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Tips on how to build the engagement of your online audience

“Connecting to the audio…” you’re slowly entering Zoom. One by one the faces of your colleagues, friends or students are popping up on the screen for the 1245623781 session of the month. Today it’s your turn to lead the online meeting, it’s 15h in the afternoon and well… you’re feeling a bit anxious: The group is big, you really want to get everyone on board, and you know that #zoomfatigue is real. You manage to keep their attention for a little while #yougotthis, but then, you feel it… It’s four o’clock, glazed eyes and automatic head nodding like these little car puppy dolls all around you. Welcome to the Zoom Vacuum. 🐝

If you’ve ever felt this way you’re not alone. We gathered and selected a few questionnaire responses from the 250+ virtual workshops with 1500+ participants we have facilitated in the first quarter of 2021. They highlight the struggle to engage with participants when facilitating online. 😰

  1. “I am struggling with engaging the audience when I present something, feeling myself like a lecturer. Might not necessarily be bad, but I am always anxious that people will get bored.”
  2. “The biggest challenge I’ve is really to get people’s attention and participation in the meeting.”
  3. “How to keep a session engaging and interesting for everyone, so that everyone is involved instead of only a few people always asking or replying to questions (20+ people are attending).”

From this experience we have hacked… the Engagement Pyramid*! And turned it into a model specifically to support you in facilitating engaging online sessions.

What’s the original Engagement Pyramid*? The principle is simple: A step by step approach to increase the depth of engagement of your audience and stimulate it while you work with them.

🥁 We call ours The Facilitator Engagement Pyramid and it is made of 4 steps:

  • Stage 1: Watching and listening in
  • Stage 2: Participating
  • Stage 3: Contributing
  • Stage 4: Leading

The vertical dimension of the Facilitators Engagement Pyramid represents the intensity of the engagement. Stage 1 being the lowest level of engagement and Stage 4 the deepest one.

When you host online meetings, workshops or programs, we like to see our facilitator engagement pyramid as a ladder to move the group from stage 1 to stage 4. 🪜 It’s important to note that you can’t skip stages. Nevertheless if the group average moves further up the ladder, there are always outliers individuals which can slow down the process by being extremely disengaged, or challenge the group to grow faster. You can then hone in, using the pyramid to understand the individual needs and what actions will answer them. As facilitator you constantly adjust your focus from checking in on individuals to seeing the group as a whole.

So, ready to dive in? For each stage of the pyramid we will present:

  • A general description of the participant behaviors we often find and observe.
  • An approach on how as a facilitator you can engage with them.
  • Facilitation tools that you can use to create and deepen their engagement.

📺 STAGE 1: WATCHING & LISTENING IN

This is the base of the pyramid, in which case the participants are somewhat like consumers. They download the content shared and are quite passively engaged with you, the content and the larger group. Their presence in the session is motivated by their will to receive information and the fear of being left out of the conversation or missing important details. #FOMO

Example: You will find them putting their camera on and off during a session, potentially they walk away from the screen every now and then; the mic is always on mute; their eyes often move somewhere else (phone, doing e-mails at the same time… etc.)

Looking to picture it? This is Sam: His agenda is ALWAYS full, he is saying yes to so many meetings that sometimes you’re wondering if he wasn’t Carl Allen in another life. You always see him, but he is never there. On a usual Friday evening he is going to be the one with 3 overlapping birthdays, squeezing 30 minutes here and there. So you kind of have this bittersweet feeling with him. Glad he showed up, but…. are we really?

How to engage with them? Make sure the information shared is understandable and relevant for your audience. You can step it up a notch by asking the group to participate in an exercise or different conversation format. Indeed it’s easy to blend into the passive background in a big group but when you land in a breakout room with just one or two colleagues it’s much harder to get away with not listening or contributing. Nevertheless, start slowly. At first hook them up with an easy interaction and start pulling them towards stage 2. Make sure to get everyone to speak up once in some way (even if super short). This will lower the barrier to contribute later on.

Tools: Interactions - let everyone say hello in their own language, hand signals like: thumbs up & clapping hands, using emoji reactions on zoom, check-ins, set up a social contract.

🙋🏾‍♀️ STAGE 2: PARTICIPATING

In the second stage, the participants are speaking up and feel free to voice their opinion during the session. They individually engage with the content and want to show their knowledge by adding to the conversation.

Example: As facilitator, when you’re directly asking a question to the group they will share their answer. Some people might now speak up immediately and need to be triggered to do so by nominating them for example.

How to engage with them? It’s powerful to recognize participants as individuals i.e. by using their name when you speak to them from the beginning: It sends the message “I see you and hear you — you specifically. And you, and you too”. The process to participate needs to be clear and easy, in a virtual environment that can be accessible to all (otherwise they will disengage because they don’t follow or feel left behind because they don’t get the features). To avoid this, share your screen beforehand and show the process step by step with clear instructions. If you prepare well for a session, with a plan A and B depending on where people are at, you can be like a magician — pulling something out of your hat if the first trick didn’t work. In the moment, this can also save you from starting to panic, because you’ve preempted and prepped for different scenarios. For example, if people are slow to speak up, mention they can also share in chat if that’s more comfortable. Or give people a moment to think and write in their notes before answering. With these extra alternatives you create a space where everyone has a way to contribute.

Also make sure to think through how you introduce and explain interactions or exercises. Don’t underestimate how much can get lost in translation. If people don’t understand, or misinterpret instructions — you will immediately see frustrations, confusion and in turn, a decrease in engagement. (Check out this playful Peanut Butter Jelly Sandwich challenge).

Be sure to cater for different roles, perspectives, and levels of understanding or familiarity with the topic at hand.

  • Did you consider neurodiversity?
  • What’s the difference between an extrovert and an introvert?
  • Do my sessions cater for all learning styles?
  • Is the language accessible for a diverse audience?

Doing so makes sure to create a psychologically safe environment for all and lower the barrier to participate.

Another easy tip is to ask people to keep their microphone off mute throughout the meeting (unless they have crazy background noise). Like this you remove the extra click they need to make to speak up.

Tools: Sending out a manual before hand, experiment with new tools (blank canvas), Tally Trick**, Nominating, Turn Taking, Psychological safety, digital expressions such as emoji reactions, brainstorming exercise such as 1–2–4-All

Everyone has a different way of looking at things, be sensitive to it

🤲 STAGE 3: CONTRIBUTING

In the third stage, the participants are building on each other’s ideas and capabilities. They actively support and contribute to the group by engaging with one another and the content. They are aware of the strengths and needs of others. They can create things together in pairs or in groups. They are embracing the common rules and care for the group balance.

Example: If you’re hosting an online conversation format such as the fishbowl the participants will move through the conversation with fluidity. They are actively listening to the group. There is an appreciation of diversity of opinions and inputs, aware of the importance of group think and effect on creative outcomes. This is the stage that you can really introduce in-depth co-creation and collaboration tools with comfort.

How to engage with them? Very important to build up on the safe space and rely on the rules, commitment agreed upon as a group. Here you can dig deeper with the participants and ask questions.

Tools: checking-in on the social contract or online etiquettes are key for conflict resolution. Additionally giving them the right tools (Mentimeter, mural, miro…) to facilitate interactions in the most efficient and engaging way possible, active listening, questioning technique or the troïka consultancy.

🤹🏻‍♀️ STAGE 4: LEADING

The final stage. Switching role from participant to facilitator and fostering interactions in the group. Individuals are conscious of the fluidity of their role. In this stage the participants may make suggestions to the facilitator and/or group, to head in a certain direction or try out an approach or exercise. In this way they proactively take part in the decision making — shaping and influencing the group interaction and collaboration. When in this leading role the participants are role modelling and inviting others to follow their paths. They are initiators, proposing new ideas or concepts to improve the session. Of course they don’t do it all at the same time, they are conscious of when to step in and out of this role. They are confident in their own facilitation practice and know how and when to make use of their superpower. It’s less about them than about making space for others. The group communication and flow feels very fluid.

Example: Sam: “I know a brainstorming exercise that will help us come up with crazy ideas” You: “Awesome Sam, take it away! Can you take 15 minutes now to lead us through it?”

Example of questions to ask the group:

  1. We are running out of time, do you prefer to continue this or move on?
  2. We have a couple of options here, we can either do this or that, what’s preferred?

How to engage with them? Recognize their propositions and give space for their individualities. You can build on them.. Allow space for Q&A and reflection, so that you can adjust the process based on their insights (if needed). This is related to power distribution in conversation design and the ability to let go of control and go with the flow. Extremely experienced facilitators will be able to move in this direction with a group (when trust is built). To dive deeper into this, check the Deep Democracy Lewis methodology. As a facilitator it helps you include the alternative voices in the decision making.

Congrats, you’ve reached the top of the pyramid and led your group with success! 👏

Now that you know the pyramid well, here are some practical tips on when to use it:

  1. While working on the design of your session, think of implementing the interactions: How can you build up the engagement through the gradual implementation of minor and major moments of interactions?
  2. During the session it is your role as a facilitator to understand the group and individual dynamics happening and push the group forward towards the highest level of engagement. It’s a technical dance to move and influence the different engagement flows while offering a unified experience to all.
  3. Does the challenge make you feel anxious? Or excited? a bit of both maybe #anxcited? That’s okay. As Christopher Emdin said in his Ted Talk on ‘Teach teachers how to create magic’ “Anyone can learn to cultivate the magic of engagement.” 🧙🏽‍♂️

We’re curious to hear what your take on this is! Do you recognize the stages of the pyramid? And do you use more as a group or an individual process? What tools do you use to “cultivate the magic of engagement” throughout the different stages? Spark the discussion in the comments. We would love to hear your thoughts! 🎤

*You can read more about the og engagement pyramid (that inspired this model) here: https://www.the-vital-edge.com/engagement-pyramid/

**curious what these facilitation techniques are? You can find many on Facilipedia, attend one of our Facilitators Mischief Meets sessions, follow us on Clubhouse or ask our team via hey@mischiefmakers.co

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Mischief Makers

Mischief Makers

A facilitation agency focused on collaborative working and the power of creativity. We design workshops and programs that shake things up to unlock potential. ✨

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