What’s the best way to powerfully engage attendees during a leadership seminar?

Hi. I used to teach leadership & psychology at West Point…and have been asked to teach/present a leadership seminar. The workshop on leadership (areas of focus in include physical/emotional rituals, behaviors that derail leaders, human performance engineering & a leadership vision for themselves & their organization). This content meets the needs of the client who’s paying for my work…so the issue of WHAT to pitch is set.

My question is this: what techniques or approaches have you seen (or used) that get the attendees’ attention, reactions and engagement?

For example, am thinking about starting with (1) having several people talk about their current role/responsibilities and (2) then suggesting that “what skills abilities got them HERE may not take them to the next level in their career. Later, will walk them through designing/writing their own vision statement.

Many thanks! Jack

Jack Cage

President, Cage Talent

One recommendation that I would make to anyone that leads these types of sessions would be to pick up a copy of “Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas” by Jordan Ayan. About 10 years ago, I had the pleasure of being in a workshop that he was brought in to moderate and it made me think about meetings and training in a completely different way. Even for something as simple as a project planning meeting or something as complex as corporate strategy development, the ideas and techniques for brainstorming and engagement still apply.

On a more immediate note, here are a few tricks that I use (some are pretty basic, but worth repeating):

1. Start the meeting on-time.
This sounds like a trivial item. But being late for a meeting is a subconcious statement that says “My time is more important than yours”. By starting on time, you’re immediately setting that stage for playing by the rules. I have a little trick to keep the upper hand and still allow for people playing this game. I put an agenda up on the projector that shows “Meeting room seating & setup – 10:00am, Meeting Start – 10:05”. Beleive it or not, it actually throws people to find out that they’re on-time. If someone is still actually late, make a point of dragging them in, getting the introduction and opening feedback, etc. DON’T let them sneak in to the meeting and skulk in the shadows.

2. Lay out the groundrules up-front.
-In the meeting everyone is equal. No levels or reporting structure
-Respect all opinions
-Agree to disagree. Make your point and move on
-Personality clashes and history need to get left at the door. All discussions need to be in the context of moving forward and not getting mired in history.

3. Have another person with you moderating or presenting. As a solo speaker, you may miss things going on in the room and the two of you can keep each other on track. Also, the occassional switching back and forth between speakers will often be enough to refocus your attendees (“Did the topic change? Are they asking a question?”)

4. At the beginning of the session, ask for introductions, but also ask what each person expects to get out of the meeting. Having a second person taking notes during this exercise is incredibly valuable. If you notice someone fading, try to tie a point back to what the individual said. eg: “And in this next slide we can see how we might address Jack’s goals of engaging his staff…” Nothing snaps a person back more than hearing their own name and having the room temporarily focus on them. Followup and ask if they see the connection or can think of ways to apply what has been said.

5. Don’t just ask for volunteers, get into the habit of polling around the entire room for feedback on key points. Start early to avoid embarassing anyone. Later on, find opportunities to poll the room whenever attention starts to waver.

6. Reward and encourage questions. A lot of people like to ask questions as a way to demonstrate their own insight and intelligence or, in some cases, to try to trip up the speaker. Try and use questions as an opportunity to get feedback from your attendees rather than as a platform for lecturing. eg: “How many other people have this issue? Can anyone offer suggestions on the best way to address this? Has anyone been successful in working through this issue? How?”. Once you have the feedback, you can add your own spin and answers. Use a lot of positive feedback like “That’s a great question.”, “I like that answer”, “I haven’t heard that approach before, That’s a really innovative solution”

7. Find opportunities to break the room up into small groups for problem solving, list building, etc. Mix up the groups throughout the day.

8. Force the group to have lunch together. Again, this sounds like a trivial thing, but you’ll get an additional level of comfort and openness that comes out of casual lunch time interaction.

John Benfield also suggests this expert on this topic:

  • Jordan Ayan