Organizations that successfully master the digital environment for meetings, conversations, training and events attend to six elements: people, platforms, processes, programs, preparation and prowess. The first article in this series explored the first of these three elements: people, platforms and processes. This article focuses on the final three elements: programs, preparation and prowess.
One common misstep in the transition to virtual delivery is taking the slides and materials from an existing classroom training program and attempting to deliver the program the same way in the virtual space. On the surface, this approach may seem like a straightforward solution, but it rarely works. While participants may be willing to work together collaboratively for eight hours in a physical training room, requiring them to sit and stare at a laptop or computer for eight hours is a recipe for failure.
Instead of throwing an existing program into the virtual training space without attention to the participants’ experience, a skilled instructional designer should repurpose the existing content, leveraging the interaction and engagement tools in a specific web conferencing platform. A program designed for WebEx may not work as well in Adobe Connect or Zoom, for example. When you hear an instructional designer tell you that he or she is “platform-agnostic,” run for the hills. This statement likely means that the design will be so basic and uninspired that it fails to capitalize on the strengths of any specific platform.
The best virtual programs build on the strengths of the virtual environment, instead of attempting to replicate the experience of the physical classroom. For example, in the physical classroom, a trainer might pose a discussion question to the group and facilitate a discussion among the three or four people who respond first. A common misstep in the virtual space is to have the facilitator pose the same question and ask people to unmute their phone lines to discuss it. This approach feels like a way to replicate the classroom experience; however, it leaves many people out of the discussion. Instead of attempting to replicate the same discussion, the facilitator might leverage the chat feature, posing the same question but asking everyone to respond publicly in chat. In this way, all participants think about the question and respond actively rather than passively observing a discussion.
In a careful repurposing process, you might move some material from the synchronous classroom to an asynchronous, collaborative platform and convert lectures into short videos, focused reading material and quick quizzes. Thought-provoking questions might become microlearning elements for learners to consume before attending a facilitated online session, where they will discuss, problem-solve and apply content to real-world situations. Ideally, each synchronous session would run from 45 minutes to no longer than 120 minutes.
Writing a design guide is a useful step in repurposing an existing training program. Instead of attempting to replicate the experience of the physical classroom, rich programs with long-lasting impact are the result of a thoughtful, creative repurposing process.
Each facilitator or trainer needs some basic equipment in order to run a virtual meeting or training delivery well. Unlike meeting participants, who can use the built-in web cameras on their laptops or mobile devices, a virtual facilitator should, ideally, have an external web camera that they can easily adjust. The web camera should be positioned at or slightly above eye level so the facilitator doesn’t have to look down into the camera lens. The facilitator’s head and shoulders should be centered — not too far away so that their facial expressions are obscured and not so close that their head fills the camera frame and seems intrusive. Lighting should be diffuse and shine on the facilitator’s face, and they should avoid backlighting from windows or lamps situated behind, rather than in front of, the speaker. Backlighting often throws the speaker’s face into shadow.
If possible, the facilitator should use a wireless headset or earbuds with a microphone connected to their cell phone, and they should avoid putting the call on speaker phone or trying to use a handset held to the ear, which leads to poor, muffled sound quality. The fatigue that participants experience when attending multiple virtual meetings is exacerbated when they have to strain to hear what speaker is saying.
The facilitator’s equipment kit might include an inexpensive external web camera or a hands-free headset and a simple desk lamp. Some facilitators prefer dual monitors so they can divide their screen displays; they might display slides on one monitor and participant interaction tools on the other monitor, for example, or they might display webcam videos on the first monitor and have their computer desktop displayed on a second monitor. Other facilitators prefer to log into the virtual event as a regular participant on a second laptop or mobile device so they can monitor their participants’ experience.
Consider the background that participants will see behind the speaker. If possible, it should be an uncluttered area, with a wall that blocks the sight of people walking by. Though there are clever virtual backgrounds participants may choose to display on their web cams, the presenter should, if possible, have a more neutral, professional setting behind them. The background should provide a sense of the facilitator’s work environment without distracting from the meeting or training program.
This preparation and practice have a solid payoff: greater ease and confidence when leading the virtual experience.
Virtual prowess is the expertise and skill developed by a facilitator, trainer or meeting leader. Most skilled classroom trainers quickly realize that virtual delivery is much more difficult than it looks. Savvy organizations recognize that the best virtual facilitators combine strong presentation skills with knowledge of technology. Look for complimentary webinars in which experienced facilitators demonstrate useful digital training techniques.
Virtual facilitators need to learn web camera techniques; how to build rapport and connection at a distance; how to continuously engage participants to reduce their urge to multitask; techniques to check for underlying attitudes, opinions, knowledge acquisition and engagement; and how to control pacing and timing during a virtual event. They also need to learn how to “read” the virtual room, whether participants are on or off camera.
At the same time, facilitators must thoroughly master the web conferencing platform so they can easily adjust if problems occur. Their virtual prowess includes being able to run their own slides, open and close polls, clear the chat discussion, and manage whiteboards. They also need to be comfortable setting up, launching and monitoring breakout rooms. While it is often a good idea to have a producer (host) partner with a facilitator, a presenter with prowess should have a handle on the underlying technology.
Most web conference providers offer video tutorials to help their users learn the technology. A masterful facilitator, however, also needs to develop their virtual classroom skills to lead compelling, effective training programs and meetings. Managers who lead virtual team meetings may benefit from training on planning and facilitating online meetings while facilitators and trainers may benefit from comprehensive training to develop, apply and practice these new delivery techniques.
Bringing your V game to the virtual environment requires learning how to capture and manage attention; engage participants in deeper discussions; reinforce learning; and build a comfortable, collaborative learning environment. If your organization wants to bring a masterful V game, pay attention to these six elements:
- People: Consider the differing needs and experience levels of your constituents.
- Platforms: Choose the best platform for each use or application (i.e., meeting, training or large event).
- Processes: Document roles and responsibilities, and identify simple processes to streamline adoption and application.
- Programs: Repurpose existing content with an eye to engagement and interaction.
- Preparation: Make sure facilitators, meeting leaders and producers have the right equipment.
- Prowess: Develop the skills and expertise of your facilitators and meeting leaders with hands-on training and feedback.
Consider partnering with an experienced virtual training vendor to plan and prepare for success in the virtual world. Your partner should be able to offer guidance on how to use a variety of platforms effectively, which equipment can improve the experience, and how the meeting or training design can leverage the web conferencing tools for greater engagement. They can also work with your organization to develop the skills of facilitators, meeting leaders and producers, and provide skilled producers to support the delivery of events and conferences. With the right partner, you can bring your V game to the digital world.