Want Virtual Learners to Stay Engaged? Insist They Multitask, and Other Big Tips

Just about all of the participants who took one of my recent Virtual Leadership workshops gave it high marks. Most reported that the combination of video, verbal conversation and electronic flipcharts kept them engaged the whole time and helped them to learn a lot within a short time.

All except for Mark, who reported having trouble following the training. When we spoke, he confessed straight up that he had planned to get some other work done during the training. But whenever he managed to slip away to answer an email or IM, he became completely lost when he tried to re-enter our classroom conversation. In essence, he couldn’t get away with even a little bit of multitasking because, as he put it, “too much was going on in the virtual classroom for me to go in and out.”

Bingo! This is exactly why I deliberately design my virtual sessions to keep people multitasking — on task. That is, I build in frequent opportunities for participants to take some kind of action, whether silently or out loud, throughout the session. Not only does it give their busy fingers something to do, but the variety of tasks helps to keep people’s brains actively engaged and reinforces what they’ve learned. People who show up expecting to get away by only half-listening may be disappointed, but those who come ready to learn will reap huge benefits.

If you wait until you begin your actual training session to reel people in, it’s way too late. You need to design your entire learning program at the outset with a goal of keeping people constantly engaged. Here are a few ways I design my virtual learning programs with continuous engagement in mind.

  • Use multiple channels of communications, regardless of class size. For me, this means a virtual meeting tool where people can type in ideas, view (very few!) slides, take polls, and add comments, as well as audio, which may or may not be integrated with video. Depending what apps you use, people may need to open two browsers, which I find actually helps to hold peoples’ attention, since they have to do a little extra work to stay actively participating. More and more, I like using video for many reasons, including the accountability that comes with being “watched.”
  • Parcel out the training content ahead of time and/or afterwards. This may take the form of articles, slides, reference guides, recordings or books, for example. Design your real-time session to focus mostly on the information that is most important to be absorbed, remembered and applied to achieve learning goals. For example, for my own virtual training sessions, participants receive a meaty reference guide before our sessions, along with a case study and a handy job aid. During our time together, we explore just a subset of that content through discussion, brainstorming and sometimes, role-plays. After our training, I send participants additional articles, links, and reading recommendations. By creating a reference guide to deliver much of the needed content, we spend our time in active conversation vs. passively receiving content. Check out a sample of a real-life virtual meeting agenda that shows the ways we planned to foster engagement. Similar rules apply to virtual training sessions.
  • Practice the 80/20 rule – with 80% active participation and 20% passive. This means building in opportunities for active participation (i.e., multitasking on task) every 4-5 minutes. If you have 16 or more people in your session, invite them to type into a chat box, use a Q&A feature, take a poll or raise their hands. With a smaller group, you can interweave both verbal and online interaction throughout the session.
  • Make it easy for people to converse. With a group of 15 participants or fewer, I build in pauses for quiet reflection before asking people to vocalize a response. (This is especially appreciated by introverts and those who speak another native language.) I vary the way I ask questions to keep things fresh. Examples: I’m looking for a volunteer to share which of these responses is most intriguing, and why. Let’s go around the virtual table counterclockwise, starting with Ellen, and share your top tip for staying focused during meetings. Rick, in your prework you mentioned that navigating cross-cultural differences was an issue for your team; can you say more about that? (In contrast, asking whether people have questions or anything they’d like to add often leads to deafening silence.)
  • Insist on prework. This helps to create a level playing field, especially if only some participants have pre-existing knowledge about a given topic. Other benefits: By having people review content in advance, you can devote more training time to interactive discussion. If you set up your prework using the virtual training app you’ll use for the session itself, people can test and use it in advance, minimizing the likelihood of technology issues during the session. Another plus: People who take the time to do prework tend to be significantly more invested in actively participating during the training session. Tips: Give people plenty of time to do it (ideally, 5-7 working days), try to keep it to 30 minutes or less, and let them know how prework will be used.
  • Keep things interesting. You can make just about any content interesting if you lead with a relevant story. For example, instead of launching into a new four-step process that all hospital employees are required to use for handwashing, start your session with a real-life story about a viral infection that could have been stopped if all four steps had been followed. Then ask for anyone who religiously uses all these steps today to raise their hands. Now, as you go on to explain why each of the four steps is vital to good health, people will be ready, willing and able to hear more.

While it’s a huge relief when participants do come prepared and ready to learn, those of us who deliver virtual learning sessions know that we can lose them quickly the moment they become bored. Whether we’re leading a session for 500 or 15 participants,  we design each virtual learning session to encourage and enable active engagement at every turn.


Past Communiques:

Flip your virtual meetings – learning from our best teachers

Improve performance in troubled times through distance learning

Accelerate on-the-job learning with (virtual) peer roundtables


Book recommendation:

Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen, one of the best books I have read for designing relevant, engaging and useful learning programs


Related Services

If your organization wants to deliver more engaging virtual learning programs, please contact me or read my one-page information sheet.

If you’d like to explore how customized training or coaching can help you improve the performance of your virtual teams and meetings, please visit my website for more information or simply contact me to set up a call.


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