Why you should treat your virtual audience like 5-year-olds. Tips on running an effective online session

Let’s admit it. We’ve all been to a number of virtual events and meetings in the past. Do we like it? Can’t say so. Can you pinpoint why? Most of us can’t.

Coronavirus is forcing us to move things online

As Coronavirus COVID-19 lands in more than 100 countries and becomes a pandemic, more and more companies, organizations, and communities continue to find ways to do things online. It is not just about working remotely, but we have to find ways to run our team meetings, strategy meetings, monthly meetup, or even team building activities.

However, getting people to pay attention or effectively engage during a virtual session is as difficult as teaching a 5-year-old. Not because your audience is naughty or something, but because you have to set up the right environment for them to engage and succeed. With my experience running a kids coding school previously, I want to share a few tips on how to run a highly engaging and effective virtual session based on my experience with a bunch of 5-year-olds.

5-year-olds have to be guided or “enforced”

When you’re teaching a 5-year-old kid, she is extremely eager to learn because she is curious about how things work. But chances are she also runs around and ignores your guidance a lot. This means that you, the teacher, have to set the right expectation upfront and guide her on what to do. Sometimes if her mind is completely absent, you even have to enforce a little bit of authority as a teacher to get the lesson going.

As adults and professionals, when we’re physically present in a meeting room or a classroom, we know how we should behave because school taught us a few things about this sort of environment. When things move online and we’re no longer able to see all faces at once, we’re unfamiliar with this virtual environment and it is easy to feel lost. And so expectation and guidance become the keys to whether we are going to actively engage in this virtual session.

When you, the host, kick off the virtual session, make sure you share a few ground rules with the audience, e.g. you expect everyone to have their cameras on (I can tell you, this is the #1 rule for an engaging session). Throughout the session, instead of throwing questions into the air and expecting someone to answer (which usually means hearing from the most dominant participants), you can encourage everyone to work on their own ideas/thoughts and submit them quickly through an engagement platform. This gives you a chance to pick an interesting idea and call on that participant to share more with the rest.

Tell your participants what to do next so that everyone can follow. If you think this is too forceful, you’ll be surprised how many people enjoy being guided than being left alone to figure things out.

Teamwork and peer pressure are positive things to encourage participation.

Bring 5-year-olds into groups for teamwork and “peer pressure”

When you ask a 5-year-old to draw simple shapes, you might get resistance that she wants to do something else. This is normal because she is learning how to express her feelings, but more importantly, because she is in control over where she spends her time. Now bring in a few friends, get them to draw shapes together, and make it a game, you’ll start noticing a significant difference in concentration and determination. This is because the other kids bring in a little bit of peer pressure and that encourages them to work together.

At a virtual session, most participants are on their own. They can choose to follow or doze off, they can participate or stay quiet, and this is how you get a disengaging audience. The best way to get them to engage is to break them into small groups and give each group a topic to work on, make it clear that their inputs will be shared with everyone else on the screen. With this, you’re getting the groupmates to facilitate and guide each other instead of you doing all the heavy lifting. You can also ensure no one is falling asleep as everyone has to contribute even if the session has as many as 50 participants.

Keep things short and fast-paced virtually.

Keep it fast-paced and engaging to keep 5-year-olds awake

A 5-year-old has a much better attention span than younger kids, but doing the same activity for a long period of time still doesn’t cut it. You have to mix things up a little and plan a series of activities that require her to think, to process, and to take actions.

If you want your virtual participants to leave the session feeling good, you have to learn how to plan and facilitate a successful virtual session – plan the agenda, know when is presentation time and when is activity time etc. Facilitation is your secret sauce to make sure everyone plays a part instead of just sitting in.

You also want to keep each section short and fast-paced as people’s attention span on the computer is shorter than in-person. You know how easy it is to get distracted and land on another website – just one click away.

To sum it up

It might sound a little crazy to treat your virtual audience like 5-year-olds, but the fundamentals to keep human beings engaged never change. Don’t be the other event hosts that put up a virtual event or meeting and never spend time thinking about how to run it well. If you’re looking for help to break your audience into small groups and engage them with guided, fast-paced activities, you can take a look at Toasty, a live and interactive audience engagement platform, which is launching its virtual feature and has a waiting list you can sign up to.