Once every few generations, there is a technological development that historians later realize actually amounted to a rapid transformational change for an entire profession. The job of architects, for example, was transformed with the advent of safe elevators, which allowed buildings to be significantly taller and still usable.

Meeting professionals are about to face a similar change. Audience-response systems, often called clickers or keypads, allow each person at a gathering to have a voice in the meeting. Essentially, ARS devices transform audiences from observers into participants.

In a few years, attendees will expect meeting professionals to be not just familiar with the technology, but also able to deploy it skillfully. What do meeting professional need to know to adapt to the coming clicker revolution?

Defining ARS

ARS systems are combinations of hand-held devices, receivers, computers, and display and/or projection systems. Together, these devices allow a meeting facilitator to ask an audience a question (almost always multiple choice) and instantly record and,if desired, display the answers.

How widespread is the use of these devices?

The current estimate is that about 1 million clickers are in use nationwide. The vast majority are used in K-12 and college classrooms to test factual knowledge. But increasingly, the meetings industry is recognizing that they are useful for other purposes.

What kinds of questions can be asked?

Typically, ARS systems are used to ask participants multiple-choice questions. Question types can be placed in four categories:

  • Fact questions explore what people know. (How many employees work for your association?)

  • Demographic questions reveal the diversity of the attendees. (What's your position within the organization?)

  • Experience questions explore what people have done. (How involved were you with the recent Project X?)

  • Perspective questions reveal people's opinions. (How successful have we been in implementing the objectives we established at the last biennial conference?)

Any or all of these can be used for advancing the meeting's agenda, because data generated can be instantly or subsequently analyzed.

Questions also can be used to generate laughter, create fun competitions, and build a sense of connection among participants.

How convenient are the systems?

The decreasing physical size of the systems, increasing ease of use, and declining prices are causing the clicker revolution to accelerate. Some clickers have footprints the size of a business card, which means that hundreds can easily be carried and transported. Many systems are designed to work with Microsoft Office. An emerging trend involves the use of text-messaging technology, with attendees' mobile devices used as the clickers.

What is the key to using these systems well?

Three elements must be woven together to create an experience that will leave participants buzzing.

  1. Clicker questions must be designed to connect to the stated meeting purposes

    The questions should embody an intersection of meeting objectives, elegant meeting design, and participant expectations. Executive directors figuring out how to turn an association around need something different from what is needed by attendees at a conference, and both need something different from what would be suitable for delegates at a governance meeting.

  2. Clicker questions and answers must be designed to anticipate relevant issues and possible responses

    A good set of clicker questions takes participants on a stimulating journey based on the question content. You want your questions and answer choices constructed so people are thinking about the meaning of the answers, not how you might have constructed the questions better.

  3. The facilitator must help the participants to link the results to the purposes of the meeting

    A savvy facilitator can interpret question results skillfully, whether the results are expected or surprising. This adds to the dynamism and usefulness of keypad sessions.

Internet experiences and television shows are creating the expectation that people will be co-creators rather than mere passive vessels. Meeting professionals who want to stay current would do themselves a favor by becoming familiar with audience-response systems or forming partnerships with meeting strategists who know how to use them.

Dr. David Campt (david@thedwcgroup) and Matthew Freeman (freeman.matthew.g@gmail.com) are affiliated with The DWC Group (www.thedwcgroup.com), which has worked with organizations to develop meeting and conference strategy, facilitate results-focused dialogues, and create interactive audience experiences.