How I kept 9 people under 26 years old engaged for 4 hours.

7 seconds. Some “experts” will tell you that the average human attention span is 7 seconds.

I think that’s wrong. Here’s why.

On November 5, I met with the group of leaders pictured. Trent, Marcel, Devon, Josh, Steve, Kayla, Graham, Dion and Evan.

I had spoken to Trent (far left, front row) once, and met the rest of them for the first time that day.

During our training session we talked about customer service, leadership, teamwork and personal accountability.

The team came up with their own action plans and commitments that were self-reflective and thoughtful.

They participated and shared and engaged with me and their teammates for the entire time we were together.

At the end, there were smiles, high-fives and Marcel said, “yeah, that was fun.”

So what transpired over the 4 hours we spent together that created these results? I am glad you asked.

I hear all the time about young people falling asleep or playing on their phones during training, or scrolling through e-learning without engaging or caring much about the content. The first thing you have to do is set the expectation for participation. Then you have to stick to it.

And I don’t mean saying in frustration to a room of blank stares, “c’mon guys. Somebody has to have SOMETHING to say!”

This all really starts with the attitude that it’s about them, not me, and that with each session I have to earn their participation. Here are a few steps to do that.

Step 1 to getting people engaged is that you have to be engaging. Before the session starts, I talk with as many participants as I can. I ask them questions and listen. This is how I found out that Evan used to be a tap dancer. This also sets the groundwork for interactions during the session.

Step 2 is to make interactions safe and enjoyable. Let them use their personality and have some fun. No one likes to go to a boring training class, and no one likes to feel pigeonholed into being something they are not. One of my favorite “openers” is to have participants make “appointments” with other participants. I then give them 1 minute to learn about each other then ask them to introduce one of their classmates to the group. It’s fun, interactive and it’s low risk. This is a necessary step if you want them to contribute to the content later.

Step 3 is to be consistent with your expectation of participation. Don’t give up if you don’t get engagement right away. Remember, your students are assessing you, the content, the environment, and their peers. They are wondering if they will be safe by saying something “uncool” in front of their peers. I try to enthusiastically respond when people contribute, especially early on in the session. This shows that stepping outside their comfort zone will actually be rewarded.

Step 4 is to be real and let them be real. I have come into their territory and am taking up their time… I have to respect that. Letting yourself be human, make mistakes, laugh at yourself and allow others to do the same will endear you to them and make them feel more comfortable in allowing their true selves to show. This may mean letting them pull out their phones to return a text or letting them eat if they haven’t had lunch yet. Also asking for their opinion and allowing them to express it will create goodwill and encourage conversation. Being real means you have to be flexible.

Step 5 is to use their names. Notice that when I introduced this topic I mentioned their names. If you use someone’s name it shows you value them as an individual, that you respect them and what they bring to the table and that you SEE them. Once people are comfortable that you don’t mean them harm, they are okay being seen. At one point, I purposely called Devon “Danielle” to demonstrate how NOT to recognize a team member, and she reacted as I thought she would, surprised and a little miffed. I quickly explained it was a joke and we all had a good laugh.

Step 6 is to laugh and allow laughter. Build in time for discussions and sharing that might lead to natural laughter. Don’t tell “jokes”. They rarely work. Natural laughter works every time.

Step 7 is to be okay with varied levels of engagement. Evan liked to contribute and had lots to say, but he liked to process the information for a second or two before he would raise his hand. Marcel was a little more shy in front of the group, but in one-on-one activities he was all in. Kayla made intense eye contact but could be a little unsure of her contributions with the group. Steve bravely admitted a communication shortcoming that he wanted to work on.

For this group specifically, I noticed a palpable change as we moved through our session. They actually became MORE engaged. They didn’t tune out or get tired, and by the time we got to the dreaded skill practice (role play) they didn’t moan or complain, they diligently worked through the scenarios and enthusiastically got up in front of the class to demonstrate. They then took feedback from the group and I in stride.

So don’t believe the doomsday attention span negative nellies. Maybe our attention span is 7 seconds when scrolling social media or when someone is droning on while reading their PowerPoint to us, but if you make it about them and earn their participation, you’ll notice a huge difference in engagement.

And you just might teach ‘em something.

Thanks for reading!


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