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Virtual Training Best Practices: How to Get and Keep Attention and Engagement

blog author
Written by Andy Springer
Chief Client Officer

Engagement Threshold (noun): The point at which attention is captured and maintained, and below which is lost.

We teach the concept of the engagement threshold to sellers that need to hold buyers’ attention in virtual sales meetings.

When we teach it to sellers, we need to gain and keep their attention.

It’s never been easy, but in a virtual environment, it’s significantly more difficult.

With more people working from home, distractions are rampant: children, pets, roommates, spouses, parents, lawnmowers, firetrucks, neighbors, doorbells, plumbers, and so on. And this is on top of the typical email, phone, messaging, computer, and meeting alerts ringing and dinging at everyone every day. Not to mention a series of crises in the world and markets, draining people’s energy and drawing attention away from their chosen priorities.

Here's one more wrinkle: if, in the past, you wanted to conduct instructor-led training (ILT), you could get people in a room. Once they were in the room, you could largely get their attention and focus. Gaining attention and focus in virtual instructor-led training (VILT) is an order of magnitude more difficult.

You have increasingly distracted people in an increasingly frenetic world, and you need to get them to focus on their screens with all their attention and focus so you can drive learning and change.

Sounds challenging, and it is, but it’s eminently doable. However, if you don’t tackle distraction head-on, upfront, and forcefully in your learning architecture and design, your chances of VILT failure increase. A lot.

Achieving and Maintaining the Engagement Threshold in your VILT Programs

To gain and keep participant engagement during virtual training, follow these best practices:

  • Remove Distractions: Strongly request that participants shut off email, phones, notifications, and applications. Some may and some may not. Challenge them to remove distractions. In communications prior to the workshop, include a note that requests all participants turn off background applications and mute phones. As they enter the virtual classroom, reiterate these expectations and take a few minutes to allow participants to remove these distractions.
  • Design Short, Sharp Segments: Expecting to maintain participant attention online in four-hour chunks without decent breaks is setting yourself up for failure.

    Instead, develop short sessions with clear messages of what you want the learner to take away. Don’t pack too much content in, and leave plenty of room for discussion and practice. This is how the training comes to life and keeps the session interesting from front to back.

  • Require Active Participation: Virtual training means participating, not just listening. Prepare learners ahead of time with expectations of how they’ll participate, including being called on (see below), using video and audio, participating in small group breakouts, and more. Then, engage them early, so they're engaged and interested from the outset and put on notice that their full attention is required.
  • Encourage Interruptions: Much like live classrooms, encourage people to raise their hand, use the chat, or pipe in with comments and questions. The more interactive the better. Simulate a live classroom, not a movie theater.
  • Launch Activities Frequently: In a physical classroom, you might have 15-20 minutes in between exercises and interactions. In the virtual classroom, you want participants engaged in activities much more frequently. You can use polls, chat, tests, videos, white boards, breakouts, and more to facilitate these activities (more on this below).
  • Speed Up the Timing and Pace: Move through content quickly to keep the learner’s attention.
  • Monitor Engagement: Do everything you can to make sure participants are laser-focused on the program, including monitoring engagement. For example, if you see that one of the learners is not participating in the polls or chats, you can send a private message to check in.
  • Call Out Participants by Name: This sharpens attention and engagement. For example, you might say, “After this activity, Jessica, I’m going to ask you to turn on your webcam and present to the group.” Or, “Joseph, how would you handle this objection in your sales conversations?” Once a few people’s names get called randomly, everyone tends to perk up.
  • Encourage a Fun Host and Facilitator Dynamic: You can create a dynamic environment for participants with the host and facilitator working together to break up the monotony. Play off each other and have some fun!
  • Use More Slides with Less Content: Slide design is another important consideration when it comes to capturing and holding attention. The rule here is counterintuitive. Think: More, Less, More. You want more slides with less content and more visuals that connect emotionally.

    With more slides, you’re able to maintain attention because learners crave moving screens.

    One client was shocked to see 93 slides for a 60-minute session. They told us, “You have more than 1 slide per minute! You need to cut it down.” My response: “For a live presentation, yes, but for VILT, no. In fact, I pared down the content already, but increased the number of slides. Imagery and motion will help maintain participant attention and focus.”

    After we delivered, it all made sense and he was happy we kept all the slides.


Maximizing Engagement with Interaction

First, you have to open strong. If you don’t, you’ve lost the participants out of the gate. Let’s assume, however, you capture their attention at the beginning. Once you have it, you want to keep it and increase it. The key to driving engagement—assuming the training is relevant to the participant’s role and success—is interaction, activities, and application.

For example, you can use:

  • Breakouts for group discussions
  • Partner chats for conversation between participants
  • Polls to drive thinking, action, curiosity, and discussion
  • Exercises for analysis, discussion, presentation, and feedback
  • Games and simulations with immediate feedback and scoring
  • Quizzes and tests to keep people on their toes
  • Webcams to create emotional connections
  • Microphones to engage verbally
  • Chat boxes for opinions and questions

As a best practice, use one of these or some other method to re-grab attention every three minutes or so on average. If you need to explain a concept for longer than that, do what you must, but consider breaking it up. Also, consider delivering longer one-way communications through pre-training videos or micro learning.

According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, people generally remember:

  • 10% of what they read
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 30% of what they see
  • 50% of what they see and hear
  • 70% of what they say and write
  • 90% of what they do

This is why engagement and contribution during virtual training is so important.

Download: 9 Principles of Virtual Learning Success

Topics: Sales Training Virtual Selling