10 Tips for Engaging Participants in Online Sessions

Creating a space for learner engagement in the online environment can be tricky, especially if you are seeking to keep the same level of collaboration and interaction as found in a comparable face-to-face experience.  Much of the work of ensuring a successful experience online in terms of meeting learning outcomes comes down to smart planning.  Take advantage of the suggestions below to boost the level of engagement among participants in your next online session, turning what might be a flat experience into one that is highly dynamic.

1. Use a Pre-Assessment to Gauge Prior Knowledge

Focusing your presentation on the unique learner goals present amongst your participants will help to hone in on communication styles and materials that will keep them invested in the experience. This includes defining your stakeholders, figuring out what their unique goals and learning objectives are, and learning what they are already bringing to the table. And if you are unable to figure out who your audience is and what they need specifically, use a pre-assessment survey to ask them.

2. Build a Sense of Community

By fostering a sense of camaraderie from the very beginning, you let your participants know that they are now a part of a community of learners that they can rely on over the course of the session and hopefully beyond. Keep your introduction warm, relaxed, and personable, and invite the participants to share information about themselves as time allows. You can also use the chat tool to ask questions about your participants, or use a whiteboard function to allow participants to mark where they’re accessing the webinar from on a map. These two simple engagement activities take very little time and help to foster connections between participants.

3. Offer a Clear Agenda

Once introductions are out of the way, you want to state the agenda and articulate your expectations of participants throughout the session. Let users know exactly what they’ll be doing over the course of the session and how you would like them to engage with some material. That way, at any given time during the webinar, they will know exactly where they are, what they’ve done, and what’s to come.

4. Tell a Story

Forego data and statistics in favor of practical examples and meaningful anecdotes shared as a story.  Psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk writes in her book, "100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People," that "People process information best in story form...Stories are the natural way people process information.  Use a story if you want people to make a causal leap.  Stories aren't just for fun.  No matter how dry you think your information is, using stories will make it understandable, interesting and memorable."

5. Feature Multiple Speakers

Changing the primary speaker within the presentation can help to enliven your session.  Consider bringing in a guest speaker, conducting an interview, hosting a panel for question and answer, or including time for a collaborative discussion.  If you choose to hold an interview, you can further engage participants before the session by asking them to submit questions beforehand.  That way, they are thinking about the material before you even begin the lesson.

6. Change the Pace

Maintaining a high-level of engagement can be difficult, particularly in a medium where holding attention span and interest can be quite difficult. Dr. Weinschenk states that, “People underestimate my mind wandering; [they] think that their minds are wondering about 10% of the time, but it’s actually much more than that. During every day activities, your mind wanders up to 30% of the time.” In that you can typically only hold a person’s attention for 7 to 10 minutes at a time, break up your content with engagement activities in between thematic sections to help to keep your participants engaged rather than multitasking.

7. Build Collaborative and Group Activities

In a collection of learners, you’ll find that several will default to lurking and watching rather than actively participating, all for a variety of reasons.  Encourage active learning by breaking the larger group into smaller clusters.  Doing so encourages participants to feel responsible for not only their learning, but the learning of their fellow group members.

8. Ask for Feedback Often

The presentation is rolling right along, but how can you actually know if your participants are learning? One of the best ways to do so in a webinar format is the simplest – never underestimate the importance of simply asking. Surprisingly, many webinars fail to work in ample time to ask questions of the audience as a means of assessing understanding, and as such, have no way of gauging how well learners received the material.

9. Offer Incentives

In her article, “What Stinks About Webinars,” Colleen Cunningham states of a particularly engaging session that she attended that participation was ensured by the presenter “providing a prize at the end for a lucky individual pulled from a list of those who were first to volunteer answers and questions.” Consider rewarding good participation as a means of encouraging the rest to do the same.

10. Conclude with a Takeaway Activity

Give participants an idea of what you’d like for them to do next and tell them where to go.  Because webinars don’t include homework, you’ll need to capitalize on learner motivation and enthusiasm established from your presentation.  Some potential offerings as takeaway activities could be the downloading of additional resourcers on a companion website, leaving additional questions and comments in a discussion forum, or completing a post-survey.

Additional Resources

For more on the tips offered on this page, along with additional best practices for planning and implementing online synchronous sessions, visit my boot camp on Designing Effective Webinars.