Ask Nancy: Audience Engagement

I got an email this week that asked for my thoughts on audience engagement. I’m sharing a version of the exchange with you because engaged people are important when it comes to successful learning events. It’s no fun teaching unengaged participants. It’s no fun being an unengaged participant. Let’s see if we can turn this around.



Dear Nancy,

One of our speakers asked for help with audience engagement. She gives people opportunities to talk to each other and then report back to the group. They seem to want more than that. Any suggestions?



Dear Julie:

This is a great question.  There is both art and science to engagement. Some quick thoughts:

The opening really matters.  The first few minutes of the session sets the tone.  I always start with some social interaction getting people to meet someone new. It warms up the room. I then make sure that people talk with someone on a topic related to the training within the first 15 minutes of the workshop.  I tend to make it emotional and relevant to why they are there to get them emotionally invested in what’s coming next.  The sooner you get them actively engaged in the conversation, the more likely they will stay engaged.


What they are talking about matters. There is a thing in adult learning about doing the hard work when you are together.  That means that a presenter thinks about what the hard work is prior to the session and builds in time for that hard work to happen during the workshop.  In a fundraising workshop, for example, it is one thing to say that they need to reach out to 10 people they know who can give to their cause. It is another to give them time to make that list and share it with colleagues at their table. Not only will they leave with some of the work done, they will get feedback from their neighbors. (“I didn’t think about inviting my book club— great idea.”)

And it may mean that you leave some of the content out to have time to do this. It can be hard to sacrifice content, but there is nothing less engaging than a monologue of information that goes on a little too long.

Mixing up engagement matters.  It is fine to have people talk with their neighbor some of the time. But it can get repetitive. What if their neighbor is someone not very helpful? What if their neighbor is a fellow staff or board member unable to offer a fresh perspective? I usually make them get up and talk with someone they don’t know at least once.  I have them talk at their tables at least once.  I even have them play a game if it seems appropriate. It depends on the length and topic of the workshop, but my goal is to mix it up so that they are talking with different people in different ways.

The amount of reflection time matters. I make sure to give folks time throughout the presentation to connect what we are talking about with their own organization. Our board training, for example, has 5 chapters. After each chapter, I give them 2 minutes to think quietly about what we just talked about and write down one thing that connects with their work. I find that people appreciate the chance to think without having to talk with anyone. Usually I float around the tables to make myself available for the sideline questions that occur to people as they ponder what we covered. So often we are giving them lots of content to think about. They need time to absorb and connect.

Thanks for asking such an important question. Let me know how it goes!


Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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