Hook Them Early and Don’t Let Go: Engaging presentation and training strategies

by Andersen Yang and Robin Kipke

It’s been nine months since COVID changed the way most of us work and communicate with others.  Often jumping from one Zoom meeting to the next, it’s crucial to grab people’s attention in the first few seconds if you want your message heard.  But how?

We recently found out during a three-part training on “Designing and Conducting Engagement-Centered Training” by Anne Beninghof, a well-known instructional trainer and author of Caffeinated Learning.  Anne shared with us her toolbox of strategies for keeping audiences engaged.  She paired that with snippets of research that point to why such techniques can make a difference.

Caffeinated learning logo

But why does this matter now? Being informed and connected with each other more crucial than ever.  Whether trying to communicate with colleagues, constituents, or community members, keeping them engaged and involved in what you are sharing is important.  To end tobacco-related disparities, we need the full participation of those affected, including people who have been traditionally overlooked.  

The fundamental takeaway from Anne’s training is that “learning is not a spectator sport”!  Unless participants are interacting with the content, their brains are not building memory, actively making neuron connections, or growing.  Passive info dumps won’t have the effect that you hope for as a trainer or presenter. 

Grab Their Attention Early 

Right off the bat, it's important to capture your viewers' attention, otherwise they're likely to take up multi-tasking. To avoid this, don’t start with the typical introductions, housekeeping and agenda right away.  Instead--even before the presentation begins--ask them a question, focus their interest on a task, or have them solve a mystery related to the topic. 

Explain that the session will be interactive and that they’ll be expected to take part in the activities.  Ask them to turn ON their cameras so everyone can see one another and turn OFF potential distractions, such as email, cell phones, etc.  For some attention-grabbing strategies, click here.

To maintain viewer interest throughout the session, change out some aspect of the online experience every 4-5 minutes.  For in-person trainings it can be every 7-10 minutes, but with virtual settings that timeframe is even shorter.  Do this by changing speakers (fresh voice/face), switching learning modes (e.g., from mini lecture to a problem-solving activity, watching a video, self-reflection, etc.), or building in some kind of engagement strategy.  Keep any activity debriefing to just a minute or so before moving on to the next segment.  Any longer than that and you begin to lose audience attention.

Tap into Emotion and Purpose

Everyone knows the pull emotions can have on us.  Make a story personal with expressions of joy, surprise or sadness, and you’ll have them hooked.  Trainers can use this to their advantage to maintain learner interest.  Another means of promoting engagement is as simple as providing context and purpose.  Curious minds want to know the reasons for doing something.  Research shows that individuals are more motivated to participate if they know the purpose of an activity.  Explaining what the task will do or show promotes memory retention of the information absorbed.  Here’s a short video that illustrates these strategies.

Create a Safe Space

Taking part in a training can sometimes seem daunting.  Unfamiliar faces, uncertainty about the value of your responses, and information overload can feel threatening¾we get it.  As humans, we have a physiological response to threats.  When we feel threats coming at us, our cortisol levels increase.  Studies have shown that excessive levels of cortisol diminish our ability to recall and learn new things.  But there are steps you can take as the facilitator to create a safe space for everyone to contribute.  

Instead of putting someone on the spot to come up with the right answer, let them collect their thoughts and feelings through reflective writing before asking individuals to volunteer to share.  You can have people discuss ideas in pairs or small clusters instead of the entire group.  Allowing participants to choose freely between several options gives a sense of control that can reduce anxiety.  These are just a few ways to nurture brain safety so that your participants feel more at ease and come out of your session with more information.

Here is a video that demonstrates another activity that helps nurture brain safety with your audience. 

Keep It Lively

Once you’ve captured people’s attention initially, you’ve got to find ways to sustain their interest.  Integrating a little task that provokes participant curiosity or problem-solving every 4-5 minutes keeps everyone focused on learning and retaining new information.  You can do this by asking folks to notice images, respond to a scenario, find information, or generate a list of ideas.  In this way, learners are active creators instead of passive recipients. 

Wheel of Fortune wheel

Another way to encourage engagement is to gamify activities.  Building in a little competition can light a spark under people to take a real interest in and participate in an activity instead of just sit back passively.  Check out this fun example of one activity that does just that. 

Take the Time

You may be thinking that these techniques sound fun and all, but are they really necessary?  Will they work with my audiences?  Can I afford to lose precious minutes I need to cover actual content?  Trust the research!  By actively engaging the interest of your viewers, your training or presentation will have more impact than a top down passive info dump.  Plus, most of the strategies Anne employed took only 2-3 minutes. 

Stay tuned for more compelling ideas in the next issue of the TCEC newsletter when we’ll offer part two of Engaging Presentation and Training Strategies.  

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