Giving a Presentation or Teaching Online? Engagement is NOT Just About the Strategies

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)


  • 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 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:

New Year, New Newsletter: What is Professional Learning?

Happy New Year! Each year, just like many of you, I make… and usually break… the same resolutions, with the exception of one: I learn.

In 2018, I learned how to create and launch my new website. That year, I also learned more about educational equity and culturally responsive education, communication, and leadership. In 2019, I studied negotiation skills, learned more about the science of learning, and added to my Excel, PowerPoint, and data visualization skills. All of this “professional learning” informs my work on various projects and helps improve my professional practice. 

To learn all of this, here’s what I did (along with a few example favorites):

But that’s not all. I also went hiking, rode my bike, ran road races, attended yoga classes, and cooked meals for myself and my family. Wait, what? Was there professional learning to be had from these activities? Let’s return to that notion in a bit…

Why is professional learning important?

Thinking of professional practice as professional learning positions us to think of everything we do as contributing to making us better at what we do. It’s mindset work. What do I mean by that? Mindset work is about attitudes and dispositions and understanding how principles guide our actions. It’s about how and what we learn from successes and failures, and about focusing efforts on incorporating what we learn into how we practice our craft.

What is professional learning?

As a young public school teacher, my professional learning (in those days we called it “in-service” or “staff development”) meant attending workshops on various topics, some directly related to what and who I was teaching, and others seemingly less so. Thankfully, my earliest experiences were positive and influential thanks to skilled presenters and compelling presentations. What I learned from them struck me as reasonable, relevant, and doable. In fact, some* resulted in career-long changes in my teaching practice and approach to students.  

Thus began a career-long fascination with professional learning. 

I once surveyed colleagues for a grad school project asking them to list any activities (including hobbies, sports, volunteer work, etc.) they felt impacted or informed their teaching practice. It was surprising when many of them identified activities not usually associated with professional learning – watching movies, scrapbooking, teaching swim lessons, cooking, and playing sports. They were making connections I wasn’t. They had figured out that the things they did for themselves and for others could also inform their work. 

You’re reading this because we share an interest in some of the same professional topics: learning and teaching, communication and presentations, evaluation, data visualization, survey research, and others. I’ve grappled with finding a thread that ties these seemingly disparate topics together. What I’ve landed on thus far is professional learning.

We read, we listen, and we learn to enhance, refine, or otherwise improve our professional practice, as is done in any field. We’re here because we are dedicated to improving our professional practice. But what if we also considered professional practice itself as a powerful form of professional learning? Let me show you what I mean and share why this is so important.

Evaluation as professional learning

Are you an evaluator? You’re engaging in professional learning all the time. After all, evaluation is conducted for the purpose of learning about programs or policies. As we collect data—from surveys, interviews, focus groups, site visits, observations, record reviews, etc.—we are in a constant state of learning that we then translate (through data analysis, of course) into findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Need info on evaluation? Check out my collection of resources.

Education as professional learning

Are you an educator? As teachers, we’re in a constant state of professional learning not only to keep up with educational innovations or research, but also as we learn each day from our students. Whether we teach kindergarten or college, we learn what our students are capable of, where they struggle to grasp concepts, where they can and can’t apply their understanding, and most importantly, we learn about their interests and special gifts—who they are as people. Effective educators analyze, synthesize, and use all of this learning in practice. And what about lesson planning? Here’s what I know from my ongoing work in classrooms supporting teachers, teaching graduate courses, and giving workshops: Whether I’m helping a science teacher teach combustion, a math teacher teach circumference and perimeter, or I’m getting ready for one of my survey design or audience engagement strategies workshops, I’m cracking open books, journals, or websites to relearn, refresh, or catch up on the latest research to ensure my teaching is thorough and up-to-date. That’s professional learning. In fact, check out the quote on my home page about the intersection of teaching and learning.

Presentations as professional learning

Have you ever given a presentation? Presentations have many purposes—to sell, to persuade, to inform, to educate, etc. —but what they all have in common is learning. As presenters, we work in service to the audience —our learners. Our goal is for them walk away with new learning about the topic. Every presentation is a lesson plan. Whether I’m giving a report to the Board of Education, sharing data with stakeholders, keynoting at a conference, or facilitating a workshop, I approach it the same way as I do a classroom session.  

Survey research as professional learning

Have you ever used a survey for research or to understand something about your colleagues or customers? That’s professional learning, too! From survey questions we learn about our respondents. We learn about their behaviors and attitudes. We learn how programs and policies are operating, how goods and services are being purchased and used, and how people feel about all of these. We use all of this learning for continuous improvement in our organizations, often communicating it to others (through presentations and education) so that they can improve programs, policies, and practices.

Everything is learning, and we are all learners. 

We pursue learning to enhance our professional practice doing the expected, the usual – reading books, blogs, and journal articles, engaging in listserv discussions, or attending conferences. We learn from both mistakes and successes. To form a deeper understanding of what facilitates success and failure, think of professional practice as learning – the acquisition of experiential knowledge arising from the daily scenarios, vignettes, and case studies that comprise our work.

*Discipline with Dignity, for example, taught me to stay calm in the face of challenging behaviors, not to vilify students when they acted out, and to work collaboratively and privately with those who struggled in my classroom.

Many thanks to my friend Chelsea BaileyShea, of Compass Evaluation + Consulting, LLC, for her thoughtful and valuable feedback on an early draft of this article.

New Newsletter!

Sure, you can read this blog here and check back for updates every now and then, but why not just subscribe to my newsletter The Learning Curve? You’ll get a link to any new blogs right in your inbox, along with a bunch of other cool content on a variety of topics! Easy peasy. Click here. 

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Welcome to Custom Professional Learning!

Learning graphic

A successful blogger once told me not to return from a blogging hiatus with “Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve written.” So, I’m definitely NOT starting this article with that!  😉 How’s this?

This blog and site are dedicated to the power and promise of professional learning.  

New site, new name!

The site certainly looks different than it did the last time you visited. I have a new business name, new logo, new colors, and new pictures. The site was long overdue for a makeover – but I’m no web designer. However, I wanted something customized and flexible. So… I set about to learn web design. Why am I sharing this? You’ll have to wait for the next post to find that out!

More importantly, it’s time for new content. This blog began with a strong focus on program evaluation, with articles on education, survey design, presentations, and data visualization. That will continue, but with a theme that ties all of these fields (my professional interests) together: professional learning.

You might know professional learning by another name – professional development, staff development, inservice, continuing education, or training. These terms have more nuanced definitions and different meanings in different fields. Also, you may or may not receive formal credit for licensure for participating in them. 

Now, no matter what name we use, let’s recognize that professional learning can be much more than those formal sessions and seminars arranged by our organizations. It can be attending conferences, taking online courses, and listening to podcasts whenever we want to. It can be reading books, journal articles, and blogs. It can be collaborating with colleagues on projects and learning from each other’s expertise and talents. It can be following and interacting with others on social media, and participating in twitter chats and other online hangouts.

What’s my point?


Anything that serves to increase our knowledge, understanding, or capacity for our work is professional learning


Presentation Principles: Crowdsourcing Audience Feedback

Presentation Principle: Capitalize on the collective wisdom in the room.

Presentations aren’t just about the presenter and there are many reasons to maintain humility as a presenter. Certainly, it will endear you to the audience. Positioning yourself as a co-learner with your audience members, and not the only “expert” in the room opens up the possibility of having your presentations serve as learning experiences upon which you can build to advance your practice.

I first taught my course – Audience Engagement Strategies for Potent Presentations – as a pre-conference professional development course  at Evaluation 2015, the annual conference of the American Evaluation Association. This course became one of my favorite presentations ever.

Two interactive strategies during the course allowed participants to interact with each other, and also supplied me with important feedback.


Presentation Principles: Two simple strategies for audience engagement and all YOU have to do is ask questions!

Presentation Principle: Keeping an audience engaged throughout the presentation is one key to success.

Do you want to read about two super easy audience engagement strategies you can immediately incorporate into your presentation practice? OK then, here we go!

I’ve written about audience engagement strategies many times (see here, here, and here)…but the two strategies I’ll share today are even easier than most and require no special equipment or materials. All you need to do is remember to use them.  (more…)

Presentation Principles: A Q&A on the Q&A

You’re ready for the big day. You have your best content all set to go, well-designed visuals, and a plan for successful delivery including how to engage your audience. You’ve practiced in the mirror, on your family, and on your pets, and they have all given you the go-ahead for your presentation. The night before, however, you wake up at 3:17am in a cold sweat thinking, “How will I handle the Q&A?”  (more…)

When a Direct Question is NOT the Right Question

Who hasn’t answered the question, “What did you learn?” after attending a professional development session? As a PD facilitator and evaluator, I’ve certainly used feedback forms with this very question. After all, measuring participant learning is fundamental to PD evaluation.

In this post, I’ll share examples of actual data from PD evaluation in which we asked the direct question, “What did you learn?” I’ll then explain why this is a difficult question for PD participants to answer, resulting in unhelpful data. Next, I’ll offer a potential solution in the form of a different set of questions for PD evaluators to use in exploring the construct of participant learning. Finally, I’ll show where participant learning fits into the bigger picture of PD evaluation.  (more…)

On Being Part of the 90% {sigh}

I‘m not proud of this, but I must admit, I’m a 90%er. A drop-out. A MOOC drop-out, that is. In the bottom 10% of my class. According to my stats, readers of this blog were excited about the post “Can a DataViz Novice Become a Slide Snob?” in which I announced that I had registered for the popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.” In fact, that link was the most clicked link from this blog thus far.  (more…)