How to engage online audiences

How to engage online audiences is a real challenge. There are a multiplicity of distractions and the audience has learned, very quickly, that the majority of online presentations are worse than their in-person brothers. The challenge to engage the audience is essential and is multi-layered. Audiences want to be engaged. As presenters, we must meet that challenge.

Please write down your reason for failing to engage with the last presentation you sat through. It may be a challenge to even remember the presentation but try to identify the main reason, they may be others, but the principal reason you failed to engage. Was it related to the message, the media or the delivery?

Now tell me why you didn’t write down the answer to the question that you were explicitly asked to do.

It’s odd isn’t it? We make decisions for many and complex reasons but if there is little perceived value in engaging, answering questions or using the chat to engage with the professor, most audience members will make alternative choices. Sadly, we have been conditioned to expect little in the way of online presentations and usually within a few minutes (or less) our hopes have been dashed as we realise it is another one of those. And we get our phones out.

There is no single “way” to engage an audience in an online presentation. The audience must care about the message. This can be by challenge, question or discussion. Seek their opinions, their fears, their successes related to the topic. This can be virtual, direct, written or even delayed but it leads to higher-order thinking about the issue. Consider the chat option, directed questions, discussion or even social media posts. Remember the challenges and risks this brings but give time and space to allow this. And then signal the return of attention to the speaker. Practise beforehand. Breakout rooms, altho popular, are unmoderated and may add distraction. Be creative. Make mistakes and learn.

Beyond this, the three components of p cubed must be addressed as they all provide engagement. Each of these points must be addressed. Each has been discussed before; please search for them. (PS this is engagement)

The message must be relevant and valuable for the specific audience. It should last no more than 17 minutes in total. Remember that time for engagement passes quickly. The message must not simply be a list of facts. It should have a structure that leads the audience to engage in higher-order thinking. It should challenge, ask questions (not simply of fact) and most importantly it should persuade the audience that change is required. This is Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. It should have three sections, each complete in itself but together that lead the audience to the objective the presenter has set in construction. It should force reflection and discussion. There must be a single, memorable message from which the audience can reconstruct their experience.

The supportive media must not dominate the presentation; the face of the presenter is more important. Media should be clear and support the message. It must not be the message, script or handout. The best slide is not there; the best slide is the speaker. Presenters must master the tool of delivery such that this can be achieved. A handout is valuable but must be separate and delivered after the event.

The delivery must be directly into the camera of a well lit face and upper torso. Maximise the camera angle. The background should be curated, tidy, and not blurred. Unless it is a small group ask the audience to turn off their video. The audio should be crisp and without echo. Assign a wingman to mute audience members with an open microphone unless questions are being asked. The presenter’s speaking voice must be clear and at a slower pace than a live performance. There should be the use of changes in volume and pace and drama. The presenter should beseech the attention and opinion of the audience by their words and actions and expression. Test and maximise this before the presentation.

A presentation can only be engaging if the presenter signals that intention at the beginning of the piece and directly meets the audience with the question, interaction and challenge. It is up to the audience whether that is successful and sadly previous experience will colour that. (you still haven’t answered my original request) Ensure that the p cubed set-up of the piece makes all this more likely. Plan, practise and stare into the green dot as though it is your front row. If you engage the audience, that is the first step.

1 Comment

  1. Katharine Arnold

    Dear Mr Fisher,

    I am a Sheffield graduate, an ST5 geriatrics/GIM trainee and the current chief resident of Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester. This is part of Hampshire Hospitals Foundation Trust, which also includes hospitals in Andover and Basingstoke.

    I am emailing on behalf the Junior Doctor Awards committee. We organise a yearly awards ceremony for all junior doctors to recognise excellence in all areas of medical practice.

    As part of our planned award ceremony in 2023, we are looking to find an outside speaker to give our keynote address and would be very interested to have you speak to us. Our trust director of medical education was very impressed by your talk on kintsugi, and I myself am particularly interested in managing fear in medicine

    Our award ceremony is on Friday 9.6.23. We will be about 120, mostly junior doctors with some consultants, and we would give you up to an hour including questions.

    Please let me know if that is something you might be interested in. Hopefully you can see my email below!

    Thank you very much,



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