How to Hold a Large Audience’s Attention for a Long Training Session

We recently finished an engagement where we provided a full day of presentation skills training for a group of 80 attending a corporate retreat. In most situations I’d be worried that training so many people for that long was too ambitious, but we had enough lead time to prepare that we thought we could come up with a program that would work. And I love a good challenge.

Happily, it all turned out great. Everyone seemed to have a good time and the client was thrilled with the result. But it wouldn’t have turned out that way without a lot of planning and work.

As a general guideline, I’d normally suggest that 20 or 25 is the maximum number of people you should attempt to train interactively at once. Sessions with more people than that tend to turn into lectures. Bigger audiences make it hard to connect with people, ensure that they’re following along, or keep them from falling asleep. And the longer you ask them to sit there the harder it is to keep their attention

So we knew training a group of 80 was going to take some effort, especially when we learned that we had the final time slot in their three day retreat. People had come in from all over the world and would be looking forward to heading home after sitting in a ballroom forever. What we couldn’t know until right before we started first thing that morning was that everyone had been out drinking until 2:00 the night before.

Whatever your training or presentation topic, having the right material is critical. But so is keeping up the energy level in the room and making sure that the audience is actually paying attention. If they’re not, you might as well just be talking to yourself.

Here are some of the things we did to make it work and that you can use in your own training and presentations:

Having more than one speaker is a huge help when you have a big audience or a long session. It’s easy for a single speaker to lose their energy or enthusiasm and start to drone if they have to deliver a long monologue. Having more than one speaker allows you to present in a conversational way that is much more engaging. It also allows one person to speak while the other hangs back to take a little break, hands out materials, or records ideas from the audience. During exercises having two facilitators lets you cover more of the room to check in with people and make sure that everyone is on track. Don’t just team up with anyone, though. Make sure that you work well together before making any commitments.

Keeping it entertaining allows the audience to forget that they’re being trained. We try to make all of our training fun for the audience, but it’s even more important when you have an audience that’s in danger of getting bored because they’ve been there for a long time. Especially when they were out late the night before. If you can manage to be entertaining while you’re teaching them you can be confident that they’re listening to the material you want them to learn. Be aware of what’s appropriate for each specific audience, though. What’s fun for one group may seem frivolous or even offensive to another.

Covering lots of material keeps training fast-paced and doesn’t allow an audience’s attention to drift. There’s nothing worse than a training session that’s been stretched to fill time because the presenter doesn’t have enough useful material. Schedule your presentations and training programs so you have just enough time to cover your topic and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. You don’t want to completely overwhelm people by throwing too much at them, but giving an audience a lot to think about keeps it interesting. Just make sure that you actually have enough time to cover what’s essential. No matter what, don’t get to the end of your session and find yourself saying “sorry, I don’t have time to go through the last 20 slides I prepared.” They’ll assume that your best material was in there and feel cheated.

Shifting gears often keeps blood flowing to the brain. Never leave your audience just sitting there and listening for an extended period of time and allow them to tune out. For this full day session we did something different every hour, with lots of little interactive pieces, questions and exercises to keep everyone engaged throughout. The first hour was full of exercises to get them involved and get their brains working that morning. The second hour had us looking at video examples and critiquing them. The third was mostly discussion. After lunch we did an extended exercise where everyone had to play an active role, and we used the final hour to wrap everything up with 150 rapid-fire tips for improving presentations.

Giving an audience something to do can be a great way to mix things up. Getting them involved makes them feel like they have a stake in what you’re telling them and makes them much more likely to be persuaded by what you have to say. Whatever you do, don’t just let them sit there and listen. In that situation chances are that they aren’t listening at all.

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