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How To Engage Participants In Training & Meetings

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.
how to engage participants with short attention spans

In May 2015, the headlines shouted, “You now have an attention span shorter than a Goldfish.” It turns out since 2000; the human attention span has plummeted from 12 seconds down to eight seconds. Our aquatic pets boast a nine-second attention span. Humbling, yes; for people who are committed to engaging employees through training, those attention span deficit humans—a wake-up call of Tsunami proportions.

Stick with me here: I’m going to take a slight detour. There are two types of attention spans–the one that is pitifully short is called Transient attention. This type of attention span is defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” There’s also selective sustained attention aka focused attention. Experts stay focused attention maxes out at 20 minutes.

While it is interesting to note that the experts say the culprit for this decline is, you guessed it, smartphones–the reason for the decline is not as important for trainers as the fact that attention spans are declining. This decline has a very real effect on how creating engaging training is designed and delivered. The loss of attention span is not lost on clients: it is now a rare request that doesn’t include the directive: the training needs to be engaging.

The truth is, to be effective, trainings have always needed to incorporate engaging training techniques. It’s a core component of effective training. It’s just that now trainers and designers are being held accountable for the engagement factor. Because of this, trainers need to be able to demonstrate they are incorporating engaging training techniques. In other words, in responding to proposals or providing design documents, it is a good idea to include a section called Engagement Strategy.

Engagement Strategy

Engaging Training Idea #1:

Maximize active learning with demonstrations and questions. The research shows that there are fewer attention lapses during active learning– demonstrations and questions. Also, the research says that demonstrations and questions provide a “refresher” effect on attention spans. The result: attention spans are enhanced for a period of time after questions and demonstrations – directly benefiting any training segment following “active” learning.

Engaging Training Idea #2

Customize Material for the audience. Engagement increases when a participant clearly sees how the information will help them do their job better. Research indicates that the more connections participants see to their particular job, the more engaged they will be in the training. This is a fundamental engaging training method. The overarching goals of the general workshop might be to provide training for business writing; the kind of writing that various jobs require can differ greatly. Some jobs focus primarily on emails while others need to write research reports or even social media posts. In most circumstances, the elements of the workshop will probably share 90% of the material; the 10% that differs can mean the difference in successfully engaging employees in training or disappointed audience.

Engaging Training Idea #3

Utilize the 50-10-50 module/break format. Given what we now know about attention spans, creating modules greater than 50 minutes in length is an invitation for disengagement. Even back in the 60s, high schools knew that a class period should last no more than 60 minutes with a 10-minute break to switch classes.

When participants know ahead of time that the workshop will break at a specific time, it reduces stress and distraction. It’s a terrific method for engaging participants in workshops. Many participants need or believe they need to check their emails nonstop. Not being able to check their smartphones every few minutes can cause “smartphone withdrawal” which reduces engagement. By telling participants ahead of time when they get to break, some of that stress is alleviated, and they are not as distracted worrying about when they can check their email.

In addition to the 50-10 50 timing, it’s also a good idea to provide s participants with a breakdown of timing for different aspects of a module. You can say, “I will spend 15 minutes providing background, then we will do some activities for 20 minutes and then debrief for another 20.’ You also need to give yourself some wiggle room and share that the timing is not set in stone and that you may adjust the timing to accommodate group interest

Engaging Training Idea #4

Incorporate effective storytelling. For a story to fulfill its goal of engaging participants in the training, it has to emotionally connect with the learner. We know that the way our brains process information that the emotional reaction to information enters the brain first, with the analytical process following behind. The stronger the emotional reaction to information, the more likely the information will stick. Storytelling is effective in engaging participants in training because it creates emotional reactions either through the characters, the plot, the conflict or the eventual resolution. It has an added benefit of being able to, as the experts say, “concretize” abstract information. Through a story that exemplifies an abstract concept that the trainer is introducing, listeners have an easier time seeing how the concept relates to their own life.

Trainers often find themselves in a situation where they are delivering material designed by someone else. For many reasons, the material may not be formatted in a way that maximizes the engagement needs of today’s audience. The natural breaks may be designed for the more traditional 90-minute modules, and the sheer quantity of the information may make it difficult to include engaging training techniques such as demonstration, questions, and storytelling.

If it is at all feasible, try having a conversation with the owner of the material to see if they are open to modifications. If they are willing, provide an engagement strategy for the material.

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Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.