Keeping your audience engaged in a virtual setting

It has been more than six months since the start of the quarantine. During this time, I have participated in countless virtual events, primarily as a speaker, facilitator, moderator, teacher and host, and secondarily as a participant. The number of my viewers in these events has ranged from one — like in a one-on-one virtual meeting — to more than a thousand.

I may be used to speaking personally to big crowds, but speaking in a virtual event or facilitating a virtual workshop is not exactly my cup of tea. I had to experiment, observe other virtual speakers and read up on best practices. These led me to conclude that the biggest challenge of a speaker in a virtual setting is how to engage his or her audience and sustain its attention.

This is supported by a 2019 study by Lyons, Nevo, and Albany that showed attendees of a virtual meeting pay attention 41.7 percent of the time, compared with 94.4 percent in a face-to-face one. A 2020 study by Firsch and Greene revealed that attendees often interpret virtual meetings as a license to multitask, making sustaining their attention a problem.

Apart from these, virtual-meeting participants, who already feel stressed out by the pandemic, have difficulty maintaining their gaze on a screen and are experiencing the “Ringelman effect.” Wikipedia explains this effect as the tendency for individual members of a group in a virtual meeting or event to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases.

All these put pressure on the speaker of a virtual event or meeting to keep his or her audience engaged. One strategy I learned and have applied to virtual events and meetings is the “30+3 rule” from Mike Schultz’s book Virtual Selling. It says anyone running a virtual meeting has 30 seconds to capture or lose audience engagement and every three minutes to reachieve it.

This means that if you’re the speaker or facilitator of an event, or teacher in a virtual class, you must use various approaches and tools to keep your audience engaged. But first, you have to master the virtual medium by fixing the basics. This includes the conversation setup, which includes having the right bandwidth and videocall link; the choice of platform; video and lighting setups; background; the position of the head and face in the video; and color contrast.

So how do you engage your audience in the first 30 seconds? One approach is to ask questions and let participants answer either through a microphone if your audience is small or using emoticons in a chat space if it’s large. One favorite and effective question I ask at the start is: “What new skill have you learned during this quarantine?” I always get enthusiastic answers, ranging from learning how to bake or do gardening to fixing the house.

The next challenge is how do you reengage your audience every three minutes? I also use different approaches, from using funny sound effects and conducting online polls to asking the audience for a virtual thumbs-up and running a virtual groupwork. Even in running virtual workshops, you have to keep the audience engaged by using virtual whiteboarding, online collaboration with PowerPoint and spreadsheets, and using other tools to collaborate in real time. The key is quickly maneuvering your hands to click a sound, shift to a new screen or use an online writing tool to highlight the PowerPoint.

This is where investing in a home setup that considers all these aspects becomes requisite.

Leading a virtual meeting or event requires much preparation, just like producing a show.

It requires curating content and activities for audience engagement, preparing for the virtual engagement and practicing how to apply the 30+3 rule before the event.

Those who master this new medium will keep their audience engaged and be ahead in this digital normal. If you want to learn about our programs on keeping the audience engaged, send me an email.


The author is the chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is the chairman of the Information and Communications Technology Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines. He is also a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and the country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia. He teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at