Whether you are facilitating a meeting or a training session in a virtual environment, the skills needed to be an effective and skilled virtual facilitator are nearly the same as those used if you were facilitating a session in a physical classroom or meeting room.

So, if you rock facilitation when you are all physically in the same room, you will also be a rockstar in the virtual world … right? Not necessarily. A few weeks ago, after leading a handful of virtual sessions, a colleague complimented my facilitation skills and asked how I became efficient and effective in facilitating online meetings and learning sessions. The answer? The “three P’s” — a little bit of patience, a lot of practice and some purposeful planning.

In the virtual world, we are always managing at least one technology, if not more. For some, using technology and multitasking technology comes easy, for others, it is a chore. No matter which virtual platform you are using, you need to have patience and learn to use the tool and its functionality. Learn from courses, social media posts, tutorials and other users. When you experience a great virtual session, connect with the facilitator, and follow them on social media; I have learned many tips and tricks over the years by simply following some of the early trailblazers in the virtual world.

Practice using the platform from both the perspective of the facilitator and that of the learner. While the last few years have taught most of the world how to join a virtual environment, the learner might not be familiar with your platform nor how to use the engagement tools. When you practice using the platform both as the facilitator and the learner, you will be better prepared to assist and provide direction to learners. If you use multiple delivery platforms, the functionality might not work the same among them. Practicing on the different platforms will help you identify where challenges may arise and allow you to adjust your plans before you are facilitating a live class.

Variety Is the Spice of … Facilitation

Through practice, you will become more comfortable and familiar with the virtual platform, making it easier to incorporate engagement activities in your virtual facilitation. Poet William Cowper is credited with giving us the saying, “Variety is the spice of life,” and variety in the tools and techniques used in the virtual classroom will help keep your learners engaged. Do not rely too heavily on one or two features; experiment and identify those that work best for the audience and the content. When we’re in a learning activity located in the same physical space, we divide into groups, share our stories, use whiteboards, etc. Most likely, your platform has similar features like annotation tools, polling and breakout rooms. Play with the tools. Create a fun, “safe space” activity at the start of your session by showing learners how to use the more challenging features like annotation tools (i.e., use the annotation tool to put a mark next to your favorite flavor of ice cream on the slide). Be purposeful when planning your engagement, choose an engagement tool or strategy that can best support your goals.

After learning how to use the platform and planning interaction, practice — and practice again. Practice on your own, record it and then watch the recording. Recruit some friends for practice and ask them for feedback. Reflect on what you learned from watching your own recording, and lessons learned from the pilot with friends. Things to look for and questions to ask when reflecting on your facilitation:

  • Did you vary the use of your voice?
  • Do you need to adjust the enthusiasm or energy in your delivery?
  • Is your camera at the right level?
  • How is your lighting and background?
  • What does your posture look like on camera?

These are a few things in the virtual environment that will help elevate your facilitation from the opening act to the headliner. Make adjustments based on what you learn, and practice again. This is where patience really comes into play, as you will get tired of practicing. Practice does not make for perfect facilitation, but it does make for easier facilitation.

I am fortunate in that I did not have to learn how to navigate the world of virtual facilitation during the outbreak of a pandemic; I had been facilitating technical training classes in a virtual environment for eight years when COVID-19 shut down nearly all in-person training (ILT). Yet while I had eight years of experience in my pocket, much like the rest of the world, I still had to pivot and adjust my facilitation to accommodate the realities of living and working in a virtual world. This meant I had to go back to the basics, go back to being patient with myself and the learners, and go back to practicing.

Still think it’s an uphill battle to become a better facilitator? Maybe this will change your perspective: I started my professional career working in a clinical laboratory; the place where all your annual blood work and other bodily things are tested. I enjoyed sitting at a microscope all day looking at specimens, looking for something that should not necessarily be there.

After a few years, I transitioned into the professional world of continuing education for health care providers. It’s important that you know this, because never in my wildest dreams did, I ever expect that I would end up one day facilitating learning experiences in a virtual environment, including facilitating training classes on camera being live streamed over the internet. Why do I share this? It’s simple: because if a lab-geek turned educator like me can become fairly good at facilitating in a virtual world, you can, too!