How To Keep Your Audience Awake

"I know you're out there, I can hear you clicking." A new device helps keep your audience engaged.
John P. Mello Jr.August 28, 2006

Anyone who’s ever given a presentation or made a speech knows it’s a bad sign when audience members start quietly tapping away at personal electronic devices. That can only mean they’ve tuned out and are checking e-mail or playing Tetris on their cell phones.

But a company called Turning Technologies Inc. may change that. It makes a credit-card-sized device called TurningPoint 2006 that can turn audience members from passive observers (if that) to active participants. The gizmo allows audience members to respond to multiple choice questions and includes software that instantly tallies and displays the results instantly, replete with snazzy graphics.

The concept isn’t new, but what sets Turning Technologies apart from previous efforts is cost: in the past, companies rented such systems, typically for special events. Now, they can buy the devices (about $50 each, with volume discounts kicking in above the 1,000-unit mark) and the accompanying receiver (which plugs into the USB port on any notebook or desktop PC and costs about $400-$700, including a perpetual software license), download free software from the company’s Web site, and turn every corporate get-together into an interactive extravaganza.

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Early users are enthusiastic. Doug Bardwell, director of internal communications for Forest City Enterprises, a $7.8 billion real estate development company in Cleveland, has used Turning Point since last July in both large gatherings and smaller group settings. “It keeps people engaged in a meeting because we ask for their viewpoints at different times,” he says. “What’s even more important is that we get honest answers, because the system is set up so that people’s responses are anonymous.”

Turning’s technology has also proven its worth outside corporate confines, especially to businesses that depend on public consensus, such as design firms working on public projects. Mike Dingeldein, an architect with Steed Hammond Paul in Hamilton, Ohio, says that his company embraced TurningPoint as a way to move beyond paper surveys, which are tedious to administer and can take days to tally.

Steed Hammond Paul discovered other benefits. “People got to see the results instantly,” Dingeldein says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I like scheme A,’ and leave the building thinking everyone else does too. It’s another to find out immediately that 90 percent preferred scheme B.” and he says audience involvement counts for a lot. “There’s this excitement as everyone waits to see the results — it’s kind of like a game show,” he says. “It’s turned the whole thing into a fun activity, instead of ‘Would you please not forget to turn in your survey.’”

Educators, too, have found TurningPoint valuable, especially with students taking giant lecture courses. “Lectures are boring, but they’re cost effective,” acknowledges Neville W. (Bill) Reay, a professor of physics at Ohio State University in Columbus. “TurningPoint turns a passive lecture into something that’s interactive.”

Reay believes that such interactivity provides a real gain. “If you get talked at for an hour and you remember six to eight percent of what was said, you’re lucky,” he says. “If you take part, if you’re involved, you’ll learn more and remember more.”

The idea seems to be catching on: Turning Technologies, based in Youngstown, Ohio, has seen revenues triple in each of its last three years.