words and phrases in mind can help you build and deliver a presentation that answers the participants’ need for autonomy.


Word your objectives in terms of the participants: “Every participant will describe how to operate such and such equipment safely.” Not: “To describe how such and such equipment is operated safely.” “Every participant will list one or more new ways that using such and such software will improve their process documentation.” Not: “To explain the uses of such and such software.” Revisit your objectives often throughout your planning and building. Test your slide design and outline as well as your tone and delivery style. Make these participant-centered whenever feasible. One way to test is to imagine yourself in the audience and gauge your reaction to your presentation components.

Quick Tip: Fresh eyes will improve presentation draft. Use a reviewer who matches a typical audience member. You’ll be pleased with the helpful suggestions.


If you know who your participants will be, try to find out their expectations ahead of time. What do they want to learn from you? What do they need to know about?

  • Work into your presentation the names and/or photos of individuals who are in the audience.
  • Work in images of the logos of participants’ organizations.
  • Include data about the organizations your participants work for.

Your effort to customize content for your specific audience will be noticed. Your audience will more readily connect with you. Identify ahead of time what positions your audience members hold on their teams, and customize your content for them. Technical employees typically want to know about the details of and process issues surrounding a trend. Managers want to know what is being done to promote a positive trend or to reverse a negative trend. Invite personal experiences or stories, where possible. Or, start or end with a personal story of your own.


Greet and meet the participants at the door, if at all possible. They will sense right away that the session is about them, that you are interested in them. Your presence among the participants (rather than at the podium or waiting in the front row) will signal “I am here for the people, not for the slides that I’ve just spent weeks on.” Your audience will retain more, and will be more willing to commit and follow through.


Sometimes, you may have a presentation slide that features a flowchart or schematic, and the details of it are too small to be read by the audience. You can make this slide “work” better by using a handout to accompany your instruction around this slide. For example, the handout can show blow-ups of the series of steps along a flowchart or portions of a schematic diagram. You can help the participants unravel the “hard to see” slide by facilitating their labeling the flowchart. Or, as you instruct, the participants can fill in the missing parts of the diagram. You can help participants who are very new to a complex subject by color-coding slides to match pages of a handout. And if your slides are animated builds, your participants can complete an illustration step-by-step on their handouts. Using a handout in this way involves each participant more actively in the learning process and is much more engaging than providing the typical (and predictable) handout that shows the miniature (and often undecipherable) version of each slide. Surprise your participants with a new kind of handout, one that will be complete only after their involvement. They’ll retain more and remember longer.

Quick Tip: Place equipment parts or other samples or objects related to your topic on participants’ tables. Activities using these objects will be more meaningful than words alone.
Quick Tip: Use the B or W key on your keyboard to blank out the screen. Do this at the start, so your audience can focus on your interest in their learning, your commitment to them, and their connection to you. You can better establish a personal rapport without the distraction of the media.


Presenters usually build their slides in a sequence, and audiences have learned to expect slides to be shown in sequence. But you can stir it up from the start, to answer the participants’ needs. To begin, ask your audience for their specific interests and needs. Jot down notes in an order that makes sense to you. Then choose what slides to show to answer these needs. A slideshow doesn’t need to be linear. Be flexible. Be ready to change the flow of the presentation if the audience needs it. Give yourself permission not to use all your slides or not to use them in order. Another idea is the main menu “hot button” slide. On this slide, you set up hyperlinked text boxes to jump to specific sections of the slideshow. Return to this main menu slide to let the audience drive the order of presentation. This can be difficult: you have to let go a bit. Even though you have spent days or weeks on your slides, your success is not in the slides per se, but in what your participants gain from their time with you.

Quick Tip: Work a metaphor through your presentation, if you can. Metaphors stick in people’s minds and can help them retain what they learned.


Save some time before the end of your presentation to reinforce the content. Review the major points in a way that allows the participants to self-check their learning. The self- check can be individual or small-group. You can, for example, have a series of slides, each of which asks a question of the audience. For each question, you instruct the participants to take even as few as 15 to 30 seconds to discuss the question with the person to their left or to their right or with the people in their small group. Or, have everyone stand up, and then for each question seek out a different person with whom to share answers. Another way to help participants review the content is to challenge small groups to come up with questions to ask another small group or the full audience. A game or competitive activity works well. Interactive activities make time pass faster and leave participants wanting more time to interact. It tends to end a presentation with lots of enthusiasm.

Quick Tip: Move around during an interactive segment of your presentation. Check in with participants. They will appreciate your interest in their small-group discussions.

Hold up a mirror

You invest so much time in creating slides and rehearsing for your presentations. It may be a big shift for you to try keeping your focus on the audience. But you know your content—it’s your expertise. And, your purpose is for your participants to be more convinced, committed, and knowledgeable. The more you enable them to contribute to their own learning, the more powerfully your information will become theirs. They learn more:

  • When they can tell that your interest is more in their learning than in your content. When they interact with you or with others.
  • When they write or draw along with your instruction.
  • When they are engaged and willing to commit to using new knowledge.

From planning through wrap-up, hold up a mirror to your participants. They will gain more from what you see. Your audience’s enthusiasm and learning will reflect your strong interest in their success.

* Originally published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, December 2008/January 2009.

About the author:    Pat TrumanPat Truman is an associate editor at Healthwise (Boise, ID, office). To support her company’s mission—to help people make better health decisions—she reviews health content to keep it accurate, clear, accessible, and free of distracting errors. She mentors coworkers in the technical aspects of writing- and editing-related software. She holds a Masters in Technical Communication from Boise State University.