There are many ways to implement engagement in a virtual session, but there is one way to ensure it: you must have participants’ attention first.

Psychologically speaking, there are various types of attention. Here are 2 types we can consider because they dictate the type of enagement we deliver.

1. Experiential attention.

You know this type of attention if you’re involved in a project you’re particularly fond of, or if you play a musical instrument, or hear a piece of music that touches you – this is involuntary attention. Some people like Van Gogh or Virginal Wolf were entirely immersed in what they were doing; for them an event would be a state of rapture. Some people have experiential attention each time they hear a bubbling brook, or see a sunset: it is an almost mystical moment. But realistically, how often does that happen at work or more so, how often does that happen in a virtual session?

Transitions are important for a successful speechEngaged in rapt contemplation

Obviously, you would not want this type of experiential attention in the workplace all the time: it would be dangerous if an airline pilot suddenly engaged in rapt contemplation of the starry skies. Or some of your employees become completely fascinated by the aesthetics in your PowerPoint and did not focus on your message.

However, every so often, it is important to consider that it is possible and beneficial to use a virtual platform to provide an experience versus merely catering to just a goal–oriented, task-focused meeting.

2. Instrumental attention

Some people are very pragmatic, turned on by goals and checklists and agendas. They don’t get carried away by feelings, thoughts, or sensory stimulation. Their attention is very instrumental. You’ve wittnessed this type of attention when a presenter started with: “Let’s get right to it: the objective for this meeting is…”

Which attention type is more important to attract in order to generate virtual engagement? Consider including a mixture of both, in different percentages, depending on what you wish to achieve during your sessions. A combination is possible.

Mozart traveled to Leipzig once and heard Bach perform for the first time. He immediately asked “What’s this?” and then became totally immersed in the sounds. After a while, he exclaimed: “this is a person a fellow can learn from”. Mozart listened to the music both experientially and instrumentally because after this moment, even though he got lost in the sound, he could produce what he heard note by note from beginning to end.

How does this relate to virtual sessions? Consider the contrasting list below:

Experiential virtual session

  • Asking Qs is essential
  • Non-linear
  • Chat box, polls
  • Longer session

Instrumental virtual session

  • PowerPoint is essential
  • Scripted, linear
  • Less flash
  • Shorter session

When you’re after the experience, you ask questions because questions are more important than the answers, and the process of asking is more important – these are brainstorming, highly collaborative sessions, more fluid, with no strict sequence or agenda. This is when PowerPoint is not important. You take advantage of the chat box, polling questions – the interactivity level is high and because of this, the sessions can be longer.

By contrast, if you have an instrumental, pragmatic purpose, the answers are more important, PowerPoint is more important, you’re likely more scripted, rehearsed, formal, and linear. There is less glitz and flash to what you show and say and do. And because of this, consider making sessions shorter!

Appealing to both attention types impacts memory

What I am noticing in many virtual presentations is that many presenters err on the side of calling for too much instrumental attention, and not enough for the experiential type. Attendees will grant us attention for pragmatic goals but that type of attention does not always convert to long-term memory. Experiential attention influences feelings and because of the emotion involved, long-term memory is impacted more. This means that hours or weeks after your session, viewers may not remember much of what we said (when we instrumentally appealed to their attention), but they will remember how we made them feel (when we experientally appealed to their attention). If the latter is missing, the result may be: an entirely forgettable presentation.

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