I have seen a few tactics for holding people's attention during virtual events. One is to require everyone present to perform a particular action such as typing a message or clicking an icon, several times during a session. Another is to require cameras on if the platform allows it. I find this patronising and also unnecessary. Perhaps because my audiences are adults, and my only obligation is to deliver great material - not to spoonfeed anyone.
When I teach a class in person, I tell my attendees that the most important thing I am providing is space. Space for them to learn, to ask, to try things, to really take on something new. Sure, I'm providing valuable knowledge and support but really they learn because there's a space for them to do so. That's why conference videos seem flat if you watch them after the event. But if you schedule your conference video viewing time, take lots of notes, and talk about what you saw afterwards? Then the virtual experience can come close (and I need to publish that draft blog post about watch parties).
When I teach a virtual class, I can only create my end of the space. I invite and welcome my attendees' participation. I strive to make my digital content compelling even though we're all tired of video, and I encourage people to use whatever is on the virtual platform to engage with the topic, each other, and me. That's all I can do.
If you want to listen with half an ear, that's your decision although I feel a little sad on your behalf about the opportunity lost. If you want to empty your hands, to lean in and let me lead you through a journey of knowledge, to take this time that we have together and take everything that you can from it? Also your decision and I love that we can make this happen across space (and time, if you're watching a pre-recorded me).
Presenters can never force attention, all we can do is invite it, encourage it, and hold up our own side of the bargain. The rest is up to each attendee to choose whether they invest in themselves - or not.
Also published on Medium.