Facilitator SChool Blog

7 Ways To Engage Participants in Online Workshops

René Nauheimer
Co-Founder Facilitator School

Think of a group session where you've been energised, productive and where it felt very natural for you to contribute. Maybe you felt like everyone was on the same page and eager to tackle a specific challenge. Wasn't it delightful?

Making your online workshops energetic and engaging isn't easy. Many facilitators who were forced to make the move from physical to virtual have been struggling to deliver the same quality they were used to delivering.

It's not all on the facilitator, though. In the digital age, our capacity for attention is dwindling rapidly — some even liken it to the attention span of a goldfish! Distractions are all around; chat and email notifications, smartphones. And when working from home we can add partners, kids, and even pets to the list of distractions.

Spending more time in front of screens leads to exhaustion. Not only that, our cognitive load is much higher when on camera; whereas subtle nonverbal cues are enough during in-person meetings, we have to work much harder to send and receive nonverbal signals digitally—like nodding and using our hands. Everything needs to be done with more energy if you want the other person to understand you without being in your direct presence.

In this article, we outline seven ways to solve the challenge of engagement and focus in online workshops. With these tools, we're confident that you can bring back the level of quality to what you were used to before.

1. Apply the 20% rule

Remember that thing about cognitive load? It’s harder to communicate with each other online. And that’s why we need to turn it up a notch when working together.  A good way to keep this in mind, is to apply the 20% rule.  

To help your participants, you must:

  • Give 20% more explanations.
  • Give 20% more enthusiasm.
  • Have 20% more patience.
  • Pause 20% more often.

As a rule of thumb, have a 10 minute break after every ~45 minutes of exercises. And things can always go wrong, so be sure to calculate in some "wasted" minutes to make up things that will inevitably go less smoothly than planned.

2. Have one focus

As we already have too many distractions in our digital lives, it pays to have a single focus during workshops. So, make sure there's one desired outcome defined. Focus enables deep work.

When you discuss too many topics, you will exhaust everyone. Keep it simple. As a facilitator, you are a curator, and knowing what to keep out is as important as deciding what to keep in.

To focus the attention of everyone before the workshop even begins, have one intentional touch point to make a strong impression. Why? Because the workshop doesn't start when you're all in the same (virtual) room; it starts when people first hear of the workshop. That first impression will determine the energy that people will bring to the workshop.

The initial touchpoint can be as simple as an email with what to expect. But if you really want to wow your participants, add a personal video with the 20% rule in the back of your mind.

Finally, once the workshop day arrives and discussion is focused on one topic, make sure you timebox and help the team come out of the exercise or conversation when time is up.

3. Use transitions between activities

Focusing on one desired outcome helps you to draw an overall picture. Any activities during the workshop are the individual lines of that picture.

When working toward the desired outcome, the focus on the individual activities can blur the bigger picture. So, use the transitions from one block of activities to the next to zoom out and remind everyone of where the team is going.

To anchor the bigger picture in everyone's minds, make sure you sketch it as soon as the desired outcome has been decided upon.

4. Speak out energy lows

Workshops are an ebb and flow of energy. No matter how many engaging activities you have, at some point the collective energy level will dip too much. The antidote? Speaking out.

Make everyone feel safe to share when they feel exhausted. And if you as the facilitator feel exhausted, speak it out as well; it's likely others will feel the same way.

Admitting your energy levels aren't up to par to continue will not take away credibility. To the contrary; it shows you're also human and is likely to boost trust among the participants.

Feel confident enough to involve others and even ask for energizing ideas. You’ll be surprised about the creativity of the team.

5. Listen mindfully and with EARS

When you listen to others, be completely present.

What does that mean? It's when you are completely focused on what the other person is saying, shutting down your mental commentary of what they're saying while you're still listening.

A simple reminder for you as a facilitator is to use EARS:

  • E—Show excitement about what they're saying.
  • A—Pay attention to the details and ask questions to dig deeper.
  • R—Recall previous points they or others have mentioned.
  • S—Synthesize what the person has said and how it relates to what's been said before.

Any time you find yourself distracted while listening, return mentally to the EARS framework and focus your attention on the letter you were at.

6. Leverage Miro's features

So far we've been talking about the soft skills of facilitation. But what about the tech that's out there?

We're huge fans of Miro, which we believe is the premier tool for facilitators of any kind. Much of the challenges that online facilitators face are simply eradicated by some of Miro's features.

Let's have a look at two essential Miro tools.

Attention Management

In Miro, people can work all over the canvas. This is great when each person needs to focus on their own thoughts, but not when you want to draw attention to one place on the canvas.

Using the attention management feature, you can bring everyone's Miro view to what you're seeing. Move your cursor to the cursor-tracking panel (). Then either click your own avatar to focus everyone's view on what you're seeing, or on the avatar of another person to start following them.

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Timer with Music

During individual and group activities, you'll want to keep track of time. One handy feature is Miro's Timer app, which allows you to set a countdown timer and even play music in the background—anything from soothing to energizing!

Not having to worry about how much time has passed allows you to briefly recharge and focus your attention on the steps ahead.

7. Finish on a high note

Always make sure to finish your workshops on a high note. The end is often overlooked, but it's exactly what will stay the longest with the participants.

The stickier the lessons from the workshop, the more likely you'll be invited again.

Revisit the bigger picture—the desired outcome that was set at the beginning of the workshop. Then, let the participants share their takeaways. The more participants share themselves, the more powerful the ending will be.

If you feel experimental, play with the reaction feature in Miro. This allows people who are afraid of speaking up to give honest feedback.

Why you should consistently use these tools

Do you want to spend only one workshop with participants or see them more often? Long-term change only comes about through repeated exposure to insights, so you likely will want to work with a group more than once.

Your participants will gladly come back for more when you make your workshops lively, varied, fun, and unexpected. Do everything you can to make your workshops as useful and energizing as possible.

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