“This is really boring!”

Three of our content developers were working hard on creating a training webinar about hybrid communication best practices. They had been refining their talking points for over a week and felt good about how it was coming together. But then came rehearsal day.

As soon as they began rehearsing it aloud, they looked at each other with a knowing glance. That’s when the chorus of groans emerged, as they agreed: Their content was so dull. They wouldn’t want to sit through their own material, so why would anyone else?

Maybe you’ve had a similar epiphany when building your own training. Maybe your eyes glazed over as you stared at a draft you’ve worked tirelessly on, only to sit back and think, “I’m leading this session, and I don’t even want to go to it.”

It takes creativity and effort to craft training that people enjoy attending. But it’s especially important to get right in a virtual and hybrid environment so learners gain the knowledge they need to thrive in the new world of work — and feel a greater sense of belonging along the way. The truth is, the rules of learner engagement have changed, and as trainers, we need to adapt.

Hybrid is Changing the Game for Everyone

As trainers and facilitators in live settings, we knew how to grab our audience’s attention and keep them involved in the discussion. Then, as the world shifted to virtual, we all quickly pivoted to adjust and re-engage learners in new ways using the technology at our disposal. Now, we’re exploring how to bring the best of these two worlds together to ensure all learners feel seen, heard and engaged — especially given that learners are distracted more than ever.

A survey of more than 2,000 Americans found that 54% of those who had recently switched to remote work reported being more distracted at home. Another 29% said they were more distracted at the office. No matter where we work, people find it hard to stay focused.

Not only are learners likely to be distracted, they’re also prone to feeling disconnected from colleagues, especially in a virtual or hybrid environment. Some of this is due to the nature of remote learning itself, which is less immersive than face-to-face training. The very technology we use to interact with learners online creates a barrier between us and them — shrinking the facilitator down to a tiny digital window that dilutes the impact of their words and gestures.

But the way facilitators use technology can further alienate learners. Virtual participants often feel like an afterthought in comparison to those who are in the room. This is especially true if the presenter isn’t actively monitoring the chat or making eye contact with the camera lens. Some participants feel so disconnected they opt out, turning off their cameras and disengaging completely. That kind of disengagement doesn’t bode well for creating effective learning environments — or inclusive cultures, for that matter.

Building inclusive and effective hybrid learning experiences is critical because hybrid is here to stay. In fact, 74% of U.S. companies are currently using or plan to implement permanent hybrid work models. So, the question we must ask as learning and development (L&D) professionals is this: How do we design experiences that truly engage and involve learners in a hybrid world?

Here are four keys to creating effective virtual and hybrid learning experiences.

Always Begin with Empathy

This means putting yourself in the shoes of your participants. Whether they are right in front of you or halfway around the world, are you anticipating how they may be showing up? Better yet, are you giving them what they really need to be successful, regardless of where they are?

Start by thinking about the environment your participants are in and how you can make it more conducive to their learning. How will you greet the in-person attendee who arrives frazzled after battling traffic and needs a few minutes to decompress before diving in? How do you plan to involve the participant who planned to come in-person, but now has to join from home so they can care for a kiddo who suddenly got sick? How about the participant who’s logging on from another country in the dead of night and struggling mightily to stay awake by downing their fourth cup of coffee?

These are very real scenarios. And it’s our job as trainers to think about the different ways our learners are showing up so we can meet them where they are. But we can’t stop at simply putting ourselves in their shoes. We must strategically build training that is inclusive, engaging and ultimately worth their time and attention. And this means taking the time to ensure you’re developing high-quality content.

There’s No Substitute for Great Content

Duarte has long had its own Golden Rule: Never deliver a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through. The same holds true for training.

When crafting a course, we always ask ourselves: “Would I want to sit through this training? Would I be engaged if I were in the learner’s seat?” If not, ask yourself what would be engaging and build your material around that.

An easy place to start is by incorporating storytelling. That’s where the content developers I mentioned earlier realized they needed to shift. So, they went back to the drawing board to rewrite their material, weaving in personal experiences, case studies and anecdotes based on studies and statistics.

Why? Because stories are naturally engaging. They make training content stickier by creating novel experiences that learners will always remember.

The Secret to High Engagement: Bring the Novelty

When it comes to engaging hybrid and virtual presentations, predictability is the enemy. And the way to overcome the predictable is variety. Creating novel experiences adds enough variety to keep learners on the edge of their seats.

Novel experiences flood the brain with dopamine, the chemical associated with rewards, which makes people feel happier and accelerates their learning. Novelty feels like a pleasant change of pace to learners’ brains, reigniting their curiosity and interest.

Research in educational settings found that students start to lose focus 10 minutes into a lecture. Savvy educators can adapt by dividing 60-minute talks into 20-minute chunks and breaking those up with interactivity at least every 10 minutes. The result is increased attention and retention of information.

One way to increase novelty is to create engaging content in consumable bites. That means serving up your ideas in smaller doses, using a variety of content types to cut through the noise, as well as incorporating interactions that help people connect with you and your ideas. The same is true for your visuals and your delivery. Variety in the types of slides you show and the way facilitators speak to them will make the experience more interesting for learners, too.

Minimize Disconnection by Maximizing Interaction

One of your biggest challenges in the virtual space is distractions. You can’t control if a learner gets an urgent text message or if the Amazon driver sets off their dog. That’s why incorporating interactions to refocus attention is a must.

There’s a variety of ways you can engage learners depending on the technology platform you’re using for your training. But generally, interactions fall into three buckets: simple, moderate, and complex.

Simple interactions help participants get acclimated to the session. These are quick interactions that warm up your audience, like sending an emoji in the chat or asking a poll question.

Moderate interactions give learners more opportunities to engage. For instance, ask participants to answer a question in the chat or have them come off mute to share their reactions to a concept.

Complex interactions draw participants into deeper dialogue with you and with one another. Think small-group discussions in breakout rooms or collaborative brainstorms on virtual whiteboards.

As you plan interactions, focus on how you’ll involve both online and in-person participants. You could switch between each group by asking for an in-room volunteer followed by an online volunteer. For an equitable experience, every participant should interact with the same virtual platform to create a shared sense of togetherness.

Hybrid Can Create a Rich Opportunity for Learning

Virtual and hybrid trainings bring some challenges, but they also bring opportunities. Delivering content online expands the possibilities for L&D on a global scale. If done well, you can harness technology in a way that holds participants’ attention and even fosters greater connection between them. And you can train teams with more efficiency than ever before, equipping them to fulfill their roles with excellence and excitement.