Talkaoke – Tricks of the Trade

Part of the Take Control of the Hole series to help you become a Talkaoke Host

Invite people in

Welcome everybody!

Welcome everybody!

Doing Talkaoke in a public space, engaging people is the crucial factor. People may be reticent to engage because of lack of confidence, shyness, unfamiliarity with Talkaoke. Maybe they just want to listen to the conversation. That’s fine, but your priority is maximum participation. Here are some tips.

The more people there are sitting around the table, the easier it is to get more to come. Conversely the first person is the hardest to persuade to sit down. If you don’t have that much experience hosting Talkaoke, it’s advisable to arrange a couple of “stooges“- people who will support the project- are there from the beginning. Don’t be too familiar with these first people. You don’t want to give the impression of any kind of clique. However you don’t need to pretend you don’t know them.

Time your invitation well. Do it too soon and you may scare a potential participant away. Make eye contact and acknowledge their presence a few times visually, if possible, before engaging them verbally.

There is no need to explain what you are doing or howthe format works. That should be visulaly obvious. Refer back to the art of the sum up (see Get the flow Going). If you have some discussion on the table, hit potential participants with a question. Social norms compel us to answer any question, but make it one that is easy and fun to reply to, not one that can be brushed away with a gesture. It will be more effective to say “does the government want to control you?” than “would you like to come and sit down on this table of chat and talk about privacy law?”

You might get some interaction while they are still standing up but your goal is to get them sitting down, as body language of the participants is so important to other participants. Sitting down at the table displays to other spectators a greater level of commitment and comfort with the format. The most recent participant to sit down is your most important participant. You need to look at them most. But don’t tax them with difficult questions when they have just sat down, just ask their name and introduce them to everyone else if you can remember their names. You may want to use the occasion of getting a new particpant in to sum up the conversation’s journey so far. Of course this depends on how quickly the flow is going.

If the conversation is getting overheated and you sense that the conversation is becoming confrontational or aggressive, it is vital to get participants to sit down. In this situation it’s inadvisable to give the microphone to anyone standing up.

Can’t hear the hecklers ’til they sit down

As noted earlier, body language is important. If people heckle from the sidelines – that’s great. At first, it injects energy into the debate. If it goes on for too long, it can become a distracting dialogue between host and heckler. Engage at first, then explain you will hear them better them when they sit down.

Give them a big round of applause!


Justin Sutcliffe Independent on Sunday

© Justin Sutcliffe – Independent on Sunday

Use positive peer pressure to encourage a reluctant person to sit down. If there is any doubt, the expectant applause of other participants will usually work. Obviously this doesn’t work too well if it is just you and your “stooge” around the table.

Ask three times

Have you noticed that people will politely decline something they want to do but are feeling shy about it, until you ask for a third time? So ask once. Carry on the conversation a while. Ask the question in a different way if they are still hanging around. Rinse and repeat.

Don’t get too desperate

If you are not successful in getting a potential participant to sit down/interact, carry on the conversation for a while before asking anyone else. If other spectators witness rejection, they are much more likely to follow suit. Conversely if a participant sits, other witnesses are more likely to sit.

Cultivate healthy conflict

Do this in a fun way- eg.: ‘I bet people around the table have views other people don’t agree with’. This way participants can agree to disagree. There is always social pressure to agree, but Talkaoke should be a space where people feel safe enough to offer different views. Sometimes people that don’t know each other will propose topics which they think everyone agrees on. Give them permission to bring up their ‘controversial’ views. If you can help them feel that Talkaoke is a safe place to do that, you’ll be amazed at the energy that it can release. But be ready to hear things you might disagree with too!

You guessed it! We’re talking Brexit

Making it safe can sometimes means supporting and rationalising controversial views, making the proposer of the views more comfortable. See the Neutral Host page and the generalising rule below.

Get personal to make it more interesting. Get general to make it less offensive

Sometimes people react to Talkaoke by speaking in generalisations, or trying to speak ‘objectively’, rather than from their own perspective. If people are speaking generally or theoretically, it is always good to ask for a concrete actual factual example of what they mean in practice. Ask for a personal story. If you don’t get anything from the table you can break this down by sharing a personal story or opinion of your own. It’s not the host’s job to give their own personal opinion, except at the start when they want to warm things up, but it can be a good last resort for personalising the chat.

People are more likely to react to other people’s personal stories if they’re told in the first person. Encourage people to talk about their own experience BUT generalise potentially difficult questions aimed inappropriately across the table at an individual. If the person wants to answer them they will, but you must give them the means of escape.

Turn the Mirror

As mentioned in Talkaoke hosting- the basics, you can turn opinions that arise in your own mind into open questions. Conversely it is often the case that participants will ask a question to the table which you might feel would be better put back to the questioner. In these circumstances it is always useful to “turn the mirror” to the questioner and get them to answer their own question before asking the rest of the table.

Encourage the quieter people – Go Around the Table

Believe it or not, some people are a little nervous or shy to talk. The quieter people often have wiser, more considered things to say. It is important not to intimidate these people, but if they have sat down at the table, that’s a first step. Maybe ask them their name in a “round of names” Don’t pressure them at first. Let them get comfortable, but if they go an extended time (15-20 minutes) without talking, then it’s time to bring them in. You might go around the table asking each person a simple question they can easily answer. A recent one from last week was “have you ever won anything?” Or you could ask for a show of hands over a contentious topic and ask them why they raised/ didn’t raise their hand.


In your sum up you can link their point to their name too. Every now and again you can ask for a round of applause if you need even more response.

One Point at a Time

Donot allow participants to make multiple points.

Ask a stupid question

Sometimes people speaking assume that everyone understands what they’re on about – especially in contexts with groups of shared expertise or interest. Usually other participants will confirm this belief by assuring the speaker that they are following the conversation, even when they are not. This can exclude people from the table, so someone needs to ask the awkward, stupid questions to explain things. As the host – that’s one of your jobs. Funny acronyms? Ask what they mean. Long complicated words? Ask what they mean. Difficult concepts? Break it down into understandables. Sometimes, people are interesting but just hard to understand. Take a leaf out of newscaster Amy Goodman’s book – whenever she thinks a guest isn’t being clear about something, she just asks ‘what do you mean?’ politely but repeatedly, until they explain it clearly. It’s a good question!

If you’re having fun then you’re probably doing the right thing

If you're having fun you're probably doing it right
If you’re having fun you’re probably doing it right

Now it’s time to get a bit more theoretical. Take a look at The Neutral Host

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