Audience response systems first came on the meetings scene in the late 1970s, and in large measure the concept remains unchanged: Questions are displayed on a projection screen, and attendees answer using individual keypads. Seconds after the audience is finished voting, responses are tabulated and displayed.

The original systems were wired, making setup cumbersome, but wireless keypads have long eclipsed the wired setups. Now, meeting rooms can be equipped with base stations — about one per 250 attendees — that typically use radio frequencies to communicate with the keypads. While Fleetwood's Reply brand keypad is the industry standard, new hardware options are in development, including credit card — size keypads and systems that work with attendees' handheld computers. Application software, too, has grown up, now integrating with PowerPoint, allowing more granular cross tabulations, and making it easier to add questions on the fly.

While ARS hardware and software continue to evolve, many observers agree that the systems are often sorely under-explored, with presenters simply gathering demographic data and asking basic questions. “There are a lot of people who put it into a program because it's a novelty,” says Anthony Cosimano, director of sales and marketing at audience response system provider RSi Communications Group, Hackensack, N.J. “Not enough guidance is given to people about how they can go beyond the novelty stage, meaning documenting and reinforcing the learning that's taking place, using the audience's responses as a tool to help make a point, gathering data that can have real meaning for you or your client.”

Here are a half dozen examples of the ARS meeting applications that go beyond the boring and into the useful:

  • Strategic Planning

    RSi suggests a two-tiered questioning approach. First, ask how important a particular trait is to the success of your product or company, rating it on a scale from one to five. The follow-up question would be: How well do we accomplish this trait at our company? “Do this a number of times, and you come up with an x/y quadrant map that shows what is important to the organization and how well the audience believes they're doing it,” says Cosimano.

  • Brainstorming

    Like the strategic planning approach, meeting leaders can ask the audience about a series of ideas. First ask, “How good is the idea?” and follow up with “How achievable is it?”

  • Sales Training

    RSi worked with Johnson & Johnson on a sales training program in which more than 800 people moved through five sessions, one of which was an ARS-enabled product knowledge exam taken before and after the training. The keypads were coded with each participant's name, region, and sales specialty so that the data could be examined in various ways. “At the end of the day, we provided an Excel spreadsheet that specifically told them [the company] how each attendee had scored and showed which areas they were weakest in,” Cosimano says.

  • Anonymity

    A lot of time can be wasted at meetings when votes need to be tallied. Electing officers and voting on motions can be handled quickly with ARS. And focus groups are another natural fit, especially when audience members want to remain anonymous.

  • Feedback

    If you have trouble getting meeting evaluations returned, ask the questions via the ARS system. Answers do not have to be displayed.

  • Ice Breaker

    “Jeopardy”-style ARS games can be used to mix education with fun. The audience's answers can be sorted by region or division to promote friendly competition.