Attend a few conference sessions, and there’s a good chance that at least one speaker will utter the phrase, “Raise your hand if….” You lift your arm to show that you belong to the identified group: “Raise your hand if you use Google Docs.”

Yet a speaker learns a limited amount of information from a raised hand. The hand can signify almost anything (e.g. “Raise your hand if you think the meaning of life is 40… 41…. 42….”), but it is binary: raised or not. A word, two numbers, or a phrase conveys more information than a single raised-hand bit.

With the help of software and phones, a speaker can learn more about an audience. The speaker poses a question, then audience members open a web page or app, and tap or type a response. The software collects results for the speaker to share.

A savvy speaker selects questions with care. Some questions identify demographics: “How many years have you used a smartphone?” Other questions assess knowledge or understanding. For example, “Describe the difference between a comment and a suggested edit in a Google Doc” or “How many people can simultaneously edit a Google Doc?”

Audience response tools

I’ve used the following tools to ask audiences questions: a Google+ poll, a Google Form, PollEverywhere, and Mentimeter.

A Google+ poll will work if two things are true: 1) all responders are on Google+ and 2) you ask a multiple-choice question with five or fewer options. For example, I’ve used a Google+ poll to ask a question of my students. We all participate in a private Google+ Community for the class, much as you might for a team at work. To create a Google+ poll (Figure A), you need to use either a computer web browser or the Google+ Android app (as of March 2015). Results display within the Google+ post as people respond.

Figure A

Create a Google+ poll with up to five multiple-choice options.

A more powerful option for Google Apps users would be a Google Form (Figure B), which you’ll need to create with a computer web browser. In a form, you may ask multiple questions and multiple question types (e.g., multiple choice, text, checkboxes, scale, grid, date, and time, among others). A Google Form can handle long, complex responses; I’ve used Google forms for organizational surveys and student tests. In the form spreadsheet, choose “Form,” then “Show summary of responses” to view results. You’ll see a page that summarizes all responses to all questions.

Figure B

Capture long, complex responses with a Google Form.

PollEverywhere allows you to create and respond to polls with a web browser (Figure C), or the PollEverywhere Android or iOS apps. The app also accepts responses via SMS or Twitter. You can ask a few questions types: multiple choice, true/false, or short answer, among others. Short answer, for example, allows brief text responses. PollEverywhere provides robust presenter controls: you make a poll active, people respond. You can display responses as they arrive and stop accepting responses at any time. The free version limits the number of responses to 25. (Paid versions increase the maximum number of responses and add features–such as the ability to identify a person’s responses in sequence, which may be useful for evaluation purposes.)

Figure C provides more poll management and response options than the other alternatives.

The team from Mentimeter built an elegantly designed web app (Figure D) that lets you create or respond to questions from any browser. You have six question types to select from: multiple choice, open ended, 100 point allocation, dual axis, scales, and a “who will win?” question that hides the results until the presenter closes the poll. The app groups questions into “events.” There are no limits on the number of questions or responses, although paid versions increase the number of questions per event and allow private responses, data export, and visual customization. Since Mentimeter is a web app, poll responses can be embedded elsewhere online. For example, you can copy a Mentimeter embed code and paste it into a Bunkr slide, and then you can view your poll live from a Bunkr web presentation.

Figure D

Mentimeter provides an elegantly designed poll app that works from any browser.

Try it: Questions first

Choose the audience response tool that best fits your audience, the questions you want to ask, your devices, and your budget.

Keep in mind that the questions matter most. A well-designed question provokes discussion and engagement. For example: “In up to five words, identify your focus for the next two years.” Or, “What three things can we do to most improve our data security?”

You might pose the question, allow time for people to think and respond, then display the results and encourage discussion (either one-to-one or in small peer groups). I encourage you to give any of the four tools above a try.

What other tools have you used for audience engagement? What audience response technique have you used that worked well? Have you moved beyond “raise your hand if…”? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.