Start Simple but Profound

Three Simple Techniques to Make PowerPoints and Panel Presentations More Participatory

A thriving culture of participation depends on opportunities for the people who care about your cause to tighten their connection to each other. Too often we miss these opportunities because we are focused on disseminating information. Next time you are presenting at a conference or moderating a panel, use one or more of these simple engagement techniques to break-up the conventional format and incorporate moments for deeper engagement:


Before launching into the content of your workshop, be it in the form of a panel, a PowerPoint, or an interactive dialog, allow 10 minutes for participants to share personal stories related to the topic. This serves several key purposes:

  • Relationship-building among participants
  • Participants connecting deeply to the content
  • Participants being more likely to take action as a result of the workshop
  • The opportunity for the presenter(s) to get a sense of where participants are coming and meet them where they are at
  • You might be concerned that something like this will take too long, but I guarantee it will be 10-15 minutes well spent.

Suggested format:

  1. Offer a brief intro that expresses the purpose of the workshop and honors the participants for choosing to be there.
  2. Suggest that they are there because they each have a personal story that connects to the content of the workshop.
  3. Invite participants to evoke that personal story in their minds (best to provide a specific prompt - see below for suggestions)

Say something like,
“Now in a moment you’re going to have the opportunity to share your story briefly. What I’d like you to do is find someone near you who you did not know before coming here. Okay, go ahead and find your partner. (Pause). Let’s see all the partner A’s. Partner A’s raise your hands (It’s strange, but Partner A’s always know who they are or somehow they figure it out in the moment). Great, now Partner A, you will begin by sharing your story and Partner B, you will just listen-- just hold space for your partner’s story. You will have 3 minutes. Any clarifying questions? You may begin.”

1. Time the 3 minutes, giving a 1 minute and 30 second warning and let them know when it is time to switch.

2. Once they have each had a chance to share, ask some quick reflection questions like, “How was it to share? How was it to listen?

3. Ask participants to think about what their partner shared and to volunteer to share “something” whole group that captures the essence of what they heard. You can decide what form that “something” takes based on your goals for the session and what type of story you asked them to share. The whole group share-out could come in the form of:

  • A single word that captures the essence of what your partner shared
  • A critical question inspired by a challenge your partner shared (highly recommended!)
  • A core value your partner’s story expresses
  • An appreciation of your partner based on a quality his/her story demonstrated
  • Or whatever else you come up with. NOTE: you want to choose something that is going to set you up well to make a core point and segue nicely into the next exercise or main course of the session.

4. Reflect back what you hear participants sharing and build on their comments to highlight the purpose of the session and/or to transition into the next part of the session. If you have participants share critical questions, you can refer back to them throughout the workshop. In this way, participants' own inquiries are at the heart of your presentation.

Story prompts to match the goals of the workshop

  • If the purpose of the workshop is to explore a theme like violence in the community, use an open prompt like, “a brief story from your life that inspires you to be here today”
  • If the workshop is designed to explore solutions or innovations within a particular field, ask people to share a challenge they experience in the field (or around a specific aspect of the field). I recommend starting with a positive prompt before evoking challenges. Ex: “Share a brief story from your experience that speaks to why you chose to dedicate yourself to… and then share one challenge that you are currently grappling with in your work.”
  • If your goal is to galvanize the group behind a common vision or goal, ask them to tell a story of an experience from their lives that cultivated in them (or reflects) their personal values associated with the given topic/issue/work.


A nice way to warm people up to participating in a group setting is to give them the power to quickly survey the room to see who with whom they share common ground. Finding common ground as well as acknowledging the value of diverse perspectives is key to building a strong base or following.

This quick participatory survey builds energy while unifying the group. It also gives you as presenter a nice opportunity to get to know the demographics of your audience and the personal identifications that most resonate with them.

Format options:

  • In a circle – If you have the space for everyone to form a large circle, I highly recommend inviting everyone up. It is always powerful when conference-goers get a chance to stand in circle with others. It equalizes the power dynamics and encourages people to show up with more of themselves.
  • Standing up at their seats or by raising hands – If there isn’t the space, you can still conduct the participatory survey by having people stand at their seats when appropriate. If you choose this option, I recommend you call out the first few identities (ex: educators, parents, activists, members of the media, local government, engineers, artists, people who love whales, etc. [choose ones appropriate for the given topic]) and then ask, “who have I missed?” and invite participants to one at a time stand up and call out identities that are true for them.

  1. Suggested Format: Start by inviting everyone up to form a circle. This is a chance for you to let the group know you and this session are not bound by convention!
  2. Optional: you could invite a couple of quick reflections on how it feels to stand in a circle together (see “Why Circles?” tool for full circle reflection exercise).
  3. To initiate the participatory survey, you could say something like…

"Today we come together in a circle to dedicate some time to ‘X topic,’ and I understand that everyone here comes representing many other circles. Let’s see what those other circles are…”


Most panels and presentation usually culminate with a chance for people to ask questions of the presenters and panels. Sometimes this is a helpful way for people to ask questions. What I tend to see a lot though, is people trying to squeeze what sounds more like big statements (or topics for real dialogue and action) into a Q&A format that isn't really conducive to big ideas. And there is rarely time to get to all the questions, much less meaningfully address what folks are raising. So switch it up! Here are some ideas for using the power of the 'breakout' to dynamize the Q&A:

  • Ask people to turn to someone near them and share: 1) One thing that impacted you from the presentation, and 2) One question that's come up for you
  • Ask each of the panelists to stand in a different place in the room, and ask folks to group up near the panelist of their choice for a small group conversation about what they shared
  • Form small groups by a certain area of focus related to the topic (for example: specific opportunities for action, specific roles people play in the work, sub-themes, etc.). Give them a certain amount of time to meet and come back to the larger group with something specific to report out
  • Ask people to share their questions out loud- write up each question on a different poster paper. Place the poster papers around the room and ask people to group up next to the question they are most interested in discussing