Every audience comes with varying levels of motivation to learn: What can you do to engage them?
A recurring challenge in facilitating continuing professional education workshops is how to respond to participants who do not see a value in attending. This isn’t uncommon, given that training is often mandated by management and the topic or content of your session doesn’t necessarily align with their individual learning goals or perceived needs. It’s easy to get focused on (or distracted by) these less-than-enthusiastic folks, but people participate along a diverse spectrum. A strong facilitator reaches out to everyone in the room.
So, you might wonder, how is an individualized, motivational approach possible with more than just a handful of participants? In my experience over 15 years of leading professional courses and workshops, I have found that groups of all sizes generally coalesce into five sub-groups:
- “Keeners”: It doesn’t matter whether they came voluntarily or because their manager made them attend. They are hungry for any and every opportunity for learning: 100% intrinsically motivated.
- “On the Fence”: These folks aren’t unhappy to take time off work for your session and are open to learning, but they are looking for a practical demonstration of how and why the topic/content is relevant before they will engage.
- “Open-minded Skeptics”: They are generally seasoned and respected experts in the group who are provisionally willing to give you a chance. However, because of their super-strong skill-set they have lots of experience sitting in courses with not much to show for it, and this can impact their motivation for learning in your course.
- “Convince Me”: These individuals can be hard core for even the most experienced trainer. They are not happy campers from the get-go, and they are not afraid to show it openly and repeatedly.
- “Multi-taskers”: This sub-group has other things on the go besides your training. Often arriving late, leaving early, on their mobile, or otherwise occupied, they are polite and willing to participate when present, but your workshop is not necessarily a high priority.
How can we best respond to and motivate these diverse groups, all at the same time, over a course that might range from an hour, or a day, through to multiple days? Let’s look at some quick tips for each:
The “Keeners” are on your side. You really need to mess up in order to alienate them. You will know who these individuals are right away because they are quick to raise their hands, offer insights and opinions, and generally smooth your path. Make sure to explicitly thank and encourage them.
Those who are “On the Fence” can (by definition) go either way. It’s important to prepare a strong start to the session by engaging the group in a conversation – or for a large audience, a demonstration – of the practical value of the topic/course. A quick “Turn to the person next to you and identify the most important take-away”, or a video demonstration, case example or personal story can accomplish this. The key is to spark peoples’ interest and invite them in.
The “Open-minded Skeptics” can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Adult education affirms that learners come with pre-existing knowledge and skills, and that is never truer than for this group. Because they are, themselves, experts, it’s essential to explicitly acknowledge and invite their and others’ contributions to the content you have prepared. These folks often ask specific, technical questions, and they will know if you try to fake it. Probably everyone else will know too. My own approach is to be up front with the group, respectfully affirm where others’ knowledge and skills exceeds mine, and encourage a collaborative learning environment where everyone – regardless of months, years or decades of experience – has something of value to contribute (check out this link for a nice way to establish this climate from the start: First, empty your cup). In addition, I make a point of naming and reinforcing participants who demonstrate their skills and effectiveness – they are a resource to the whole group.
Now let’s consider those who come across as somewhat difficult, or even openly antagonistic: “Convince Me”. I don’t see these individuals in every workshop, but it’s happened often enough to be worth coming prepared. This is where skills in group facilitation and knowledge of group dynamics are essential. I need a large chunk of the group to be “with” me, in order to help manage what can become a facilitation disaster (I am not exaggerating). If the majority of participants are engaged, enjoying themselves, and find value in the material, it is hard for one or two naysayers to sabotage. On the other hand, if the group as a whole are “On the Fence”, the “Convince Me” contingent can bring it all down. If you do run into problems, here is a tried-and true strategy for How to TAME difficult, skeptical, hostile or challenging participants.
Last but not least, “Multi-taskers” should not be ignored. Artful facilitation can help them shift to “Open-minded Skeptics” or even “Keeners”. The thing is, you may never know because they aren’t totally present (literally). But that doesn’t mean your workshop didn’t make an impression – these individuals are often opinion leaders and influencers with large professional networks (that’s why they’re so busy). Articulating everyone’s right to participate however they choose is a win-win. They will do it anyway, and affirming personal choice and control communicates respect and positive regard.
One caveat: The real world is messy and disorganized, and slotting people into categories is perilous at best. Individuals and groups are dynamic, organic and open to complex reciprocal influences from you, one another and the environment. Thus, my most important tip? Don’t stand in the middle of the stream; go with the flow.
Check out more learner engagement strategies: