Learner engagement tips: how L&D can capture busy learners' attention

Apr 19, 2022 by Nomadic Team

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One of the main questions we get is: how can we capture and hold learners' attention?

At Nomadic, we have several strategies we use (and help our clients use) to make sure learners are engaged. Today we'll talk about two in particular. First, using storytelling to drive learner engagement. And second, borrowing strategies from marketing and media to make sure you're engaging busy, distracted learners, and keeping them engaged along the way.

1. Use storytelling to engage learners.

Storytelling expert Lisa Cron says storytelling is one of the key abilities that sets us apart as a species. Because we could effectively share, recall, and repeat information about potential threats, humans gained an evolutionary advantage. Stories quite literally make us who we are. Which makes them a particularly effective tool for cutting through the noise, whether that noise is burnout, the transition to hybrid and remote work, shifting work priorities, or anything else that's making it difficult for learners to find time to engage with a learning initiative.

This ability to cut through the noise is why stories are a great way to present new ideas and concepts in learning. Aside from better holding learners' attention than a slide deck or bulleted list, stories also allow for the nuance that leads to great conversation. Not unlike an interesting film or a good book club book, the best learning content spurs reflection, discussion, and even debate. This is especially true in cohort-based learning. In a cohort experience, it's in these discussions that learners fully connect the concepts to their work and lives––making storytelling a key technique for ensuring that learning is not only interesting and engaging, but relevant and applicable, too.

Check out our post that's all about storytelling in cohort experiences for more about what makes for great story-based learning. In it, we share five tips about what makes a story particularly effective driving discussion among learner cohorts and helping learners both understand and apply a new concept to their work.

2. Borrow strategies from marketing and media to drive learner engagement.

This tip comes from SVP of marketing Nomadic, Colette Keane:

When we’re interviewing clients and L&D professionals for market research, the last question I always like to ask is “What’s the one big thing that keeps you awake at night?” Invariably, their answer is almost always some existential worry about the relevance of learning in a world where it has to compete for attention against an ever increasing slew of notifications, algorithms, and distractions.

The trope that we’re living through an “age of distraction” is definitely true. But after a career in marketing and media, I also believe digital learning can learn a lot about how to reach busy learners from other industries and centuries of attention research.

There are two types of human attention: automatic, transitory, shallow attention, and controlled, sustained, voluntary attention. To learn, we have to be in a state of sustained and controlled attention, but arriving there first requires having our automatic, transitory attention piqued and attracted. Assume you’re reaching your learners in a state of distraction, even if you’ve put time on their calendar, and focus on having that first interaction point hook their distracted, transitory attention. Don’t jump right into the deep end of learning or waste time clearing your throat: do use colorful, textural visuals and videos that ideally feature people in them, and use short, to-the-point copy that provokes, entertains, asks them a question directly, or illuminates “a curiosity gap.”

Now that you’ve got their attention, how do you keep it? The answer is surprisingly simple, and hasn’t changed even as our mediums have: real, sustained attention is earned. Don’t skimp on the quality of your content and experience, even if the topic is dry or required: think about how you’d communicate this idea or concept if you were a director or essayist trying to get a broader audience to understand it. As humans, we all just want experiences that are moving, meaningful, and beautiful.

What's next for learner engagement?

Distractions aren't going away, so any effective learning efforts must be strategic about capturing learners' dispersed attention and offering relevant, useful concepts presented in ways that keep learners' attention over time. In the digital learning space, there are lots of exciting possibilities involving social and cohort-based learning, which keeps learner highly engaged through peer interaction. There are also lots of learner engagement strategies outside the realm of the learning experience itself, including offering incentives and recognition to employees who meet certain learning benchmarks.

The most important thing to recognize is that ultimately, it's up to the learning to engage the audience's attention. And that means offering a well-considered, well-designed experience worthy of the learner's time.


To learn more about Nomadic's semi-synchronous cohort-based learning, download your free copy of our report, Why the Future of Learning is Instructorless. In it, we explain how we designed our Academy to put learners at the center (rather than an instructor), to foster lively debate, and to make the learning immediately relevant to cohort members' daily work.

Interested to discover more about what Nomadic’s cohort-based Academy can do for your organization? Learn about our approach, or get in touch to request a demo.

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