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Is there a difference between engaging training and effective training?

I cannot count how many times I’ve been in a training session in which the speaker opens with some sort of variation on the following: “Good morning! I want today’s session to be highly engaging and interactive, so be sure to ask questions!”

Inviting learners to ask questions during a session might be one way to engage them. Playing a game of Jeopardy might also be an engagement strategy.

But are these strategies effective?

Over the next few minutes, I’ll take a closer look at the difference between engaging training and effective training.


Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn and I’m your host. And I’m also the co-founder of a company called Endurance Learning. Today’s podcast takes a look at the differences between training that is engaging and training that’s effective because they’re not necessarily the same thing. 

Before I get into that debate a little bit more, I want to make sure that you know that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for just 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing the live, instructor-led training – that can either be in-person or virtual. How it works is that you tell the computer how long your presentation is going to be, how many people are going to attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are. And Soapbox will instantly generate a training plan for you with clusters of training activities that are designed to help you accomplish your learning objectives in both an engaging way, and also an effective way. If you want more information about this, go ahead and visit

Is the Goal of Your Training Program to be Engaging or Effective?

Just because people are engaged doesn't mean they're going to leave your session with improved knowledge, skills, or abilities.

All right. Now let’s talk about engaging versus effective, and maybe we should start with some definitions. To this day, engaging seems to be the holy grail of training design, right? That’s the perception. “I don’t want my presentation to be boring. I’ve planned an engaging session that I think will be highly interactive.” Those are ways that people, kind of, describe their training plans. But when we take a step back to ask, “what is the purpose of training in the first place?” Engaging may not be our ultimate goal. True, you do not want people to be bored. On the other hand, just because people are engaged doesn’t mean they’re going to leave your session with improved knowledge, skills, or abilities. Don’t get me wrong, I think engagement is important. My company Endurance Learning’s vision is that every learning experience is engaging. But we didn’t end our vision there. The complete sentence is that “every learning experience is engaging and leads to change.” 

Effectiveness should really be the holy grail of a training program. That’s that “leading to something different.” So let’s pause here and get on the same page with a few definitions. And these may not necessarily be the way that you would define these terms on your own. But for the purposes of the next few minutes in this podcast, this is how we’re going to use these terms. 

The Meaning Behind “Engaging” and “Effective” When It Comes to Training?

Engaging means that your learners are fully present and they’re interacting in some way, shape or form with your content. Effective means that your learners walk away with improved abilities to do something new or different or better as a result of your program. 

Can Engaging and Effective Overlap in Training?

All right. So how are these concepts overlapping and how are they different? An effective program is generally also engaging. But an engaging program, while usually enjoyable – it may even be fun – isn’t necessarily effective, especially if you think about effectiveness in relation to your learning objectives or your learning outcomes. A game of Jeopardy, for example, can be a fun way to get people involved and it may even review some of your concepts. However, if your learning outcomes go beyond just knowing how to answer trivia questions about your content, if people need to be able to do something, then your Jeopardy game may be falling short of being effective. 

Tips for Designing Effective Instructor-Led Training

All right. So how do we know if activities are effective or if they’re “merely engaging”? The best way to begin is by looking at your learning objectives. And if you want more information about learning objectives, there is another short podcast that I recently recorded that goes into a ton of detail about learning objectives. But basically if you have the right learning objectives, effective activities almost write themselves.

Your learning objectives - sometimes they're also called learning outcomes - should point you in the right direction for effectiveness.

Your learning objectives – sometimes they’re also called learning outcomes – should point you in the right direction for effectiveness. So if your learning objective is that participants will be able to compare and contrast the old way with the new way of doing things, then a game of Jeopardy may be engaging, but it doesn’t show you whether people can actually compare and contrast anything.

If you want people to show you they can compare and contrast something, then we need to give them an opportunity to do so. Have them do a Venn diagram activity or have participants debate the merits of the old versus the new way. If your learning objective is that participants will be able to demonstrate the four steps in your sales process, then you need to give participants an opportunity to demonstrate through role play, probably, your sales process. 

Tips for Designing Effective Elearning

So all these tips work well for instructor-led training, but what about elearning? It still goes to your learning objectives, which is why branching scenarios or choose-your-own-adventure style elearning can be cool, but they’re not always necessary to be effective. Now, if you do want people to practice their decision-making skills or simulate some sort of scenario, then yes, a branching style elearning is important. It can also be expensive and it can be complicated to build, but it’s important for effectiveness.

However, If your learning objective is the learners will be able to demonstrate focus and being present. Then you don’t need something that’s branching. You don’t even need a ton of elearning development. Just have some sort of instruction on your screen or activity where your elearning instructs people to take out a piece of paper and spend 30 seconds drawing a spiral with even spacing between each line, as you circle the paper. Then have people reflect on the concepts of focus and being present. Just because you’re developing elearning doesn’t mean that having your participants engaged in a self-guided offline activity can’t help with effectiveness. 

Engaging Training is Good, But Effective Training is Better

Effectiveness especially in the context of your learning objectives is why learning programs exist.

So you do need to think of the differences between engaging, which is definitely a goal, but it’s not the ultimate goal. It’s good, but it is not the ultimate good that comes out of training. Effectiveness, especially in the context of your learning objectives, is why learning programs exist. 

That’s all I have to share with you right now. So thank you for listening to this podcast. If you know someone who might find today’s topic on the idea of engagement versus effectiveness to be important, please do pass along the link to this podcast. If you want to make sure that you are notified of a new podcast, when it’s hot off the press, go ahead subscribe at Apple or Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Even better would be if you were able to like, or give a review of the podcast. It’ll just take you a minute, but it would mean a lot to me. It would get us more listeners. If you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development strategies, you can pick up a copy of my book, What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements For Impactful Training at If you ever need help with any of your learning programs, whether you want to boost engagement or hopefully boost effectiveness, go ahead and drop me a line at And until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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