Part I of this series on virtual audience engagement describes engagement and the “YOU” factors that contribute to participant or student engagement in virtual presentation, professional development workshops, webinars, or online courses.

Moving past the personal factors, what is an online teacher or presenter to do to keep our audiences engaged?

The good news is there is a lot we can do.

The bad news is there is a lot we can do.

The trick is selecting the right strategies and applying them with intention and purpose.

Beware – It’s not just throw and go!

Engagement is not about simply acquiring a set of cool strategies, then randomly pulling them out of your toolbox and stuffing them in every 10 minutes because you know you need to change things up for your participants. That is to say, you DO need to change things up to maintain attention and engagement, but do it with intention and purpose. Activities must have a purpose and must be related to the content in ways that are made explicit to your participants.

Purposes for activities include:

  • Getting comfortable with each other – warm-up, icebreaker
  • Team-building
  • Processing new learning
  • Reflecting
  • Energizing
  • Practicing new skills 

Materials matter. Change, change, change your slides!

SLIDES: Use highly engaging, highly visual slides that change often. Yes, that means you’ll have a LOT of slides. No, they don’t all have to be complicated or hard to design. And no, they don’t have to be distributed to participants (see HANDOUTS). In fact, they shouldn’t be distributed. Well-designed slides don’t contain your presentation. They shouldn’t mean much to someone who doesn’t attend.

In person, it’s fine to leave a slide on the screen for a while as you continue to present or teach. Online, don’t do it. Don’t give people a reason to look away. Ask your audience questions about what they see on the slide to maintain engagement. “What do you notice?” is one of my favorite and most powerful questions. Use graphs, pictures, diagrams, etc. and ask them what’s going on. Bring elements in one at a time with animation or use transitions (such as Morph) to help you communicate key points. Even showing an occasional brief quote or bit of text on a slide is OK, if you design the slide well and don’t read it to your audience. The point is to KEEP.THINGS.MOVING.

Handouts, NOT SLIDES, are the takeaway!

HANDOUTS: Since your slides will be highly visual, full of engaging images, and perhaps a little text, you’ll probably want something for your audience to take away. Perhaps there are a quotes you’ve shared, the steps of a process, or resources you mention during the presentation. This is material you know participants will want to keep after the event. Create a handout designed to offer them the text that they need. Even better? Add room on the handout for participants to take notes as you progress through your topics and subtopics. Teachers call this using “skeletal notes” or “guided notes.”  

How about a slide design course to help you increase audience engagement? I teach easy PowerPoint hacks and graphic design principles anyone can master to create visually compelling slides and handouts for meetings, presentations, and courses.
I’d love to do a workshop for your team! 

Question everything!

QUESTIONS: Ask questions… often. Use the chat box… often. Use online polls in Zoom, Google Meet or other software or even SMS text messaging polls. Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter are two of the many online polling sites that work well and are user-friendly.

For example: Ask a question early on and have people either write down their answers for themselves, or contribute them in chat, but don’t answer the question right away. Connect it to a later piece of content and circle back to it to keep people engaged.

Do a “fist to five” comprehension check by asking participants to rate their levels of understanding after you’ve taught a bit of content. A fist = 0 or no understanding and holding up all 5 fingers indicates complete understanding. You can do this by having people actually hold their fingers up on camera or put their 0-5 response in the chat box. People can have the option of messaging you privately if they would rather not share publicly.

Put it into practice

PRACTICE/APPLICATION: Always be thinking about what participants can do with the new content they’re learning from you. How can you get them to apply something they’ve just learned right away? If you were teaching people to solve math problems, you would give them a few practice problems to try right away. What can people do with your content right now? Can you give them a simulation or problem to work out? Can they practice a new skill? Perhaps they can engage in group critique: Pose a request from a fictitious client, or work from a fictitious student and ask them to prepare something for the client, or help the student improve their work.

Virtual collaboration is a breeze

SHARED MATERIALS: Use shared cloud-based applications where participants can share their work or collaborate to create. Padlet  – a virtual chart paper and sticky note wall – is quite user-friendly. Google docs are also easy to use and free.* Participants can post their work and get feedback from each other and the instructor. A series of google slides can be designed with blank “sticky notes” on them. Participants type their ideas on any blank note. You can set up slides for breakout groups during session and direct participants to the slide number that corresponds with their breakout group number. Slides can divided into sections for notes, insights or questions related to the discussion topic.**

Gimme a break!

BREAKS: I give people a brief break at least every 45-60 minutes. But it’s not just about giving breaks. The way you frame breaks can be used to support engagement too. Consider what you say before and after the break. In Part I of this series I suggested using “teasers” before breaks. Let participants 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. After the break welcome everyone back and take a minute or two for connection. Offer a quick tidbit about yourself, or where you’re from and the famous people, landmarks or special places in your area. Or mention one of their cities you have a connection to. Often, someone types in the chat box that they have a connection to my city. Sometimes it starts a relationship that continues beyond the workshop. It sets people up to email me after and ask a question or offer them feedback on something they’ve created based on what I taught. And that’s part of I offer. I want to provide value for my clients, not only for one day or one course, but beyond.

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

I’d love to know YOUR favorite strategies for teaching or facilitating online. Please share them in the comments.

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

*I’ve run into situations where people from government agencies or other types of organizations are not allowed to use shared Google docs so check with participants about access.

**I learned about these creative ways of using shared Google docs and slides from presentations by: Nicole Bowman, Kathleen Doll, Stephanie Evergreen, Meghan Hunt, Monique Liston, Albertina Lopez, Pilar Mendoza, Vidhya Shanker, Keiko Kuji Shikatani, Libby Smith, and Cristina Whyte.