Are you teaching or giving presentations online these days? Aren’t we all! Higher ed courses, professional development courses, conference presentations, or even facilitating online meetings – we’re even attending online happy hours, graduation parties, and weddings!

And we’re getting tired. Tired of connecting in a virtual world, tired of worrying about how our faces and backgrounds look in our webcams, and just plain tired of sitting in our spaces staring at our screens.

So, we go online and search for strategies. We ask colleagues for activities, in search of that magic protocol or brilliant new tech tool that will wow our audiences and get them excited about screen time. But the truth is, if you step back a moment and consider your own mindset about audience engagement and the purpose of focusing on engagement, you’ll find there’s a lot more to it. Let’s give it a try, shall we?

What is engagement?

Before reading any further, stop here and ask yourself that question. Think…

Here’s what I think it is: Engagement is not synonymous with interactivity. It’s broader than that. But, it does have to do with people:

  • Doing something
  • Taking part in something
  • Being attracted by something
  • Putting in effort toward something

That’s the basic definition of engagement.

Engagement in learning is when learners are not only paying attention, but also:

  1. Processing what they’re learning
  2. Reflecting on their learning
  3. Reacting to the content or material
  4. Grappling with new knowledge or skills
  5. Synthesizing new understanding with prior knowledge

… and probably much more.

I recently talked with Barbi Honeycutt, host of the Lecture Breakers podcast, about audience engagement for longer sessions.

Get to engagement with purpose

Before considering strategies to encourage engagement, identify the purpose of your session – whether it’s a meeting, workshop, class, or talk. You may think it’s obvious – “we’re here to learn about quantum physics,” or “we’re here for our monthly staff meeting,” etc. Those are what Priya Parker, professional facilitator and author of The Art of Gathering calls categories, not purposes. Try to identify a purpose for each session or meeting. What will people learn or what will the group accomplish in your time together?

As an educator, it’s about clarity of objectives for the specific content you’re covering. When I create a syllabus for one of my university courses, I include a statement after each assigned reading that tells my students why I’ve selected that reading and that particular author for the course. I make similar statements about each assignment I give and each activity we do in a class session or professional development workshop.

When I launch an activity – even something simple like a think-pair-share – I tell my audience why. For example: We’re going to use these next few minutes to give each of you a chance to talk through your understanding of what I just shared in your own words, and to hear the perspectives of one or two others in the room. This gives us the opportunity to process and reflect on this chunk of information before we go onto the next piece.  

YOU are the key to engagement

Your FACE:

  • Show yourself and talk on camera, at least for a short time.
  • When you do, look at the webcam (or actually just below it for maximum effect).
  • Don’t look at your own face on the screen, or even the faces of the participants.
  • Show yourself to introduce the session (and yourself if need be) before sharing your screen and digging into your material.
  • Don’t forget to return to the camera at the end for a Q&A or to thank participants (much better than them staring at a slide that says “Q&A,” right?).

That all said, there is some emerging research to support turning off your camera when you’re sharing your screen or showing slides, because then you may become a distraction.

Images of me looking at screen and looking at webcam
Left: Looking at the screen; Right: Looking just below the webcam (mounted above my screen)

Your VOICE:

  • Vary your voice.
  • Stand, if you can.
  • Use gestures, even when your audience can’t see you.
  • Be a bit more animated than you would be in person.
  • Smile!

All of this will come through in your voice.

At times, you may speak a little louder and faster and more excitedly, and other times you may slow down and get a bit quieter. Move just a bit closer to the microphone to go low, and slow and quiet.

Your WORDS: Use signaling language. That’s what I call it (I’m sure people have other names). This is when you say, “I’m just about to tell you something critically important” or “if you only take one thing away from this workshop, let it be this next thing.”

Act as if you’re a TV producer and a tour guide!

  • Use “teasers” before breaks.
  • Let people know what’s coming up next that is exciting or important or connects to earlier material. Make your audience want to come back to the screen.
  • Tell people where they’ve been and where the group is headed.
  • Announce the itinerary and point out key landmarks along the way. “Here’s what we’ve covered so far. Now it’s onto (next topic) and then (next topic). Here’s how they connect… Think back to when we talked about… and how this relates to that. At the end, we’ll wrap it up with…”

Success!

Success is dependent not on the inherent quality of the activity, but rather the way you connect it to purpose, the way you frame it for participants or students, and the way you debrief it afterward to support connections and new learning.

Next up!

In Part 2 I’ll share:

  • Why it’s not just “throw and go” with audience engagement activities
  • Some of my favorite strategies to keep longer sessions on course and keep your audience energized
  • Tips about slides and handouts for online presentations
  • …and more!

I’ve assembled some resources for Audience Engagement and other blog articles about audience engagement for you:

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