Recommendations for Creating and Maintaining Engagement
We just wrapped-up a fun, how-to-run-an-engaging-webinar program for one of our clients. Here are some great tips that came out of it — tips for becoming an engaging facilitator of virtual instructor-led training (vILT).
One of the most important things that helps make and keep vILT programs engaging is their relevance to the participants’ work and/or their personal or professional needs or goals.
If participants are there of their own accord, they are invested in having you the facilitator make good use of their time. A large part of your responsibility therefore is staying focused on teaching the tasks they’re expecting you to teach.
Don’t let side conversations—both the conversations from participants and those conversations in your head (i.e., your personal interests related to the subject matter) drag you off topic and away from the path of the course. Sometimes it makes sense to veer from the path of the course, but don’t stay there long.
- Maintain your focus on the course objectives and helping the participants accomplish them.
- Protect yourself from everyday common distractions, as much as possible, and encourage your participants to do so as well:
- Hang a Do Not Disturb sign on your door or entrance to cubicle.
- Close down programs and turn off tools that are likely to distract you—email, instant messaging/texting apps, mobile phone, etc.
Use Visuals that Are Simple and Easy to See and Understand
- Keep your slides and any multimedia you use relatively simple and easy to read.
- There are many rules for use of PowerPoint slides; they center around principles of this nature:
- Keep your slides simple and easy to read; use lots of “white space” and moderately large, simple fonts.
- Use only a few words per line and only a few lines per slide.
- Use only images that support your message, and keep them simple and few.
- Have a good, strong message. And make your message—your speaking and demonstrations—not the slides, the primary focus of the program.
- Work with your producer (your technical support person, a role which we think is essential) to keep the items on the screen few, relatively simple and non-distracting.
Be Deliberate in Your Word Choice and Tone of Voice
- Strive to make your tone of voice congruent with your words—especially regarding your enthusiasm for the topic. Audiences pick up quickly on your enthusiasm and sense of urgency about your topic. If you don’t sound enthused—even at least mildly enthusiastic—it makes participants think you don’t care or you’re not that interested and they begin to disengage. Because they cannot see you in a webinar, you may need to emphasize your enthusiasm for the topic more than you usually do.
- Work with your producer to confirm that your volume is appropriate, not too loud and not too soft.
- Keep your use of jargon to a minimum. This includes acronyms and industry-specific terms and phrases your audience might not know. When you introduce jargon, always explain it right away.
Use Questions Skillfully
Skillful use of questions is an excellent way to keep participants engaged. Here are a few favorites:
OPEN VS. CLOSED
- Use open questions (i.e. questions that invite a complex, multi-word responses) to encourage ideas, explore, brainstorm, and expand contributions to the classroom conversation. Open questions can be useful for “opening up” conversations and helping participants think-along-with-you and stay engaged. Examples: What do YOU think about that? Why do you think this is important? What other reasons can you think of? Tell me more about that. What questions do you have? (Note: This phrasing assumes they have questions, and multiple ones at that.) What problems do you foresee?
- Use closed questions (i.e., questions that require a short or one-word response) to narrow down ideas generated from open questions. Use these too when time is running short and you want to keep conversations brief. Examples: Do you have any questions? (Note: Requires a yes or no answer; compare to What questions do you have?) Which step is most important? In what town were you born? Which strategy is likely to pay off the most? How much does it cost? How many are there?
- Tie down is a term borrowed from the world of sales conversations. A tie down is a simple, brief question used at the end of a sentence to help keep a conversation moving along. These questions may be open or closed. Their purpose is merely to encourage a response from the listener. Examples: What do you think? How does that sound? Do you agree? Does that seem fair? Does that make sense?
HOW TO RESPOND
- Remember in a webinar that it’s not only important to ask good questions, but you also must tell participants how to respond to your questions. Do you want them to type their answers in chat? Or respond to a poll? Or use a status change (e.g., Agree/Disagree, Raise Hand)?
Choose and Use Your Platform Tools Wisely
- Chat will be your primary tool for dialogue in the virtual classroom. Encourage students to use it from the moment they “walk” into the room. Lean on your producer for help with this.
RAISE HANDS AND AGREE/DISAGREE
- Use raise hands for simple binary questions—i.e., “How many of you can hear my voice? Please ‘raise your hand’ by clicking the raise hand option in the status panel.” One drawback to raise hands: if a person has disengaged, you may not know why they have not ‘raised their hand’. Consider as an alternative using Agree/Disagree. Note that with Agree/Disagree there are three options — Agree, Disagree, and no-response. No response is good evidence that you’ve lost a participant.
Handling Disengaged Participants
Sometimes you will discover that you have a disengaged participant. Common ways this may come to your attention are:
- Poll numbers don’t add up. (You have 28 participants, but only 23 voted in your poll.)
- Participants disappear from chat. (You’re asking chat questions that everyone should be able to answer, but not all are responding in chat.)
- A participant has not responded to a status change request. (You asked participants to vote Agree or Disagree via status change, and someone has not responded.)
It’s important to be aware that students have disengaged, but it’s NOT always important to call attention to it. Sometimes participants are away for good reasons and calling attention to their disengagement embarrasses them and wastes time. What IS important is to monitor participants’ presence and/or degree of attention, and use common sense and your own good judgment if you sense someone’s disengagement is a problem. Be diplomatic and lean on your producer as needed to help draw participants back into the conversation.
BRINGING PARTICIPANTS BACK
When you sense one or more participants have drifted, consider bringing them back in one of the following ways:
- Ask a simple, relatively easy question of the ‘missing person’ directly. (Closed questions often work well here.) “Vasudha, we haven’t heard anything from you in a while. Which one of these do YOU think is most applicable?” (If Vasudha does not reply, note that out loud (it’s what everyone is thinking)—“Hmmm. Seems like Vasudha’s away. We’ll check with her again later.”—and re-address the group as a whole. “Let me put that to the group, ‘What are your thoughts on which one is most applicable? Please type your ideas into chat.’”)
- If you sense the attention of the group is lagging as a whole (this happens a lot late in the day, and especially toward the end of the week), encourage a 60-second stretch break. Tell participants they have 60 seconds to stand up, stretch their arms and legs, neck and shoulders, take a few deep breaths and re-join the group. A simple exercise like that can quickly energize a tired group.
Find/Be a Good Producer
A skillful producer (a technical assistant who’s in charge of solving tech issues, warming up the group, and monitoring chat) is a valuable weapon in your arsenal of engagement tools. Skillful producers help participants start the program engaged and stay engaged throughout. They do this in several ways:
- Warming-up class at start time with easy, fun, and/or relevant questions. (Where are you calling in from? What’s the weather like? What’s the name of your business? What do you sell? If you’re near a window, what can you see out of it? What’s your favorite sports team? Who do you favor for Best Actress in the Oscars?)
- Monitoring chat for themes and questions. And calling the facilitator’s attention to those that seem most important, most relevant.
- Preparing and implementing polls that are complete and accurate (e.g., free from spelling and grammar errors) and delivered at the right time (e.g., on cue, without delay, as needed).
- Re-stating facilitator’s questions and requests for engagement into chat. A well-rehearsed F/P team has their webinar scripted such that the facilitator asks a question and explains how to respond, and the producer instantly drops that question (copied and pasted) into chat.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Well-run webinars, assuming the topic is relevant to the audience, are by their very nature engaging. And the only way to have a well-run webinar is to practice. In order to improve, you must rehearse with others and get feedback.
Debrief your sessions with your partner, always. Celebrate what went well, note what could be done better.
- Consider using the Keep, Stop, Start format – What should we KEEP or continue doing (i.e., what are we doing well?); what should we STOP doing (i.e., what is not working well, or may be trivial, or not useful toward our purpose?), What should we START doing differently (i.e., did we or our audience gain/offer any insight into things we could improve?) Write this stuff down so you can remember it and have it at your fingertips when considering enhancements to the program.
- Use these after-action reports to prepare for future sessions.
Top-10 Industry Best Practices
A few more industry best-practices from vILT (virtual instructor-led training) thought-leaders:
1 – Investigate Technical Limitations
Make sure learners have the required computing and network infrastructure to view the training. Understand bandwidth issues and test your training with the slowest connection speeds.
2 – Plan the “Choreography”
An online event must be choreographed like a dance or managed like a TV broadcast. Several authors recommend you script the session using a multi-column document with headings such as:
Topic | Objective | Learning Content | Graphics | Talk Track | Technology Required | Interactions
3 – Team Up to Fill All Roles
Good live online training requires two presenter roles:
- An instructor/facilitator who does most of the talking.
- A moderator/producer who handles the technology. This person can also do introductions, respond to chat questions, and troubleshoot technical issues.
If at all possible, have two people online to fill these separate roles. If that’s not possible, the instructor should practice ahead of time and have a second PC connected to show what the audience is seeing. It can also work well to have two instructors who swap off the moderator role.
4 – Test Early and Often
If you have not delivered training this way before, test the course several times to work out the kinks.
5 – Keep it Short
Authorities agree that 60 to 90 minutes is the optimum time for a single online session, with two hours at the maximum limit.
For longer courses, consider breaking the class into multiple sessions with assignments and self-paced learning activities in between.
6 – Confirm the Audience Can Use the Application
If learners are unfamiliar with the platform, start the session by introducing the interface components. Let them test the interactive tools.
7 – Engage Learners from the Start
Use interactive openers. For example, ask participants to type their names and job titles/organizations into the chat area, and then welcome them verbally. Another introductory activity: show a map and have everyone use an annotation tool to indicate their location.
8 – Engage Learners with Frequent Interactions
Interactivity is the most important technique for keeping learners attentive. A good rule of thumb: ask questions or provide other interactions for every three to five learning points or slides.
9 – Minimize Text on PowerPoint slides
Keep PowerPoint slides as clean and concise as possible. Do not expect participants to read the words the instructor is speaking. Research suggests this actually detracts from learning.
10 – Record for Playback and Evaluation
Most platforms make it easy to record and save online sessions. Recordings can be valuable to reach more learners, but also to evaluate your performance and improve subsequent sessions.
Top-10 best practices derived from the following sources:
- Ruth Colvin Clark and Ann Kwinn, The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning (Pfeiffer, 2007).
- Jennifer Hoffman, The Synchronous Trainer’s Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings, and Events (John Wiley & Sons, 2004)
- The E-Learning Guild’s 144 Tips on Synchronous e-Learning, Strategy + Research – http://www.elearningguild.com.
Contact Peregrine Performance Group today for help taking your vILT programs to the next level.