Interactive resources for incubators and accelerators
Interactive resources for incubators and accelerators
Interactive resources for incubators and accelerators

Engagement and Interaction

How to increase engagement and interaction amongst participants

Engagement and Interaction

Avary: Welcome to Build Back Better. Our section on virtual facilitation. This video will cover engagement and interaction.

So, distractions. Now I think it's a myth that in-person people aren't also grappling with distractions. I can't tell you how many plenaries I've been in where everybody's actually on their phone, dealing with their email, and sort of vaguely listening to whatever the panel is.

But online this can be really amplified. Folks are, you know, answering their emails etc. There's a new layer of distraction in the Covid-19 era of "I'm home with kids. I've got a crazy dog. I've got 20 other things that are happening behind me." And so I think categorising those distractions becomes really important. Both asking people to be really present to the experience. So not checking email or phone calls unless urgent. And at the same time naming and acknowledging, "Hey, if your kid needs you we respect that. Take care of your life." That personal professional boundary is going to just continue to be a little more blurred in this age.

Michael: Yeah and the only thing I would add to that is that really gives people permission to stay present by naming the various ways that they might not be present. They're actually much more likely to stay engaged throughout right? So the in-person analog to that would be, "Hey if you feel like you need to stretch or get up or go to the restroom, do it. We're all adults here, take care of yourself first." And mentioning that at the beginning can be so so helpful.

Avary: So our second topic is on successful small groups. So similar to what we just talked about in the previous video, depending on how many small groups you have, or your resources, it can be really helpful to have somebody who is actually deputised to be running that small group or to be facilitating that. And, depending on the purpose of your small group, you may actually need folks to step into different roles.

So if it's an activity just like trio storytelling, you don't really need individual facilitators or roles. But if it's essentially a small working group, you may need to have somebody who is going to be facilitating, somebody who's going to be taking notes, and somebody who's going to be responsible for essentially summarising what happened for the group back to the main room.

Michael: Yeah the only thing I'd add to that one is online the specific intent of a small group wants to be really thought out. So it's it never wants to be, "Hey we're gonna split you into groups of five and you're gonna talk about this for six minutes and then you're gonna come back you're gonna talk about this for 15 minutes." It won't work as well. So really making sure you have specific questions or specific activities and guidelines so that people know exactly what.

Avary: One other piece I would add is that timing for small groups is very different. So in a, you know, half day or day long convening you may be very accustomed to having a 45 minute breakout room where folks are going deep. You really can't do that well online. At least not unless you're using a totally different structure like Hopin where it really is a day long convening.

So for successful small groups, we do recommend about 20 minutes as kind of the upper threshold of how long folks are going to be able to do that. And part of that is you also just start creating very parallel or different tracks for folks, where you know the more time people are spending, the more divergent your small groups are getting from each other. And the much harder is to do any kind of sense making or drawing people back together at the end.

Michael: Yeah, and sometimes you want that divergence because sometimes it's really great to see, "Oh wow you were considering the exact same criteria data and you went in wildly different directions. Isn't that interesting?" And then come together that way.

Avary: I would totally agree with that and I would say the implication of that on your agenda is that you then need to really invest in the sense making time on the back end.

Michael: Right, absolutely.

Avary: Because, and this is, I've seen this true with just facilitation across the board. We love the brainstorming and the divergence and so, we'll do all this time and what's the possibilities and what's out there. And then we almost always shortchange the sense making into some really messed up format like report outs that don't really do anything. And so making sure that if you are going to invest in that divergence, that you have time for people to really cross-pollinate.

One technique is actually cross-pollinated small groups. So you could actually re-randomise it so that people from both groups end up in logic - I don't know how to frame this -

Michael: Different groups. And they start talking to each other and sharing the ideas that way.

Avary: A and b, and get crossed together and become c and d, and they can each kind of share with each other what their experience was.

Michael: I think core to that, is that idea of is, if you're going to encourage that kind of divergent exploration, then that has to be a central design feature of your entire gathering. As opposed to, "Oh isn't this fun? Um, anyway, moving on." Really honouring that divergence.

Avary: Great. The third piece is the power of thinking time. So you know this is something we do all the time in in-person facilitation and experience design, where we give people space to process. And we give introverts a chance to get their thoughts in order. And it is not something that we're really accustomed to doing in a virtual environment.

So as you experienced in the last call, giving people a minute, three minutes to think about what they're gonna say or what you want them to focus on can be really powerful.

I have yet to do this virtually but I'm itching to. One of my favourite tactics or techniques is the freewriting exercise, where you actually have people go off and write for 10 minutes. I'll let you know how that goes when I actually get to try it with a group.

How about you Michael? What's your favourite?

Michael: I've done that. I love the freewriting and I've done it with the group and it works so well. So I'll actually direct them for certain kinds of groups, and I do a lot of story work. I'm like, "Is there a place in nature nearby? Is there a place where you can sit in the sun? Go there. Here's the question for you to consider. Freewrite on it and come back and we'll process together."

And it can be incredibly powerful, even for strategy sessions because people just kind of access a different level of intelligence. And they're always surprised by how much commonality there is, and what came out during that freewriting exercise.

Avary: Beautiful. So which baby animal is next?

Michael: I don't actually know what this is. Some sort of fox, possibly photoshopped, but it's adorable.

Michael: Look at those eyes. That's amazing. Yeah.

Avary: There's no way that's not photoshopped. But anyway it's super cute. We'll see you on the next one. Bye.


When we want to increase engagement in an online environment, naming can be a powerful tool.

Take a moment to ask for people to be present in the conversation. You might also name the ways that may prohibit people from being truly present on the call, such as turning off their camera.


Distraction happens both in-person and online, however, the virtual world gives people more power and opportunities to check out.

Small Groups

Small groups are one of the best tools to support participants to feel connected to each other and to be able to have more in-depth conversations. Online, we find that small groups tend to need about 20 minutes at the high end for connecting.

However, this can depend on what you want to uncover. If, for instance, you would like to highlight some similarities or differences in the group, make sure that you add a little bit of time for people to come together and share what they discussed.

This dedicated time for ‘sense-making’ gives people a chance to really catch up and understand what others have explored.

Thinking Time

Providing specific thinking time is another powerful tool for online facilitation.

There are different techniques you can use to provide people with space to process their thoughts.

Try giving people 30 seconds to one minute to think about their answer before you invite people to share, or using a longer free-writing exercise where people have a chance to really process what they’ve experienced.


Extroverts, people who process externally and who love to speak up, can easily dominate the conversation. In an online environment it is important to also create space for introverts and internal processors so that they can contribute more fully to the conversation.


On-Camera Performance

How to craft an engaging and connecting persona online