Have you ever wondered how to truly engage your audience during a course or presentation?

Engaging audiences is a hot topic, with countless experts offering an array of strategies to captivate audiences, both in virtual and in-person settings. It’s a good thing! As instructors, trainers, presenters, and speakers, our primary focus needs to be on delivering what our audiences came for. 

But what people are NOT talking about is the foundation for audience engagement. With a wide array of engagement strategies available, how do you decide which to use and when? Is it a matter of randomly sprinkling them in throughout a session? How do you tailor your approach to audience engagement during a 30-minute online talk vs a 6-hour on-site course? 

I use a set of principles and purposes to inform my audience engagement planning, and I’m willing to share my secret. Here’s a sample of what guides the design work when I’m creating workshops, courses, meetings and talks.

Audience Engagement Principles

  1. Know your audience. Any workshop, course, meeting or talk is not about me. It’s about my audience. Call them participants, learners, students, or attendees, they’re there to learn something from me, and I need to know who they are—their interests, challenges, learning needs, etc.—in order to keep them engaged.
  2. Have a teacher mindset. No, you’re not going to chastise people for chewing gum or monitor the cafeteria at lunch time. Teachers think about how content should be delivered, when learners need the big picture, and when they’re ready for the details. They think about how to access learners’ prior knowledge about a topic in order to link new information to old. They identify and articulate learning outcomes (or objectives), and create a clear path to achieving them through their instructional design. They know when it’s the right time for participants to process and reflect on the content, or challenge themselves on what they remember. 
  3. Identify purpose. Every time you think about adding an activity to keep people engaged, consider why you’re choosing that activity. Is it based on participant need? There are any number of purposes for using a specific activity to engage participants, and it’s important to identify a clear purpose in your planning. 
  4. Set the tone for engagement. Surprises can be fun and very engaging in the right times and places, but no one wants to be surprised by an expectation (or requirement) to go on camera and speak, or get up from their chairs and dance, when they thought they were going to just sit, listen, and take notes. Let your audience know what they’ll be asked to do during the session. The best time to do this?  Long before the session starts.

You want cameras and mics on meme with woman in mud mask and hair curlers

Purposes for Audience Engagement Strategies

  1. Warm-up: The term “ice breakers” has fallen out of fashion of late as people recount horror stories of being made to feel uncomfortable doing silly exercises that are supposed to be designed to … wait for it … make them comfortable enough to participate! Tying this purpose of warm-up for an activity to the principle of knowing your audience should steer you in a direction that helps you choose an appropriate and comfortable way for participants to know a little about their peers for the session and feel a sense of ease and willingness to interact and collaborate with them during the session. 
  2. Process and reflection: If you’re sharing content or ideas that are new (and why wouldn’t you be?) with your audience, and you want them to make meaning, understand, and retain what you’re sharing, participants will need time and space to process and reflect on the material. Giving them the time to think, write, and talk with others allows them to engage with the material you’re sharing. 
  3. Energizer: People do get tired, whether they’re sitting in a room or in front of a screen, and need ways to reenergize during longer sessions. Energizers are often (but don’t have to be) physical activities or even breaks where participants are encouraged to stand, move, or walk. 
  4. Team-builder: Especially for newer teams or people who have never met but need to collaborate and work well together during longer sessions, team-builders are extensions to warm-up activities and may require a somewhat greater investment of time and planning. 

These lists go on, and you may even think of additional principles and purposes for audience engagement. The point is to develop your own guidelines or framework, paired with a list of potential audience engagement activities. Then, layer in strategies to be an engaging presenter, and use all of this intentionally to inform your practice. Sound like too much? To borrow a catchphrase from a home store: You can do it. I can help

Check out my other articles on audience engagement.

Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.