10 Foolproof Ways to Engage Listeners and Learners

Don't just "talk to" your next audience. Engage them. This keeps the presentation or training more interesting and lively. It enhances actual learning and retention. And it takes pressure off you to be entertaining and perfect as a presenter. You are creating an experience, not simply spewing data.

But how? Here are 10 quick and easy ways to engage:

1. Ask for a show of hands. Start with simple, closed ended questions such as “how many of you have clients facing this issue?” The right questions should help you give you a read on your audience, as well as keep them engaged in the discussion.

2. Have them introduce themselves to one or two people. Keep them in their seats but have them say hello to the persons on their left, right, or both. This raises the energy level in the room significantly and can help make people more comfortable. We always want to know who is in the room with us.

3. Use a little humor. Don’t try to be a standup comic, but a few one-liners or quips go a long way to making a session fun and interactive. Don’t make any comments that could be construed as negative, demeaning, sexist, racist or just plain mean. Laughing at yourself, lightly, is often best. 

4. Have them write something down. Writing challenges learners to use a different part of their brain. It takes them more time than listening so it slows them down a little. You can use writing it down as a way to signal which information is most critical. Have them write in the margins of their handouts, or on sticky notes or note cards.

5. Give them a problem to solve. Pose a simple case study, and see if the learners can quickly come up with the right answer. You can have them work alone, or give them two minutes at tables or small groups. Keep them sitting in place in order to get back to work quickly.

6. Quiz them. Something about the word “quiz,” is an instant attention-getter. No one wants to be caught off guard. So periodically take a moment to review what you just told them by posing a series of questions. You could write them on a flipchart spontaneously, or build them into a slide. Again, have people work alone, or to build community and energy, have them work in teams or small groups.

7. Ask them to stand up or sit down. Here is an easy way to get the brain cells recharged. If people have been sitting a long time, have them all stand up. Then ask a question that would have some of them sitting down. Then another, then another. The people who are standing the longest are those who have the most experience in the field, travelled farthest to get to the session, or who answered the most questions correctly. They get to stand up and you get to learn something about them.

8. Take a physical break/stretch. Maybe you don’t have time for a complete break but people look like they need one. Have everyone stand up and touch their toes, or walk around the room and back to their chairs. Or just have them lift their arms to the sky and take a few deep breaths. Be sure you do it with them!

9. Fill in the blanks. When there is a lot of material on the slide or in the handouts, leave a few key words out, and ask learners to fill them in as you speak. Writing engages the brain in a different way than passive listening, so they are more likely to remember.

10. Encourage them to ask. Some of us fear questions, but in reality, questions from listeners can be the best thing to happen for your whole audience. When you ask them for their questions they can tell you what is most important or most confusing. When you get a question, answer it cordially and move on to the next question or back to your content. Never show irritation or displeasure, or you won’t be getting any more questions.