How to Keep Your Audience Engaged While Training


A decade ago I spent two weeks participating (as a learner) in a corporate training for the education company that I worked for at the time. I had high hopes, as we were an organization focused on teaching kids how to learn effectively; unfortunately, that philosophy didn’t carry over into training for the employees. We spent the entirety of the two weeks listening to droning lectures, having our tough questions dodged and evaded, and reviewing the same rote details over and over again. By the end of the two weeks the trainers were actively avoiding us outside of the classroom because several of the attendees had begun to voice their frustrations over the sub-standard training they were receiving. 

Since then I’ve become a trainer myself, and after speaking with numerous clients along the way I’ve learned that this is not a unique experience. Corporate and organizational trainings have developed a bad rap because too often the trainers are more focused on getting through the material instead of keeping the audience engaged and learning. If you’ve ever considered faking an injury or illness to get out of a required training for your job, you know what I’m talking about.

The truth is, humans crave learning new things. But if the training is delivered in such a way that it is mind-numbingly boring or irrelevant to the audience, then not even the most knowledge-hungry person will be able to tolerate it. As coaches and trainers, we must (and can) do better.

In order to avoid leaving your audience cold, here is how to keep your audience engaged while training:

1. Give them time to think and engage (otherwise known as speak less, listen more)

Plan interactive exercises that make them active learners instead of having them passively absorb information.

Make sure there’s ample opportunity for them to speak both as a whole group and with each other about the concepts you’re working with.

If you ask a question, be silent for at least a full minute while they contemplate how to answer. If you’ve presented a deep, complex idea then pause and let them process it.

The core of these strategies is that the human brain, like all computers, needs time to process information effectively, therefore it’s okay (and necessary) to let there be silence while this is happening.

 2. Use PowerPoint sparingly

PowerPoint (and its sisters Keynote and Prezi) are meant to support your training, not replace it. Use PowerPoint as a way to engage multiple senses (visual, auditory, etc.) instead of as crutch where every word you’re going to say is on a slide. In fact, studies have shown that writing things down on paper actually enforces important memory cues, so give your audience a reason to take notes instead of having everything on the PowerPoint.

3. Make sure you have an objective for the training session

Do not ever go into a training without knowing the exact skill or concept the participants should be able to do or understand by the end of the session. I’ll write more on this topic later, but for now know that an objective is specific, measurable, and observable. It could look something like this:

By the end of this training, participants will be able to apply the STATE my path format from Crucial Conversations to a role-play conversation.

People of all ages learn the same way: through interactive and multi-sensory exercises. As in, avoid the droning lecture at all costs, even (and especially) if you’re training adults!

People of all ages learn the same way: through interactive and multi-sensory exercises. As in, avoid the droning lecture at all costs, even (and especially) if you’re training adults!

4. Be willing and able to monitor and adjust if something is not working

Even if you’ve implemented the above strategies, you may find your participants are getting restless. They may be checking their phones, going to the bathroom an alarming number of times, holding side conversations, or straight up sleeping. A novice trainer will blame them. An experienced trainer will adjust because they will recognize that they’re not being effective. Here are some strategies you can implement if you ever find yourself in that position. And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask them what they need, and why they seem to be disengaged. Remember, the vast majority of people want to learn new things, so they will tell you what’s not working.

I have spent the last 18 years teaching and training students from 9th graders all the way to doctors, and the reality is that the way we learn doesn’t really change as we age. All students, at every educational and professional level, want to be engaged and challenged when they learn. I’ve never met a single person who looooves sitting through extremely long, tedious PowerPoint lecture, and frankly why would you want to deliver one? By making some simple adjustments you can keep your audience engaged while training, and increase their learning too.

A key part of being a great trainer is becoming a great speaker. Start here with my FREE Speech Writing Guide!

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