7 principles of online engagement

Published by Jackie Barrie on

In this article, I share my seven principles of online engagement. Follow these when choosing the activities to include in your session, and you won’t go far wrong.

1. Engage your audience little and often

Received wisdom is that attention spans are getting shorter. In response to this, rather than deliver a full 45-minute keynote, speakers are increasingly being asked to give a bitesize talk with a Q&A. And, as you no doubt know, TED talks are a maximum of 18 minutes.

I did some searching, but couldn’t find any data to support the theory:

When the content is compelling, we can pay attention for as long as we want to. We can all watch a TV documentary for an hour, or sit through a movie that runs for 90 minutes or more.

That said, we are used to getting speedy responses from our computers, and there’s plenty of evidence that people find it harder to concentrate online:

If you’re a speaker, trainer or presenter, it does seems you need to be even more engaging on your video calls that you might be on-site.

So, to keep your audience focused, I recommend you conduct an activity at least once every 15 minutes.

By forcing the audience to do something, they have to re-engage with you and what you’re saying, rather than be tempted to check their messages or get distracted with something that’s going on off-camera.

In a one-hour session, that means perhaps breaking your content into three 10-15m segments with an introduction and a conclusion:

0-5m Introduction/icebreaker
5-20m Content part 1
20-25m Activity A
25-40m Content part 2
40-45m Activity B
45-55m Content part 3
55-60m Conclusion/CTA

Although that timetable allows five minutes for each activity, they can be really quick. Some take less than two minutes.

I suggest you mix it up. You’d only need to include two different things in an hour (plus an icebreaker if you want to open your session that way – make sure whatever you do is relevant though. See principle 7 below.)


  • Q&A in chat
  • Poll
  • Reaction icons

Once, I asked attendees to press a party hooter reaction icon every time I used a word starting with the letter J (This was in keeping with the theme of the session. You could ask them to do it every time you mention a certain core concept, to check they recognise it). This behaviour quickly became so engrained that I found myself leaping forward to press the reaction in a completely different meeting later that day.

2. Mix real & virtual

Although you can do plenty of things online, such as reaction icons and requests to “raise your digital hand”, staring at a screen non-stop is hard on the eyes.

Therefore, anything you can do to mix the real and virtual world will help your audience reconnect.

That’s why, rather than clicking a digital icon, I prefer to use physical flashcards and wave them at the camera, and set it up so my attendees can do same.

You might have seen people using these:

For me, the problem with these cards is that they exclude anyone who hasn’t invested in them. And it looks to me as though people have quickly become tired of the novelty.

I think these cards distracting for users, because there are so many to choose. Flipping them over to find the right card deters people from focusing on the talk. Most of them will never be used anyway. People are likely to stick with about three favourites.

So I made an alternative:

I email this to delegates in advance of my training courses to print and cut out, and tell them they can draw their own versions if they don’t have a printer at home.

It’s cheap and cheerful, involves everyone, and causes a laugh. Here’s an example from my mastermind group:


You might also make your own signs to hold up at appropriate moments during your session. For example:

  • “Tweet this” with a quotable quote and your hashtag
  • “Time’s up!”
  • “Happy birthday”

I also have a cardboard cut-out of my own hand which I wave at the camera when asked to ‘raise my hand’ or when it’s time to say goodbye. I simply drew round my hand on plain A4 paper, stuck it on a piece of card from a cereal packet and cut it out. It’s different from everyone else, and always causes people to smile.

3. Set expectations

People are so resigned to attending boring online meetings, that it’s hard to convince them in advance that your session will actually be enjoyable.

This even happens to me. I ran an event for a client who told me afterwards: “I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t expect it to be *that* much fun.”

Here are a few things you can do to raise their expectations in advance:

  • Make it clear in your pre-event marketing that there will be (relevant) interaction as well as practical takeaways
  • Mention the word ‘fun’, and reassure people they will be allowed to opt out of anything they don’t want to do
  • Invite contributions in advance, for example, request clues for word games (to use for revision, team-building and memory). They’ll want to attend and find out what you do with their words
  • Send out a bespoke buzzword bingo sheet, and award a prize on the day
  • Post your props and handouts in ‘do not open’ envelopes (this idea is on page 190 of my Experiential Speaking book, and works even better for online events because of principle 4)

4. Make it physical

Sitting (or standing) in front of a screen for any period of time is tiring. So make people do something physical.

Example: Treasure hunt/Scavenger hunt

You could ask them to find something within reach, but it’s better to ask them to move away from their desk and find:

  • “Something in your house that reveals something about you”
  • “An object that’s a clue to the country, town or place where you live”
  • “A green thing, a round thing and a spiky thing”

You don’t want people hurting themselves running around at home, so give a health and safety warning and tell them this isn’t a race.

Despite this, I’ve never found anyone take more than a minute or two. They already know what they’ve got in their house and where to find it.

To cover the time, you could play copyright-free music while you wait. You’ll see when they get back on camera and wave their objects at you.

Once they’ve all returned, launch a show & tell session or a competition. For example:

  • “What can your objects tell us about the theme of today?”
  • “Pile your objects into a tower, measure it, take a photo, send the picture and dimensions to me via WhatsApp, highest tower wins”

5. Gameify everything

You can almost always add an element of competition to help get people engaged.

On-site, I might give away chocolates, cheese or Champagne to winners. For vegans, I might print ‘kudos’ cards they can collect during the day.

Online, I haven’t found a good equivalent I can give as a prize.

Amazon vouchers and charity donations aren’t quite so motivating. Some tools give a shower of digital confetti and a cheer, which seems to be about as good as it gets.

To get everyone involved, suggest unmute all and allow the sound of real applause as well as inviting people to click their ‘party hooter’ reaction icons (with permission, you can get a good screenshot when they all do this).


  • Multiple-choice quiz/poll (e.g. to check understanding at the start and/or revision at the end)
  • Higher/lower guessing game. Could use PowerPoint. Could be serious e.g. reporting weekly departmental results. Could be silly e.g. Big sheep, small sheep: which comes next? The sheep idea is by The Business Speak Easy)
  • Pick a volunteer, award a lucky dip prize, or randomise your content at WheelOfNames.com

6. Do something unexpected

In psychology, there is a principle of pattern interruption. As soon as you disrupt the pattern that people expect, it regains their attention.

Anything unexpected will do this.

For example, I might introduce segments of a session by temporarily displaying the headline on a virtual background and playing a jingle I’ve recorded.

I accept that doing things like this take more thought, creativity and preparation, but we’re judged by what people are used to seeing on their TV screens, so it’s wise to be inspired by what TV presenters do and adapt their engagement techniques.

7. Give a reason

My suggestions may be fun, but they are not just for fun. They’re supposed to maintain audience attention and help embed the learning. If not, don’t do them.

It’s therefore wise to explain why you are asking the audience to do what you are asking them to do, and link the activity clearly to your theme or desired outcome.

For the rationale behind this, see the ‘Because’ story on page 17 of my book, Experiential Speaking.

8. Adapt my ideas

I know I said I have seven principles of online engagement, but in the interests of exceeding expectations, here’s an eighth bonus principle.

Don’t do the same as I do, otherwise all our events will become just as same-y and boring as each other.

My ideas are supposed to be a starting point to spark your creativity. Please adapt them to suit your own style and learning outcome.

If you’d like my help to devise a unique breakout or activity, you can book a time here:


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