How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Engaged

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    Man Closing EyesYour audience is getting sleepy. Very sleepy. It might be your fault. Maybe you are lecturing too long, or failing to connect the material to the needs of the listener. Maybe your voice is getting monotone, or your war stories are a little long-in-the-tooth. Before you beat yourself up, consider that it might NOT be your fault. The room is too warm or the air too stale. This is their third day in the classroom, listening to content. They might be jet-lagged or slightly hungover. They might be “prisoners” — people who were told to go to training or a meeting but not why it was important to them. Whatever the case, if you see eyes rolling back or heads lolling on shoulders, take immediate action. Some ideas to try:

    1. Intersperce discussion or activities with lecture. If you must lecture, break it up into short segments, and put an activity, discussion, quiz, or demonstration every 10 minutes or so.

    2. Stop reading your slides. If you have heavy, dense slides, it is oh-so-easy to start reading them. Nothing really is worse. You’ve heard of death by lecture, right? Every few slides, walk away from the screen, or hit the “B” key on your keyboard to blacken your screen. Ask your audience a question–a good open-ended one. Or have them discuss with a partner what they just heard. Anything. Changing gears is essential.

    3. Walk closer to the audience. Get out from behind the lectern and get closer to people. Make plenty of eye contact. Talk to them directly. If you know them, call them by name. Always check the size and shape of the room and be sure you can move around. If you are stuck in the front of a long, narrow room, you can get disconnected from your audience too easily.

    4. Turn a lecture into a discussion. Using a series of well-planned questions, or a brief activity, or a problem to be solved. Or a story you can tell. Or a war story they can tell you. These methods are far more memorable because they engage the audience in a way that simply listening does not.

    5. Call a break. If eyes are closed, learning is stopped. If practical, call for a break on the spot. Suggest people take a quick walk outside, if practical. Or walk up and down a stairwell. If you can’t call a break at that moment, you might just ask them to stand and stretch. Or walk around the room a minute, then come back to their chairs. Be sure to do it with them; you also need an energy break.

    6. Ask people to write something down. It’s easy to carry blank 3×5 cards with you, so you can do this spontaneously. And it can be serious or fun: ask them to write down a question they have about the content, or what they would rather be doing right now. Depending on the group, you could read a few of these out loud. Or not!

    7. Put them in teams. Break them up for small discussions, problem-solving or brainstorming. But get them away from their physical comfort zone (and their table buddies) by randomly breaking into groups. Just count off to the number of groups you want them in. Or ask them to find someone they don’t know. (I always ask people in multiple-day classes to sit with someone else on the second day. They usually do.)

    8. Move them to flip charts. Having them brainstorm and record ideas on flip charts is good because they are standing instead of sitting and thinking instead of listening. They often come up with wonderful ideas when they work together in teams.

    9. Use a little healthy competition. Assign points, turn content into a game, or pit one group against another to come up with questions, answers, or whatever. Even if it is a trivia contest for five minutes, we often love to compete. If nothing else, it makes a great change of pace. If you can tie the activity back to content so much the better.

    10. Have an paper airplane-flying event. I personally dislike seeing koosh balls fly around the room, (it scares me) but if you ask people to make a paper airplane and fly it, no one will get hurt. Keep it quick and get them back into their seats. Energy restored.

    There are ten ideas; did they spark any others for you? Whether it’s your fault, or whether it isn’t, when you are leading a meeting or training session, don’t let your audience fall asleep. Act early and often to keep them energized and awake!