Best Practices for Turning Blank, Sleepy Stares into Wide-Eyed, Engaged Participation

Rachel Schotz

Rachel Schotz is a Senior Consultant at Educe. She comes from a strong, education background after teaching for three…

Anyone who leads workshops on a regular basis has experienced participants checking their emails and phones and then later asking questions you already answered while they weren’t paying attention. There are many stimuli that surround us at any given moment, making it easy to get distracted and miss important information.

How, then, can we motivate participants to look away from their screens and actively focus on our workshops and demos instead? Using my background as a former middle school English teacher along with research on adult learning, I have put together five main workshop tactics to ensure participant engagement and understanding. These activities can be utilized virtually as well as in-person.

1. Set Goals
Start your session by showing participants the end goal. This helps participants hone in on the important information. Utilize specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound (SMART) goals to prove that you accomplished the task at hand by the end of the session or workshop.

2. Establish Expectations
When planning out your workshop, ask yourself, “Do I want my participants asking questions throughout the meeting or at the end? Where should they jot down their notes? If I need their attention during an activity, what cues will I provide attendees to help them refocus?” Once you know these answers, include the details on a presentation slide for participants and make sure everyone is in alignment.

Workshop Instructions

With a client recently, I had participants add rules to this list and then orally agree to adhere. Throughout the workshop, they would call each other out when someone broke our agreement!

3. Include Diverse Activities

There are three types of learners:
1. Goal-oriented
2. Activity-oriented
3. Learning-oriented

I implore you not to neglect the activity-oriented learners. For each of your workshop topics, think about what questions need to be answered and come up with different types of activities that can help your participants answer these questions. Even when you are inevitably running behind schedule, and your inclination is to skip the activity and move on, don’t. If you are short for time, skip the lecture and go straight to the activity. Participants are more likely to stay engaged and remember the material if they are actively interacting with it.

Activity ideas include:

4. Prove You Accomplished Your Goal
At the culmination of a topic or session, I make sure to check for understanding. Below are examples of free resources you can use to check that attendees understand the material:

In addition to activities, I always end each session or workshop by returning to the SMART goals and evaluating how close we are to achieving each.

Checking for Your Understanding

The final slide of an internal training I led on this very topic!

5. Additional Best Practices for Activities
To make sure that participants are internalizing the information, here are additional best practices to follow:

  • Model each activity first
    • Your participants are more likely to be on the same page if they see exactly what is expected of them first.
  • Provide something tangible
    • A handout for participants to follow along with can go a long way in shifting participants’ focus away from their emails and phones and onto your workshop.
  • Wait 5 seconds
    • Remember that people need time to process your questions and think of an appropriate response. If you wait 5 full seconds, you’ll find that you receive more answers from your participants.

Mastering the tactics above is not easy and takes a lot of prep work for each event; however, I believe you will find the payoff is worth it. The hard work you put in at the beginning of a workshop or meeting will reduce the work you have to do later.

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