The promise of an engaging webinar is often met with the reality that providing a steady level of interaction with the audience is tricky. And once a presentation fails to engage the audience, it makes it harder to reach learning objectives. In that you can typically only hold a person’s attention for 7 to 10 minutes at a time, using engagement activities in between thematic sections of the presentation will help to keep your participants engaged rather than multitasking.
Below, I've listed some activities to work into your next synchronous online session to keep your participants invested in the experience and motivated by the content presented. All of these activities are grounded in good teaching - by regularly engaging your participants in collaborative and interactive exercises, you facilitate knowledge retention and encourage learners to carry your lesson out of the classroom and into their work.
1. Ask an Icebreaker Question with Introductions
Building a sense of community from the first point of interaction is key to keeping your learners invested in the material. Consider going a step further with introductions at the beginning of your session by including an icebreaker question. If you have a lot of participants, have them answer in a chat box to keep the flow of the presentation going.
2. Create a K-W-L Chart
The concept of the KWL chart was created by Donna Ogle as a means of helping learners to define what they know, what they want to know, and once the lesson is complete, what they learned. Create chat boxes or note areas for your participants to fill in the K (what they know) and the W (what they want to know) blocks on the KWL chart at the beginning of the presentation. In doing so, you will gain learner attention, inform the learner of the objectives for the lesson, and stimulate prior knowledge. Then, circle back at the end of the presentation to have them tell you what they've learned.
3. Hold a Flipped Lesson
The flipped lesson, or reverse instruction, has participants watching lesson material on their own before they join the synchronous lesson, thereby allowing more time for interaction and feedback. This model, supported by such organizations as the Khan Academy, removes the need to cover the step-by-step processes and gives learners time to go at their own pace. Then, when they rejoin the lesson, they are ready with questions, feedback and takeaways, providing for a richer discussion.
4. Play Music During Brainstorming Activities
Dr. Susan Weinschenk, author of the book "100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People," explains that “listening to music releases dopamine in the brain,” which can put your participants in a more positive mood. This can be helpful during brainstorming activities where you don't want to interrupt the flow of ideas and allow users to work collaboratively. Just be careful to choose your tunes wisely, as music choice is rather subjective and personal.
5. Pull in a Video Segment from an Exciting Expert
Gone are the days of hefty per diems to fly in guest lecturers for rousing talks and sparks of creativity. Organizations like TED amass engaging, interdisciplinary talks by thought leaders from around the globe, with each talk lasting no longer than 20 minutes. Take a segment from one of these talks to spark dialogue and support content in your session.
6. Conduct a Drop Poll in the Chat Box
To avoid long stretches of your talking with no points of engagement (NO sage on the stage!), ask your audience to chime in with answers casually and frequently throughout your presentation. The chat box allows you to ask simple yes-no questions or one-word response questions to assess learner knowledge at any time, keeping learners focused.
7. Hold a Think-Pair-Share with Breakout Rooms
Sometimes giving learners ample time to consider deeper questions is necessary. Additionally, you may have participants who default to lurking rather than chiming in. Consider breaking the group up into smaller pairings to tackle complex questions and have them discuss and formulate an answer as a team. Then, have participants report their findings back to the group.
8. Have a Participant Share Their Screen
Similar to having a student come up to the board or run the computer in front of the class, many webinar tools allow you to give screen control to a participant. Give the keys to the car to one of your participants and have them show a site, an example or a work and then discuss as a group.
9. Discuss a Hypothetical Situation
Give participants the chance to put knowledge into practice with a discussion of a hypothetical scenario. In doing so, you engage your audience in analysis and a deeper synthesis of the content presented.
10. Analyze an Image or Graphic with Whiteboard Tools
Far more than a space to scribble, the Whiteboard gives you the ability to make annotations and illustrations on top of many surfaces, to include graphics, documents and presentations. Show the connections between items, or give control to the participants to demonstrate knowledge in action.
11. Ask for Opinions Over Multiple Choice
Build quick multiple choice questions into your presentation to test knowledge transfer or gauge opinions in a focused way. You can even display the results to the group to illustrate common opinions or misconceptions.
12. Bring in a Guest Presenter
Changing the speaker during the presentation is a great way to switch gears, thereby gaining focus. Have a colleague or content matter expert deliver a portion of the presentation for a new perspective and voice.
13. Conduct an Interview with a Guest
Creating an interview or panel-style session puts your learners in the driver's seat for your presentation and allows them to correspond with an expert in the field. You can even ask for questions beforehand to engage participants in the material before the session even begins.
14. Create a Scavenger Hunt
Take the learning on the road by sending participants on a web scavenger hunt. Then, have them regroup to share their findings in the session and spark a discussion on the process.
15. Poll, Tabulate and Display Results
Turn your webinar into a news room with polling software - simply ask the group a question and then display the tabulated results right there on the screen. Programs such as PollEverywhere will even allow users to text in responses and then graph the responses as colorful layouts.
16. Show a Simulation or Animation
Education in action is proven to engage learners, and what better way to do so than to share a stunning animation or simulation to support your content. For a great repository of peer-reviewed resources specifically aligned to the classroom (including an entire collection of simulations and animations), check out the MERLOT website.
17. Build a Choose-Your-Own Adventure
Rather than setting a fixed agenda for the presentation, give participants the option to choose what will be discussed within the scope of the topic area. Build a branched scenario for discussion topics and move through each based on user responses in the chat box or a poll. You can make the paths interactive with a PowerPoint presentation that has linked slides or with a non-linear, navigable Prezi.
18. Build a Concept Map Collaboratively (Prezi or Whiteboard)
Speaking of Prezi, the tool's lack of set rules make it perfect for using as a collaborative space for concept mapping or group brainstorming. You can share your screen with the Prezi editor displayed, or have participants work together on the same Prezi, using the webinar software to control the audio feed.
19. Use Status Icons to Garner Quick Feedback
Glean lightning-fast feedback from your participants by asking them to use status icons to show how they are feeling. Asking for a quick thumbs up/down as a response to a question will allow them to let you know where they are at without disrupting the flow of the presentation.
20. Tell a Story
Bringing a human touch to your presentation with anecdotes and true stories makes your content seem more applicable. People respond more to real-life scenarios than rote lists of data and statistics.
21. Randomly Question Participants
Rather than informally asking for answers of anyone in the group, keep participants on their toes by asking targeted questions of participants chosen at random. Have them share the extent of their knowledge with demonstrations, such as giving them control of the screen or a pointer to use in answering the question. Breaking up patterns with randomization helps to increase attention.
22. Offer Perks for Participation
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.
23. Support Forward Progress
Dr. Susan Weinschenk writes in her book "100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People," on the phenomena of the “flow state” – a period of productivity with constant stimuli and feedback that allows individuals to work at a heightened pace. If you hit an activity or concept that has participants creativity sparking, linger a little longer on that content if need be. Agenda or no, if your learners are engaged, don’t be afraid to tweak your plan slightly to accommodate their enthusiasm.
24. Take Time to Analyze the Big Picture
Conclude all of your activities by putting the new knowledge into context in terms of how it relates to prior knowledge and the collective knowledge on the topic. Make the information applicable and relatable with a strong summary or takeaway.
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.