Online Meeting

How to Engage Online Audiences

By Julia Gusman, Managing Consultant – Altis Sydney

I must admit, I just love being in front of an audience! I have been running training courses for several years and I have always enjoyed the interactions and attention.

But since we have had to move everything online due to COVID restrictions, it feels a little harder to get the attention of the audience. Here are some tips and tricks I am finding helpful.

Lights, Camera, Action!

This one is not just about looking good. As we know, up to 70 per cent of our communication is non-verbal. In a virtual environment, this can be particularly challenging, but we want to make sure facial expressions come across as natural and clear as possible. Just a few things to pay attention to:

  1. It is worth having a good quality camera. Depending on your laptop, the in-build camera might not be the best, so it may be worth investing in an external camera.
  2. The camera should be eye height or a little above. When your laptop is sitting on your desk, the integrated camera is looking up your nose – this is not your best look.
  3. Make sure there is enough natural light coming from different angles. You want to avoid shadows, as well as light coming from behind you. To help with your lighting you may want to invest in a ring light, which is designed specifically to enhance your lighting. They usually have options to complement daylight or other light sources with different colour and brightness settings.
  4. Look into the camera! This can be challenging, so one trick I would suggest trying is to place a smiley face sticker right next to the camera.
Set expectations

Now that you are looking your best, let’s consider your audience. It is a lot easier for them to get distracted or start multitasking when in a virtual setting. Make sure your audience is always clear on what is going on and what is expected of them at any time. Things to consider here:

  1. Tell them why they should listen. It might seem obvious to you, but it is not always to everyone else. Sometimes people attend meetings or training just because they were told to and they aren’t sure what’s in it for them. Make it clear why participants should pay attention. Depending on your content you could have a quiz at the end of your presentation (maybe even have correct responses go into a draw to win a prize). If this is the case, announce it right at the beginning of the presentation.
  2. Make timing clear and stick to it. People need to know when they can relax, use the bathroom, get a drink, etc.
  3. If you ask a question or ask people to do an activity, have instructions on your screen (if you are screen sharing). That way, if someone got distracted, they can easily join back in. Another option is to put the question in the chat window. The chat is also a good place for any hyperlinks.
Use a variety of techniques

We may not have the same set-up available as we do in a face-to-face meeting, but we can utilize a variety of similar techniques to get the audience engaged.

  1. Show a video. Don’t forget to make sure you are sharing your computer sound. In most platforms, you’ll have to explicitly activate that option when you share your screen.
  2. Use a whiteboard. We do this naturally when in a classroom but in a virtual environment this seems less common. However, using a whiteboard can help you slow down and tell your story step by step. There is something enchanting about watching things appear on the screen one by one rather than looking at a finalized slide. You can use the whiteboard integrated with your presentation platform, or just create an empty slide in PowerPoint and draw away! A stylus pen is a bonus as it makes it easier to draw freehand but even using your regular mouse can work.
  3. Use a poll or ask a question that is easy to answer in the chat. I like to use multiple-choice questions.
  4. Use Breakout rooms. They are the best. If you are holding a workshop or a training session, make sure you utilize these. Even the shyest participants will engage and talk if placed in a small group. My ideal number is three participants in a group. Two or four can work as well, as depending on numbers you won’t always be able to make groups of three. Make sure people are clear on what they are expected to do in the group and how long the breakout session will last. Consider that on most platforms, participants won’t have the option to view the main chat once they have entered the breakout room. As a facilitator, you can (and should) visit the breakout rooms and listen in on the discussions there – this will give you the best insights into where people are at. I usually warn my audience that I will join the chat rooms and listen in.
Short, timed breaks

Make sure you schedule regular breaks at set times and stick with them. I like to take a 10-minute break every 45 minutes. A little trick here is to have a timer on your screen, so participants can see when to come back to the meeting.

There are several office add-ins you can insert into your PowerPoint or you can just google ’10 minute timer’. I also ask my audience to give me a signal that people are back after a break – this is where you can use the chat or a ‘reaction’ button – thumbs up or a smiley.

What are your best tricks to engage audiences on an online platform? Let us know in the comment section below.


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