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!


Our Learning Pledge

“What’s the ‘big idea’ for our conference?” Jim asked.
“That kids need to be more engaged… actively involved in learning activities.”
“And how are we starting?”
“With your 90 minute keynote speech…”

-Opening page of 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong
by John Antonetti and James Garver

Last year, I attended a webinar on micro-learning… that was delivered over the course of an hour without break.

Last week, I attended a workshop on strategies for a highly engaged nonprofit board. The speaker took his first break for audience engagement after 60 minutes.

I do wonder if these presenters have any inkling that their dramatically ironic delivery drives people to their devices in ways that directly defeats their message.

pledge.jpgSo it may be time to reaffirm our solemn pledge as people offering learning experiences to busy people.

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

  • I will respect the hard-won scientific research of people who study learning, behavior, and psychology in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
  • I will apply, for the benefit of anyone listening to me, all measures [that] are required, avoid those twin traps of talking too much and sharing too little reflection time.
  • I will remember that there is art to learning as well as science, and that an emotional connection outweighs excessive outlay of content.
  • I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the teaching skills of another are needed for someone to learn.
  • I will prevent inaction whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to having to call a consultant in later.
  • If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the job of teaching those who seek my wisdom.

Together with colleagues, I’m working on making sure every nonprofit learning event in Washington is awesome. Let me know if you want to join us.

Emotions in Learning: Ok, but how do I do that?

EmotionsA few months ago, I presented to nonprofit colleagues about learning and the power of emotions. One said, “Okay, I get it. Emotions are important in learning. But how do we do that? It seems weird to overly emote in the middle of a training?” True. Don’t start howling in the middle of a training. Let’s think of it in a larger frame: How do we engage emotions in moving people to action? What role do emotions play as they form habits, change behavior, and bring learning into the life of their organizations?

Here’s how, I say. We consider what we teach and how we teach. (Teacher folks call this curriculum and instruction; workshop presenters think in terms of content and presentation style. What and how.)


Delivering an effective workshop starts with an understanding of the audience: who is sitting in those seats, what is their reality, and how do they feel about what you are trying to teach them. Adults come to learning with a lot more emotion than children do. They have developed a fear of math, a sense of overwhelm when it comes to sorting out complex human challenges (like nonprofit boards), or a feeling of powerlessness when talking about the law and compliance issues. They have a long memory about someone who did something, or of something they tried to no avail. Nonprofit folks also have deeply rooted commitment to fixing problems based on life experiences, whether positive or negative. They exude a passion for their mission, a heartfelt love of the work that sustains them through the work of raising money or volunteering long hours. Emotions both drive and discourage people from taking action.

Emotions are really important to honor and harness in adult learning. That is why the design teams I led working on nonprofit board, finance, and law toolkits began with an understanding of the emotions that people bring to these topics. Here are some examples of how emotion was incorporated into these kits:

People tend to feel… fear overwhelm powerlessness
When talking about    . finance (yikes, money!) boards law and compliance
To honor this feeling, I… Make them laugh;

Use familiar language (i.e. family budgets)

Use language that simplifies;

Avoid the word should

Use language of empowerment

How do you do this? Think about something that you want others to learn. Complete these sentences.

People tend to feel…
When talking about    .
I can honor this feeling by


The best educators I know exude love when they teach. They make it clear from the moment they begin their presentation that they are on the side of everyone in the room. An effective teacher builds an emotional connection very quickly with the participants in their session.

How do we do that?

  • We draw out their why. Simon Sinek explains the power of starting with why on his viral TED talk. Why grabs people by the heart, and it is the heart that motivates us to action.
  • We demonstrate that we know where they are coming from. We show that we have been “in the trenches” ourselves, we do advance research, lead “right-off-the-bat” conversations that get them talking, and name and discuss the emotion that they are bringing to the topic today. We become an ally.
  • We give hope. Often in the form of case studies or stories, we create the space where participants feel hope that they will do better because they came today. They see that others have done it, and they can do it too. They build confidence by seeing concrete, doable steps forward.
  • We honor and celebrate diversity. There is a full range of diversity factors in any workshop, from demographic diversity to professional experience to the life cycle of the organizations represented in the room. It is impossible to present one workshop that satisfies the needs of all. One way to come closer to satisfying them, however, is to acknowledge the diversity and give permission for people to start from where they are. We invite connections between people that create space for mentoring or coaching.

As Dacher Keltner wrote in a review of the children’s movie Inside Out, “Emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.” Honoring and harnessing emotions is a critical step in guiding people to learn.

How do you engage emotions in your presentations or speaking?


CC Image courtesy of tuckett on Flickr

How to move people to action


A well designed conference is awesome, in the original sense of the word. It inspires an overwhelming feeling of reverence. I spent last Tuesday at the Closing the Hunger Gap conference in Tacoma, Washington. I found it exhilarating to be among so many people from across the country working with such focus on addressing institutional racism in ways that ensure that all people are nourished.


Awesome can also be overwhelming. Through the morning, participants peppered speakers and each other about action. How do you take action on these huge ideas? What’s our first step towards action? Action became an echo because of an overriding impatience with talking towards no result.


I shared Aim for Action to provide a structure for people to turn their ideas and into action.  It calls us to understand and plan for our environment, identify four kinds of barriers, build a team, and integrate reflection into our lives. The stories of the conference participants put these elements into a rich context and gave perspective in ways that I deeply appreciate. I continue to think about environment, team, and reflection in particular.

  • The environment related to poverty, race, and charity is one of the hardest in which to make progress. Some participants raised the issue, for example, of Walmart’s low wages driving workers to government assistance (SNAP, etc.) while being the leading receiver of SNAP dollars spent in stores, and also being a leading contributor to Feeding America, a hunger relief organization that in turn supplies food banks (reportedly used by Walmart workers). Deconstructing the vast and complicated food system requires a constellation of courageous individuals taking focused actions coordinated towards a larger goal. That goal isn’t just to understand and plan for the environment but to fundamentally change it.
  • Keynote speaker Malik Yakini invited us to create study groups to unpack racism. Indeed, a team holds us accountable and gives support. The team he is calling us to create is one of racially diverse voices able to provide perspective beyond accountability and support. It is a team in which we are held accountable to the goal and the means by which we get there.
  • Reflection is vital for groups like those gathered at this conference. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of Hope: “Through the process of reflection, individuals may become conscious of the realities other than the one into which they were socialized.” He taught us that we need time to discover the stories that deceive us. These include stories where more is better, even though we celebrate success when fewer people need the services of a food bank and fewer pounds of prepared foods are delivered distant miles. These include stories in which all gifts are appreciated, even though charity often undermines local solutions.

“I got my boots on. I am ready to take action.” That’s what a woman from an incredible organization addressing violence through agriculture proclaimed as she was leaving the conference. I can’t wait to see what she achieves.


Strategic Learning: Don’t leave action to chance

inca-constellationsWe offer learning events to provide opportunities for people to get what they need to be more effective. Sometimes this goal is achieved, but often the transfer of learning into action is left to chance. A learning strategy connects the change that we are trying to make in the world — our larger organizational strategy — with activities most appropriate for the people we are focused on. It challenges us to think before and after about what will be different because of our learning activities. It creates a system that sustains action over time.

In many ways that system is like a constellation. It connects the bright shiny objects we see — workshops, conferences, and webinars — to each other and to us. It also draws attention to the dark space around the luminous stars, quiet times in which we reflect and connect with peers. (The Incas saw life within these “dark constellations.”) It takes this full system of light and dark to create the shapes that generations recognize in the night sky. Likewise, it takes learning events and an intentional structure of support and reflection to move big ideas into action.

This graphic is designed for associations and others thinking about how to create a learning strategy. It can also be downloaded as a pdf here


Reflections on a Graduation

CaeMy daughter graduates from high school this week. Nearly 18 years anticipating what she will become, and now she is.

It seems like just yesterday that we sat at the dining room table, me sewing on my machine surrounded by shapes of fabric, she leaning over her textbook swearing that geometry had no practical use in real life. Much of a child’s education is focused on amassing knowledge for a future that is impractically elusive. In many ways it is like the other class about which we argued its practicality, physics. Our kids gather potential energy to one day to shift into the kinetic energy of doing something bold and important. That day always seemed far in the distance.

Being a parent during a child’s graduation year is like observing the water’s edge as the tide recedes. First one spit of water, then a second, a hermit crab pokes out of a hole, and then the whole beach quivers with movement. Within a year, our transition started with a college application, then drivers ed, soon moving out, voting, and getting a first job. A new anticipation sets in as we see our child’s learning turn into practiced, practical action.

3 Ways to Break the Nonprofit Scarcity Trap (Part 2)

It is not hard to slip into a scarcity mindset this time of year. The world can seem flat when we get tired. (Luckily Memorial Day Weekend is right around the corner!)

Which brings us to Part 2 of our conversation about the scarcity trap. I wrote last week about the research on how poor people make decisions. I imagined how this research could inform how we work with small, underfunded nonprofits. Specifically, what if we could take what we know about tunneling, slack, and bandwidth in poor people and use it to set small nonprofits up for success.


People who exist “within the tunnel” have a hard time making good choices. They don’t have the luxury to stand on that proverbial balcony and look over all of their options. They see what is right in front of their face.

Given that:
How do we put something in front of their face when they are ready to see it?
How do we help them to “opt in” to what we want them to do, to their benefit?

For example:

Forms: The IRS revised the Form 990 in 2013. In doing so, they took steps towards automating good decision-making by including a list of board best practices on page 6. I train people on nonprofit finances. Folks generally want to answer “yes” to questions on official documents. Simply including that list improves nonprofit behavior.

Fees: Every nonprofit in Washington pays a fee with their annual corporation registration. A portion of this fee is returned to the sector through basic training. While an individual nonprofit may not choose to invest in learning, that investment is made for them. They can access free, low cost, and on demand learning only possible because of pooled funds.

Some new ideas:

Nonprofit Kit: “I’ve been running this nonprofit for five years. I wish I knew that there were resources to help me!” (said at least 50 people when they discover that there is a state nonprofit association.) Once an organization is founded, it is up to the founders to scramble and find everything they need to know. Many of them have no idea that there is an array of organizations that exist to support them. The Nonprofit Kit (or “Nonprofit in a Box”) idea resembles the correspondence kits of the past, or the kits that a school classroom receives when kids are studying one aspect of science. Why not deliver (via email or hard copy) the basic lessons and tools of nonprofit governance to every new nonprofit in the state?

Nonprofit App: Want to add meditation to your day? There is an app for that. Need a book from the library? There is an app for that. Want to modify a photo to add a mustache to your cat? There is an app for that. Need to add reflection, tools, and a modified agenda to your nonprofit life? Not an app for that. But there could be.

Video games: 65% of households in the US have at least one person playing video games 3 hours or more a week. 31% of gamers are female, and they are on average 37 years old. 1 in 3 Americans over 50 play video games. Social interaction is a primary reason people play. (Research here.) Imagine 1 in 3 Americans playing “Call of Duty: Animal Rescue” or “Grand Community Impact.” These people are potential board members. There is no better way to put something in front of their face and have them “opt in” to learning than to show up where they are.


Having time begets more time. By reflecting, being careful, and doing something right the first time, we save time. Not having time means no deep thinking and long term planning, which shortchanges us later on.

How can we help nonprofits save time and build slack into their schedule?

Document vaults: Don’t make nonprofit people ever have to look for stuff. I know that there are a million ways to write a job description or a conflict of interest policy. But when you need to get started crafting something, you really only need 2 options to look at. There is a lot of research around narrowing choice to get better decisions. Putting what they need right where they will find it saves time.

Online learning: People are busy. They want to learn when they want to learn, not when we are offering a workshop. Much of what they want to learn can be considered “on demand” knowledge, meaning that they need to know how to fix their bylaws when they are ready to fix their bylaws. They want to know how to raise money because they need money (now). We can save time by creating tools for them to learn online—with ways to bring these tools into their meetings for deliberation.

Micro-learning: Time often shows up like pocket change, not enough to buy a sandwich but valuable nonetheless. Micro-learning takes many forms, but the main purpose is to deliver important, needed content in small form. One idea that I am playing with involves cards with discussion/idea prompts inspired by these Behavior Change Strategy Cards by Artefact Group. We know that boards and staff could probably squeeze 10 or maybe 15 minutes into their meeting? How do we help them to use that time for learning?

Go local: Every time we save them travel, we save them time. Rather than having big statewide events, go as local as possible without sacrificing quality.


There is only so much information your brain can process. We spend just as much effort managing bandwidth as we do time. Having a lot of information to process can have the effect of making us dumber.

How do we narrow the amount of information people need to know?
How can we simplify to environment in which they are working?

Networks/communities: Nonprofits working alone need to know everything. Nonprofits working together need to know whom to call when they need help. The more we invest in networks or communities of nonprofits and in the leadership programs that shape cohorts of leaders, the more we can manage the limited bandwidth issue.

Nonprofit “on call”: You don’t need to know right now how to dissolve a nonprofit. You need to know that when your nonprofit about to dissolve. Why take up brainpower with information that is rarely relevant to the average organization? Having a quick response “doctor on call” system allows leaders to focus on the most important issue in front of them now.

Capacity building collaboration: Let’s face it. A lot of confusion is created by all of us trying to help. The more the individuals and organizations trying to help nonprofits collaborate and communicate a clear message of who does what, the more we save bandwidth for nonprofit people who have a lot more important things to do.


Good communication starts with consideration of the receiver. Powerful education is anchored in the learner. Effective programs are designed around the end user. With the vast majority of nonprofits being small and undercapitalized, it seems like small innovations on our part could go a long way in helping them thrive.

Scarcity and What We Can Do About It (Part 1)

Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936

We talk a lot about the scarcity mindset in nonprofits. It is that belief that nonprofits let limitations define them. They don’t have money, time, energy, knowledge, you name it. It is a wonder that they get anything done. We try to administer the antidote to the scarcity mindset: a mindset centered on abundance and gratitude. We offer webinars, workshops, keynote speeches, and blog posts on ways to defeat the scarcity scourge.

But we don’t systematically bring research about scarcity into our work making nonprofits strong. We don’t draw on behavioral economics and psychology in constructing programs designed to change the ecosystem in which they work. We celebrate nonprofits for their vital role in community and society, but we leave the science of scarcity to global NGOs and domestic poverty fighters. We don’t connect what we know about poor individuals and their behavior to poor organizations and the decisions they make.

Imagine if we did. What if we took what the best minds teach us about human behavior and applied it to the people doing really important work. What if we took the practices that nonprofits are using with the poor and used them on the nonprofits themselves.

From Scarcity Mindset to Scarcity Trap

As much as people talk about nonprofits having a scarcity mindset, in reality most of them exist within a scarcity trap. A scarcity mindset is a way of thinking. But when thoughts lead to actions repeated over and over—and many minds repeat similar actions across a community—a scarcity trap takes shape. A self-defeating behavior increasingly narrows options to break free. The word “trap” conjures up the image of a mechanism that snaps shut and holds its victim fest. Sure—you can change your way of thinking and break free. But it is hard when outside forces keep you in place.

When you’re really desperate for something, you can focus on it so obsessively there’s no room for anything else. The time-starved spend much of their mental energy juggling time. People with little money worry constantly about making ends meet.

Scarcity takes a huge toll. It robs people of insight. And it helps to explain why, when we’re in a hole, we sometimes dig ourselves even deeper.

Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vendantam introducing
The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck In A Hole

by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

The scarcity being discussed here involves poor people. But they might as well be describing the people I work with—the leaders and volunteers of small nonprofits, desperate for funding, starved of time, and worried about making ends meet. Their success is limited—or at least they perceive it to be limited—by the resources they have around them.

3 Characteristics of Scarcity Traps

Mullainathan and Shafir describe three characteristics of scarcity traps:

  1. Tunneling: Individuals have limited focus on the current challenge or problem. They show an inability to see broadly and into the distance. They see what is right in front of them.
  2. Slack: Individuals have little to no margin for change or recovery. They lack time to accommodate shifts in schedules or new opportunities.
  3. Bandwidth: Individuals can only handle so much brain effort. They experience a reduced ability to process information.

These sound so familiar to those of us working with small nonprofits. Ask almost any small nonprofit what they need, and they will answer money. If you want them to attend a training on pretty much anything, you say it is about raising money. The day-to-day reality of raising money and running programs with a minimal or all volunteer staff makes planning, reflection, and investment in systems a luxury. They have little margin around the edges to try something new, make mistakes, or take time to learn.

Just as society tends to blame poor people for their plight, we get frustrated that nonprofits underperform. We give them poor grades for board performance. I’m still cranky about the oft repeated “Nothing against nonprofits, but” refrain heard at a recent philanthropy conference. What if we reframed the question from “what is wrong with them” to “what can we do differently.” By “we” I mean all of us focused on nonprofit success: capacity building organizations and consultants, government agencies, philanthropy and communities.

A few questions to consider:

  • What about the situation in which they work contributes to their underperformance?
  • How will we change our behavior to reduce their perception of scarcity?
  • How can we design programs that respond to tunneling, that put information right in front of them when they need it?
  • How can we design programs that recognize the real limits on their time?
  • How can we reduce the bandwidth taken up by tasks outside of their core interest?


I have some ideas and would love to hear yours. I’ll write more on this next week.

A Nonprofiters View of the World

I’ve been spending a lot of time with nonprofits in Central Washington. I was recently asked what is most on their minds… and then The New Yorker arrived.

17.5.2 Nonprofiter-page-001

Thinking about their view of the world is helping me think about what kind of programs would connect those isolated fields and reduce the height of those mountains (at least in their minds). I’ll write more about that next week.

Inspired by the wonderful nonprofits of Kittitas and Yakima Valleys… and Saul Sternberg’s New Yorker’s View of the World.

Press 1 for Action

Press 1 to pledge calling your congressperson next week.
Press 2 to invite a friend to attend a local meeting with you.

imagesThose are your choices. Twenty minutes of stories from the field have primed you to care and want to act. Something has to change. You press one of these numbers to commit to doing something within the next week.

Since the inauguration, I have attended a few MoveOn meetings and nationwide action calls. Wearing my nonprofit hat, I have found it interesting how MoveOn (an established voter engagement organization) and Indivisible (a new movement that arose out of the publication of the Indivisible Guide) have jostled and found their unique brand and purpose within the social change marketplace. Wearing my educator hat, I have to say “Hat’s Off!” to both for showing us how to move people to action.

Some lessons from the Resistance:

Emotions drive people to act. Each call starts with stories from people doing some pretty heavy lifting in communities across the country. We have heard from Latino community organizers, women’s movement marchers, and first time leaders from both red and blue states. I carry with me the story of one woman—seemingly older from her voice, seemingly working class from her language, calling from West Virginia where she finds herself the only progressive among a sea of Trump supporters. She asked for any help that MoveOn could provide to sustain and connect her. Immediately following, we were asked to press 1 to pledge to call our congressperson, or 2 to invite a friend into the movement.

Information allows people to act. Within five minutes, a MoveOn representative answered her plea. There were several activist chapters in the area, and she gave a website on how to find them. When people get stuck, it is often because they don’t have information. They know they need to connect, but in this sea of data and desert of trust, how would this woman find the right people? The organization asking her to take action took action and gave her what she needed.

A simply-written manual guides people to act. The Indivisible Guide has become the go-to manual for the progressive movement. Its crisp directives make it easy for any new activist to step in and do something for the first time. Its availability in multiple formats and in Spanish make it accessible to people who don’t live and breathe activism. It gives us easy to follow steps that the target audience –everyday citizens— can follow.

A simple choice moves people to act. We were given 2 choices. Bam. None of this 33 ways to engage, 27 opportunities to learn, 10 things you should know. Two. We know from research that the human brain can only handle up to 4 things at a time. Folks who study choice and decision-making tell us that someone is more likely to choose if the number of choices before them doesn’t lead them to paralysis. Parents know that our kids will get dinner faster if we offer pasta or tacos, not instruct them to open the refrigerator and stare into the abyss.

We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to move people to do things differently. The resistance is succeeding to moving a whole lot of people to do things that they weren’t doing in October.

Press 1 to commit to finding one story that would move a key person in your work to action.
Press 2 to create information that help that person take one action.





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