5 Activities to Grab Your Learners' Attention and Gain Their Buy-In

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You have to prove your class is worth their time.

Adults are motivated to show up for learning by their desire to solve a problem in their lives. To invest energy in your session adults want to know that you understand how the problem impacts them and how your class might help them get relief. And you have just a few minutes at the start of your class to sell it!

If you want to prove your lesson’s relevance and your credibility as a guide, use buy-in activities as a sales pitch at the start of your class. Carefully crafted buy-in activities are critical for getting learners to decide to stay in the room and give your session a chance.

Buy-in activities can even help mandated learners recognize a need or issue that they didn’t realize they had, which helps shift the energy in the room from,“They made me come here,” to “Okay, I’ll hang out for awhile and see if there is something I can use.”

Whether mandated or voluntary, topic-related buy-In activities help prepare your learners emotionally and cognitively for the content you will teach because they stimulate focus and enhance motivation for the topic you are introducing.

Since the bulk of my early teaching experience was with mandated, initially resentful learners, I made early and avid use of creative, surprising, emotion-touching, and often provocative attention gaining buy-in activities to get us over the hump of their slump, slouch, eye-rolling or otherwise more dramatic protests.

Start with a topic-related experience that exposes the issue and touches their emotions.

Because I don’t want to stand in front of a hostile, dismissive audience for long, I move as quickly as I can to the buy-in activity – often before community agreements, announcements, and certainly before sharing the course or workshop outcomes. No one cares about those outcomes anyway until they’ve had an experience that creates a climate of emotional receptivity to them.

To create an emotion-touching experience I’ve used topic-related hair-rising stories up to the crisis, surprising statistics, newspaper articles, film clips, provocative questions and polls, and even metaphors to introduce my topic, grab learner attention and win their buy-in for participating in the session.

Seal buy-in with the session outcome and an invitation to personalize it.

After a compelling buy-in activity I move to seal commitment by sharing the session outcome and asking learners to think about how this issue shows up in their life and what they’d like to be able to do about it. I invite learners to write out this desire by shaping the session outcome into a personalized learning goal.

Example 1:

If the outcome is to craft a resume that will get them an interview in their field, then one individual goal might be that the learner will craft a resume that demonstrates how her previous work, volunteer or educational experiences have uniquely prepared her for the job she desires.

Example 2:

If the outcome is to set age-appropriate boundaries with children that provide nurture and structure to support development, then one individual learning goal might be to create a set of routines for a 3 and 5 year old to make bath and bedtime go more smoothly.

Buy-in activities turn the learning over to the learner.

These individualized outcomes, prompted by the provocative, compelling buy-in activity touch the learners’ emotions and cause them to call up from long-term memory existing topic-related knowledge or frustrations. This then becomes what drives the learner to engage with my session. The session is no longer about what I want to teach but about what topic-related issue or problem the learner wants to resolve through his/her participation in class that day.

Adapt these five buy-in activities to your content.

Here are 5 buy-in activities I’ve created and used with success, along with their session outcomes to stimulate focus and motivation for even less-than-thrilling topics.

How can you adapt these activities to build buy-in, focus and motivation for your topics?

#1 Hair-raising cliffhanger stories

A buy-in activity I use frequently for presentation skills or classroom management workshops is to share two true stories about my own experiences with challenging learner behavior. I select stories that fit my audience. I have experience teaching in many settings with a variety of audiences so if need be I can draw from teaching in prison and jail, mandated parents in the community, graduate students, young adults in community college, social service practitioners, other trainers, or even social science researchers.

I select two relevant stories and tell them right up to the crisis or cliffhanger. Two I've shared include:

Then I ask my audience if they can relate. 

Everyone loves a story, especially ones that show you've faced the same challenges they face and you know what they are going through. I have watched people move from closed body language to openly leaning forward and nodding, while mirroring my facial expressions when I share the above stories up to the crisis point.

Having their memories and emotions heightened (the trainer understands my problem) I transition to the session outcome – You will use brain-based classroom strategies to respond respectfully and helpfully to learner emotions and behavior while keeping your learning event on track (relief for my problem is in this session)Focus and motivation have come online!

I promise to share the story endings throughout the day as we explore the strategies I used to resolve the crisis in each one.

To seal buy-in, I invite learners to think of their own classroom crises for which they’d like a better ending and turn that into a learning goal.

These are shared in pairs, at table teams or in the large group. With a very large group, I still ask to hear some of their goals so I know what is alive for folks and what they are hoping to resolve in the training.

These stories could introduce and get buy-in for many kinds of skills sessions related to dealing with challenging behavior – responding to the objections of others regarding a new proposal, talking with an upset intimate partner, collaborating with an estranged co-parent, are just a few examples.

How can you use the hair-rising story up to the crisis to build buy-in for your session topic?

 #2 Stickers for eliciting deeply held attitudes and beliefs

In a financial management curriculum for low-income earners who wanted to be able to save and invest, I needed to find a way to elicit learners’ deeply held attitudes and beliefs about money so they could be examined by learners for their helpfulness in meeting individual financial goals.

Since this was the first lesson of the course I had to find a light-touch, fun way to do this that wouldn’t be too threatening. My buy-in activity to accomplish this was to present learners with a wide array of stickers that expressed a diversity of beliefs and attitudes about money. Here is a small sampling of what I made available.

The invitation is to select a sticker that best represents their relationship with money and to make a name tag and place the sticker on the nametag. Then they are asked to introduce themselves at their tables of four by saying how their sticker represents their relationship with money. This produces lots of laughter and knowing nods, surfacing the attitudes and beliefs that either support or challenge the accomplishment of the financial goals which they will set later in the session.

This activity was followed by the outcome: You will monitor and adjust your family budget to increase what you own, decrease what you owe, and build financial wealth over time to achieve your financial goals.

Next learners are invited to personalize this outcome by creating a specific goal related to their financial hopes and dreams, whether that is a home of their own, a college education for their children, or saving to start a business. With the sticker activity fresh in their minds and their focus and motivation piqued, they can reflect upon the viability of their money beliefs in supporting their financial hopes and dreams, with no lecture from me.

You can find stickers for almost anything, just search online. I found these by searching for stickers about money.

How can you use the sticker nametag activity to surface important attitudes and beliefs for further exploration in your topic area?

#3 A noticing activity to reveal blind spots

To open a session on the importance of observation and paying attention – whether for trainers, parents, safety professionals or preschool teachers – I ask participants to form pairs and just appreciate the person standing across from them with their eyes. I ask them to silently and respectfully notice (without being creepy) what a fine human being is standing across from them.

Then I ask them to stand with their backs to each other and to quietly change three things about their appearance. When everyone indicates by a raise of their hand that they are ready, I ask the pairs to face each other again and name the 3 things their partner changed. As each pair finishes, they sit down.

When all are seated I ask for a raise of hands of those who noticed all three changes, two changes, one change or no changes. Of course, everyone looks around to see how well they did in comparison with their peers. And yes, there is always someone who notices nothing or only one thing. And many are often surprised at what they missed, stimulating both focus and motivation! This is a perfect segue to an intended learning outcome focused on honing one’s observation abilities to meet a personal or professional goal, based on the group with whom I am working.

With self-awareness heightened, I share the outcome for the session. Then I invite participants to shape the outcome into a personal learning goal around developing or refining their powers of observation (when, how, what) related to the larger outcome – safety, better service, enhanced communication, whatever is relevant for the group I am training.

I’ve used this activity with all kinds of groups as observation is a foundational skill for many work and life settings. I’ve used it with parents needing to alert themselves to their teen’s potential drug or alcohol use, preschool teachers who need to ensure safety in early childhood environments, and safety professionals who are checking for compliance in workplace settings, to name a few.

How can you adapt this observation activity to stimulate focus, motivation and buy-in for your observation-related topic?

#4 A metaphor for gaining buy-in for a complex set of skills

Several weeks ago I shared my buy-in activity for introducing a twelve-week course on parenting from prison. How in the world do you get incarcerated parents, many of whom have not found educational experiences rewarding, to buy-in to participating in a 90 hr. program with homework on top of it?

A familiar metaphor that compares all the skills of parenting to a road trip and gives parents a chance to show what they already know about being good parents is my interactive sales pitch. Focus and motivation are lit up.

This metaphor activity became such a successful first day buy-in activity that parents picked up the road trip language and used it in class to reference what they were doing with their kids in visits and on panels when they spoke about the program to family court judges and child welfare caseworkers interested in the program. Picking up on and owning this activity for themselves, parents added great new language to the metaphor which I eagerly added to the next round of edits to the curriculum! I won’t repeat that activity here, but if you missed it, you can read a step-by-step explanation of how I designed and used the metaphor buy-in activity here.

#5 A movie clip to gain buy-in for a boring skills session

Sometimes you have to sell a session that isn’t inherently exciting, such as a class on becoming a better listener. A buy-in activity I’ve used to grab attention and generate interest in an effective listening skills session is to use a provocative movie clip in which one of the characters demonstrates very poor listening, causing the speaker to become more and more outrageous in trying to gain the poor listener's attention. After showing the clip I ask learners if they can relate, and to share a little bit about a time when they were not listened to. This always generates a lot of energy and engagement.

I describe how I use this activity and segue into the outcome and goal setting for the session in a previous post. You can read that step-by-step activity here.

Gaining buy-in is critical for launching the brain processes that lead to transformative learning and is an effective first activity for brain-based teaching.

What kinds of attention gaining and buy-in activities have you used to engage your learners?

Please share your great ideas or questions in the comments below.