15 Attention Hacks to Improve Online Attendee and Learner Engagement

Even when people pay for online education programs—and especially when they don’t—they still sometimes let themselves get distracted. These 16 attention hacks help attendees stay focused on the screen in front of them. By building these hacks into your program design, learners get the experience and value you intended for them.

15 attention hacks to hold and capture your learner’s interest

#1: Assess prior knowledge before the program

Attendees will tune out if you try to teach them what they already know. Conduct a quick self-assessment in a pop-up window after registration or send one in a confirmation email so you can find out what they need to know next and what they most want to learn. 

#2: Recruit a sidekick

The instructor shouldn’t work alone. Assign someone to moderate the chat box, scan the chat for examples or stories to share, alert instructor to questions, and handle technical issues, such as:

  • Asking people to rename themselves if their Zoom name isn’t clear
  • Muting and unmuting people
  • Bouncing unwelcome guests or AI note-takers 

#3: Look at the camera

It feels natural to look at the faces of attendees on the screen, but ask instructors to make direct eye contact with learners by looking at the camera instead. They can use homemade cues as a reminder. Draw eyes on two pieces of paper and tape each one on either side of the webcam, or use photos of a set of eyes instead.

#4: Use “you”

When talking to attendees, use “you” instead of “everyone.” Asking “What do you think?” instead of “What does everyone think?”, for example, makes the question sound personal instead of addressed to a mass of people.

#5: Stand up when presenting

Standing is a dynamic posture that creates and conveys more energy than sitting. While standing, the instructor is likely to shift weight and use gestures. Their body is livelier, which transfers energy to the screens of viewers. 

#6: Start strong 

The first step of Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction is “grab the learner’s attention.” Draw them in and capture their interest by:

  • Reminding them of the program’s value and applicability. Tell them why they should be glad to be here, what they can do with their new knowledge, and how it will help them understand or address issues.
  • Offering an unexpected or provocative quotation, statistic, or perspective. 
  • Asking a thought-provoking question related to the topic. Invite them to discuss it in the chat box. Unmute people who want to share their thoughts or ask them to reflect individually. 
  • Polling attendees on a thought-provoking question. Elicit information they may not feel comfortable sharing in public but would share in an anonymous poll.
  • Presenting common misconceptions about the topic and asking attendees to evaluate each one.
  • Posing a problem to be solved during your time together—which leads us to the next hack.

#7: Create a curiosity gap

Create a desire in people to learn more. Provide incomplete information or hints about an upcoming revelation. Make them aware of their lack of knowledge by withholding information. Leave them hanging for the solution or explanation. 

Try this TikTok tactic: pique their curiosity by standing in front of and obscuring a list. 

#8: Engage with attendees every 4 minutes

We don’t have attention spans like we used to. The dopamine hit from competing distractions is too much to ignore. You must keep engaging with attendees so they don’t feel like they can break away.

These interactions can take just a few moments. You just want to stir them out of their passive mode and bring them back from the other open tabs on their laptop.

Interrupt the program frequently to pose or solicit questions. Conduct a poll. Ask for a vote, raise of hands, or emoji response. Get them to do something in the chat box. 

But whatever you do, make sure the activity has value in itself and isn’t just an excuse to do something. 

attention hacks in progress - woman who is laser-focused on her computer screen

#9: Share stories

We’re wired to like stories, but these stories must add value to the program. Describe real-life scenarios that illustrate the challenge or solution in question. Expound on “what-ifs.” Share success stories or case studies.

Even better, bring in the protagonists of these stories to share their experiences themselves and field questions from attendees. 

#10: Change your delivery method every 10 minutes

TED’s rule is no presentation should last longer than 18 minutes. The average TED Talk is 15 minutes.

Every ten minutes or less, change the instructional format. This tactic will also prevent slide hypnosis by decreasing the number of slides. Use a variety of delivery methods:

  • Slides with a mix of visually appealing images and minimal text 
  • Brief videos
  • Screen sharing
  • Guest interviews
  • Q&A time
  • Group discussion using the “raised hand” tool
  • Solo reflection 
  • Breakout rooms for retrieval practice—discussing and applying what they’re learning
  • Reporting on solo or group activities
  • Chat box activity
  • Whiteboard activity

Online courses allow more time for variety than webinars. Try alternating:

  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Critiques: analyze and challenge approaches, arguments, or case studies
  • Diagnosis exercises: define and deconstruct problems
  • Sharing activities: discuss their own experiences or perceptions
  • Knowledge checks: assessing their comprehension of new knowledge

#11: Create something as a group

Build towards something during the program, for example:

  • List of best practices
  • Project template
  • Tool kit
  • Job aid
  • Top ten tips

#12: Feature dialogue between two people

This is my favorite--and the inspiration for this post. The easiest way to make a presentation more engaging is to alternate between a male and female voice. For example, this episode of Smarthistory is narrated by a female and male art historian. The point is making it feel like a conversation, not a lecture.

#13: Do something unexpected

Insert a funny GIF to make a point or add a laughter sound effect after a joke. 

You want to make attendees think they might miss something good if their attention is elsewhere. If your programs become known for not being predictable, FOMO will keep people locked in on the screen. 

Catch them off guard. Give them something or someone they didn’t expect that heightens the value of the program, for example: 

  • Bring in an unannounced guest
  • Do an unannounced look behind the scenes, video tour, or case study interview.
  • Announce association or industry news

#14: Change the screen display

Alternate between screens featuring slides (or other media) and screens featuring the instructor’s face. Will Thalheimer did this during the Learning Business Summit. First, his slides took up most of the screen. His face appeared in a smaller window, but it stood out against a black background. Then, at one point, he stopped sharing slides so his face loomed large on our screens, which perked up my brain for sure.

#15: Save time for take-aways

End the program with a group discussion on what they’ve learned and how they can apply what it back on the job. Find out who’s interested in working with accountability buddies. Encourage them to share LinkedIn profile information. 

Keep the meeting and chat box open after the program ends, so people have a chance to exchange information. When your education programs become known as a valuable use of time and a channel for extending networks, watch your registration numbers rise as word-of-mouth recommendations spread. 

learner engagement
program development
online courses
Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to receive our blog posts and updatesSubscribe