Ask yourself – how did they feel?

quote from Carl W. Buehner

Getting up in front of a class is never easy. Whether it’s a group of fitness participants or a classroom of first-year students, it is natural to hope we win them over with a spectacular presentation and sparkling material. We have an opportunity to engage our audience and share our knowledge but, for this to happen effectively, we need to be able to hold their attention and create engagement.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, I was teaching 5+ fitness classes a week during my maternity leave from Brock University. In a flash, gyms closed and in-person classes were effectively shut down indefinitely. I began to experiment with Zoom and eventually started offering online fitness classes to my contacts and friends, learning a great deal about technology in the process.

The changes that hit the fitness industry during the pandemic were novel, exciting, and a little bit scary. Suddenly, people had so many choices for working out; new apps seemed to emerge weekly and it was impossible to stay on top of all the free fitness content that was being churned out on social media channels and YouTube. On the one hand, as someone who LOVES finding new fitness ideas, this new world was full of possibility; on the other, it was a reminder that I needed to reflect on what value I brought (or could bring) to my own classes.

I began to absorb all of the material that I could find on engagement, exploring ways to build community in fitness classes, listen to my participants and add value to their class experience. I read books by Joe Navarro, a retired FBI agent who is an expert on body language. I listened to podcasts on the group fitness experience and how to use all five senses to create a memorable experience. I surveyed my participants to learn more about their goals and what would help them succeed.

I am not an expert on the topic by any stretch but what I discovered is summed up nicely in the quote at the opening of this post – people remember how you made them feel. You can share interesting exercise facts, have the most amazing playlist and have a smoke machine going but, if your participants don’t walk away feeling good about the class and themselves, it won’t matter! Yes, the music can help create an emotion and staying on top of fitness education is so important, but how you made them feel in class will always win out.

We are emotional creatures and how we feel about an experience will shape whether or not we want to come back (and what we tell our friends).

I began to think about my library teaching with this new lens. How could I create great experiences in a library session where the content and audience was so different? Again, I returned to that simple idea – people remember how you make them feel. I began checking in with students at the beginning of a class to see how they were feeling (for example about online learning), using Mentimeter to allow them to answer anonymously. I tried to use student names as they answered questions and made sure to thank them for their attention. I built in stretch breaks and tried to dig deeper into their experiences. I ran a book club to better understand the stressors that students were facing.

So how can we give people all the feels? (in a fitness class or in a library classroom!)

At the core of creating a great experience is to think about what your class experience is like for your participant. Is it a positive and uplifting experience? Do you make a point of getting to know them, their goals and their challenges? Do you share positive energy or are you grumbling about your day?

Consider the following as you plan and reflect on classes:

  • body language– does your posture demonstrate confidence and warmth? (e.g. uncrossed arms, relaxed shoulders) are you smiling as you greet people?
  • how we speak – what is the tone of your voice? can you use a students’ name? can you provide moments for pause and reflection? do we ask them questions or just lecture?
  • what we speak – do we speak with kindness or do we show off what we know, as an expert? do we speak in language appropriate to the audience? (e.g. does a fitness class need to know we are working our deltoids or can we just say shoulders? *this is your call!) do we encourage or do we scold?
  • if we validate – this point is straight from Joe Navarro and I think it’s essential! Validation, Navarro writes, “is key to creating positive feelings as well as social harmony.” What this might look like in a fitness class could be a quick thumbs up to a participant from the front of the room or a pat on the back at the end of a class, noticing how hard someone worked that day (we generally like our hard work to be noticed!). In a research consultation it could be listening with and empathizing with a student as they mention some of the challenges they have been having finding sources for their paper (I think librarians do this really well!). In a classroom setting it could be as simple as saying “I really appreciate your attention this morning – I know it’s an early morning class and we are all just having our coffee!”
  • our energy and enthusiasm – can we set the stage by exuding the type of energy we hope to create in the class? Some topics are more exciting than others. There are days when you have a stressful event happen right before a class. While I don’t think we should suppress our feelings, I personally feel that – if you are able (emotionally) to continue on and teach – the class is ultimately about the students. If you shift your focus from what has happened to you to what they are experiencing, it can help you get through the class and also prevent your negative experience from shading the tone of the class.

Are Rock Star Instructors just born?*

*disclaimer – I do not consider myself a rock star instructor lol

I think it’s easy to assume that the best teachers have natural charisma and skills that we will never have. We probably all know that rock star fitness instructor or that professor who has won awards for their amazing lectures. Of course some people are dynamic presenters by nature but many more have honed their presentation skills intentionally.

The experience of teaching online through COVID improved my skills more than anything else has ever done. I truly believe it was the combination of reflecting on my teaching (editing videos of classes and witnessing every awkward moment), actively exploring how to improve my teaching, and the reality that – in a world with so many class options – participants deserved to have the best possible experience.

Simply asking yourself how people feel at the end of a class is an easy way to reflect on your teaching. Even better, asking the participants to share with you how they felt OR watching yourself on video can be scary but illuminating.

These are my best suggestions but I would love to hear yours too! One thing I didn’t explore in this post is the role that physical touch plays in how others feel (it can have a lot of influence!). As the pandemic recedes, I’m still struggling with how to touch others in a fitness class – can you relate?


Navarro, Joe, and Toni Sciarra Poynter. Be Exceptional : Master the Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart. London: Thorsons, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2021. Print.

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