Distracted learners: How to gain and keep trainees' attention

According to a Harvard University study, the average person is distracted 47 percent of the time.

Written by Bruna Martinuzzi
Published 06 August 2019
Distracted learners: How to gain and keep trainees' attention

This means that people will spend almost half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. Chances are this describes at least some of the participants in your training sessions or workshops.

Most people want to learn, but the frenzied pace of today's workplaces can make it difficult to stay focused. So, even when learners take time out of their busy schedules to attend a learning event, their minds will likely be elsewhere. They may be half-listening while they check their mobile devices, watches, or worse, the exit. Or perhaps they arrive expecting to be bored because they've experienced dull training sessions in the past.

How to engage distracted learners

So, how do you overcome these preconceived notions? How do you gain and keep your trainees' attention in a distracting environment?

Here are 10 techniques that I use in my workshops to minimize distractions and maximize attendees' opportunities to learn.

1. Start on time

Nothing drains the energy in a room quicker than a late start. Wait no longer than five minutes to begin. This signals to everyone in the room that you respect their time and that the time spent in your training session is valuable.

To help preempt late arrivals, I sometimes announce ahead of time that the workshop will start at the published time precisely, as 'idle time waiting for late arrivals' is not on the agenda. It's humorous and sends the right message.

2. Answer three questions

Participants' radios are tuned to one station only: WIFM (What's In It For Me?). At the outset, answer three questions for your audience:

1. How does the content apply to their jobs?

2. Why should they care? Why is this topic important?

3. What will they get out of the training?

Your audience needs to feel that what they are learning is relevant to them and will make a positive difference. If they know that they will walk away with solutions, inspiration, or practical applications, they'll more likely pay attention and engage with your session.

3. Start with a bang

Traditional ways to start a training session include asking participants to introduce themselves, setting expectations, mentioning housekeeping items, and providing an overview of the event. As an audience member, I would be yawning already.

Instead, be a contrarian. I like to begin a course by teaching something new and valuable straight away. This positive first impression shows the learner that you have something valuable to teach them, and gives them an incentive to pay attention to you.

4. Use dynamic slides

A slideshow can be your best sidekick or your worst enemy. When your audience is faced with mind-numbing, bullet-infested, all-text slides, they will likely lose interest almost instantly.

Create dynamic slides to grab people's attention. For example, use slides that are mostly visual, with sparse text or a couple of keywords. Your visuals could include infographics, charts, illustrations, and other graphic elements.

For extra impact, create cinematic slides. These are slides that use a series of well-chosen, relevant images that act as a cinematic background to support your message. 

5. Use the rule of three 

Our working memory resources are limited. Research shows that reducing cognitive load increases the mental resources available for retaining new information. So, ditch anything that is nonessential for learning and group important concepts into threes.

The rule of three is one of the most important principles for effective communication. People will remember three steps, three points, three ideas, three reasons. In my workshops, I have noticed that any time I say, "There are three important points to remember about", most people will reach for their pens to write the three items down. Try it and see for yourself!

6. Introduce frequent change-ups

Change is key. To prevent trainees from 'zoning out' shake things up periodically. You can do this by changing the medium that you use to present ideas. For example, switch from using slides to a whiteboard to explain a concept. Or, switch from bullet points to an animated Mind Map. 

Make the most of the space around you. I don't stand like a lamppost in front of the room. I regularly move around to keep all eyes on me. You can also reengage attention by changing the participants' physical state. For example, get your learners out of their chairs to stand around a flipchart. 

7. Make it entertaining

An entertained learner is an engaged learner. Before you cringe at the notion of combining education with entertainment, consider the wisdom of communication theorist and educator, Marshall McLuhan, who famously said:

"Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either- It's misleading to suppose there's any basic difference between education and entertainment."

There are several ways to entertain the adult, distracted mind. For example, you could use video or audio clips to support your point. And experiential activities or games can be both practical and engaging. I once conducted part of a lecture by using a relevant cartoon to maintain people's attention.

Don't forget about music. You can play upbeat music to energize participants at the start of the workshop and during breaks. Or perhaps you could play quiet instrumental music in the background while participants are engaged in reflection exercises.

8. Tell a story

Liven up your training sessions brief stories or anecdotes to illustrate your ideas. Stories are one of the most effective ways to captivate your audience. Think about times when you have been wholly absorbed in reading a good book or watching a TV series. Our brains crave stories like a kid craves candy.

Stories can also help learners to retain information for longer. If you want your learners to remember your training session, use stories to your advantage: they are the Velcro that makes the message stick.

9. Use memorable language

How captivating is your language? After you have created your content, think about how you can express your ideas in a way that is memorable and repeatable. Even the most distracted minds are likely to notice a fresh metaphor or a beautiful turn of phrase. Use pithy, tweet-worthy statements to spice up your content.

10. Develop your stage presence

The most important visual in the room is you. Treat your presentation or training session as a performance and practice your delivery skills so that you can keep your audience's attention.

For example, try not to get stuck in 'presenter mode' and forget that you have moving parts. Use your hands to gesture, project your voice, show enthusiasm for your topic, smile, and above all, maintain eye contact with your audience. Maintaining eye contact is a surefire way to engage distracted attendees.

What makes a good training session?

The recipe for a good training session relies on delivering the most essential information in an entertaining and interesting way. When used correctly, additional props like music, slideshows, and stories are the cherry on top.

About the author

Bruna Martinuzzi

Bruna Martinuzzi

Freelance Writer
Bruna is a coach, trainer and author, and has been contributing articles and blogs since 2014. Her background incorporates 30 years of experience in management and executive leadership positions. She has helped thousands of individuals improve their presentation skills and become more effective communicators.

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