Virtual Facilitation: Part 1, What you say, How you say it.

I’ve been facilitating since the start of my career and using virtual tools since 2003. Over the last year however, with multiple organizations and project, I’ve logged well over 100 hours of virtual facilitation. The topics have varied wildly from soft skills, sales, technical training and L&D upskilling.

I really enjoy being an instructor. It was my bread and butter for a long time and I’ve been lucky enough to train quite a few virtual instructors over the years. It’s a very different medium but there are certainly many similarities to traditional, brick and mortar facilitation.

From a best practice perspective, there are a few things I would suggest to make a world of difference in an environment where you lose the visual element of your learners seeing you, or you’re seeing them and their reactions. Depending on the study, numbers range from 80 to over 90% of communication being non-verbal. This means there is an uphill battle to drive a positive learning experience for virtual, blind, learning sessions! So here are a few tips to help drive success! The tips aren’t virtual classroom and certainly could be applied to traditional sessions, but it’s so much more important to lean into them when instructing in a remote environment.

How you say it!

1. Strong verbal control. This one is the same, contextually, as a traditional facilitator skillset. Clarity and tone, energy, pronunciation and speed being key critical factors to keep in mind. These are elements learned via practice and candid feedback. These can be coached into a new facilitator and there are many presentation tools, programs or organizations around that can help!

2. A genuine style. Every presenter has their own way. There isn’t a right or wrong presenter style any more than there is a right and wrong to a comedian’s delivery approach, as long as it’s genuine. Always, always be yourself in how you deliver a session. Participants can tell if you are trying too hard, attempt to use humour and are not funny, or deliver in a serious tone if that’s just not you. Being genuine in your approach has a two-fold benefit. First it provides consistency between sessions. Learners will become acclimated to your style and know what to expect. It will keep them coming back as a radio show brings back avid followers. Secondly you will be more relaxed. Once you get over the hump of delivering to a faceless audience and receiving no visual feedback, it becomes easier to judge the groups reactions by the other interactive channels. I always encourage participants to at any time provide feedback using emoticons or chat. Make it the “you” show. It’s makes a difference.

3. Humour. Tying into the last element for many folks, if you relax your participants, they will enjoy the session much more! Injecting humour into a course instills trust, makes you that much more of a real person and lowers the formality of a session. The key to any great facilitator is to engage the audience. Formality can restrict an engagement. You already will have your hands full trying to keep your learners involved, keeping things light can certainly help!

I tend to really lean on this. It’s tough at first because you can’t see any rolling eyes in disgust or adoration from the masses. You have to try to balance it and be session appropriate while engaging individuals in a safe, but entertaining way. It can be as easy as making a little fun of yourself when you make a mistake to a humourous story or scenario.

What you say!

4. Prepare war stories! The very best facilitators come to the table with experience to share. I raises both your credibility while providing an interesting, real-life scenario others can relate to.

5 Keep it light! Every session might have technical issues. In a virtual session, its much harder to triage these are you are not local. It’s CRITICAL that if you hit a roadblock, you try to clear it quickly. I think that a minute is pretty much the limit. After that you will lose others. If the challenge is something like audio or chat functionality, lightly suggest another method of communicating with the session and that you’d be happy to support them later. NEVER argue with the client. (Which I have seen in sessions believe it or not).

6. Know each topic cold. This doesn’t mean memorize it. Scripts are fantastic visual aids for a facilitator to ensure consistency between sessions, but knowing the topic very well allows you to deviate abit, provide colour commentary and you can be abit more narrative rather than a content presenter. I like that way more! Also, if you don’t have anything to say about a bullet than what is on the slide or in the book, research it! All my facilitator guides have little notes for myself for each topic around a survey I saw, an article or scenario or useful little info byte. Desperately important.

7. Enjoy yourself!!! Participants can tell! Bring your passion and energy to the table. If you don’t love the topic, find something you like or find interesting about it.

Next article I’ll dig further into this and start specifically into how to engage virtual learners and keep them interested and involved!


Virtual Reality Check: Remote Learning Frustrations

I’ve been spending quite abit of time of late working both within my current role and in discussion with a few other practitioners talking about Virtual Learning.

The concept of delivering some type of upskilling or behavioural impact remotely is certainly not new. Even looking at “modern” tools like the webex’s of the world, they’ve been around long enough for a million and one white papers, books and blogs to outline some great howto’s. Continually however, I am finding organizations frustrated at the quality or impact of the Virtual Classroom.

My first foray into virtual training was in 2003. I delivered a training program through webex. The course design was sound and followed the “rules” (another blog post could come out of THAT comment…) and I was a seasoned classroom facilitator. I prepared, was comfortable with the material and logistically the session was organized.

It was ok. Not a complete disaster. But for me it was a REAL eye opener. I hadn’t anticipated how unprepared I was for the experience. The tools are significantly enhance since then and have a lot more bells and whistles, but the obstacles I came across and have fought to find ways of clearing are exactly the same as what I’m hearing now.

I think that taking style into account, there are many ways of solving the following problems, and I’m sure some of you have great methods I haven’t thought of, but I think noting the obstacle itself is an important step that many don’t seem to do (or notice).

The very first and most important challenge to note. You aren’t there.

Quite often, when I’ve worked with virtual facilitators, they recognize the value of being prepared, taking time to organize themselves, do great prep, setup the system, audio, video, cables, glass of water, guide, etc, etc.

They are serene and relaxed..Coiled to drive a focused result.

What often happens however is they have forgotten to consider what’s going on for the learner…

Chaos reigns. The session was registered weeks ago, they got an email reminder 2 days before which was quickly buried, meetings all day, milestones to hit, clients to call, teams to run… thankfully Outlook reminders saved the day and they are at the session on-time (ish).

This is the primary driver for all the other challenges below. These learners are not in a controlled environment. They are likely to be surrounded by distractions that, lets be honest, are way more important than you. Make sure you recognize it before you move on.

Keeping them engaged

Now that you recognize that you HAVE a battle to fight, how do you do it? First, you need to interact with them.. ALOT. This doesn’t mean talking AT them. Any adult learning model you follow outlines the need for adult learners to make content their own, reflect on it’s impact and do something with it. Otherwise, 90% will wash over them and become noise. (Which will encourage them to start reading email….)

The course has to have regular engagements with your learners to FORCE them to interact with you. Many tools have raised hands, checkboxes, exclamation marks, whiteboards, polls, audio etc. USE THEM… every 3 to 4 minutes. Have them do something like signal they are ready to move forward or that they have completed a task. It’s a simple way to ensure they are at least partly involved in the session.

Going deeper than that, when you design your structure, don’t fall into the “Any Questions?” trap. I’ve seen this one overused alot Everyone does it, I have. It’s easy and quick and helps keep you on time without distractions, but it NEVER keeps those NOT interested involved. I strongly suggest directed questions. Verbally select individuals to help you find the answers, or make use of knowledge tests where they have to do something. The “Any Questions?” should be used sparingly when you know folks are all waiting on bated breath to push you.

Keeping them Interested

Not remotely the same thing as engaged. You can whip a clown and it will dance. (I’ve wanted to say that all day…) But to trigger some kind of value out of the content is a two fold challenge.

First, if you are finding this a challenge, ensure you have a solid objective from the Affective domain. You will then be thinking outside of just having them understand and do, you want them to find value that means something to them.

Secondly, be real. This is a style thing I suppose, but it’s my way. If I were at a party and wanted to keep everyone interested in my story, what would I do? To stand up and start talking about xyz in a monotone voice and then asking everyone their thoughts on my boring-ass lecture will get me no where. BE the show. Don’t be afraid to facilitate! Add some colourful analogies, dig into your experiences and elaborate and be funny. Virtual training is VERY hard on style. Some very funny, great facilitators I’ve seen, become vanilla when training remotely. Why? Ask a Radio DJ. It’s hard to be funny when you can’t see your audience’s reaction. They might moan, groan, cheer, clap and you have no visual stimulus to trigger the stop/continue in your brain. The fact of the matter is though, it will be interesting. Bad jokes still keep people listening. Don’t AIM for bad humour/colour/stories, and be appropriate for the audience, but don’t be afraid of it. It so completely works.

The Flow is CRITICAL.

In my top 3 for sure. I think the previous comparison to the Radio DJ is again useful. I’d almost go so far as to suggest profiling one. If you are listening to your funniest, most interesting morning radio show, and it suddenly goes silent. How long until you change the channel?

Why is your virtual training any different? If you hit a lag, technical glitch (VERY common with participant audio!), or get abit lost in content, you can basically hose the success of your session. Be prepared. Have extra stories prepped to bring to the fore, have an exercise ready that does not require a complex technical interaction for them ready in the wings, have a host on the line with you to sort out technical audio issues with a learner so you can keep the rest moving forward. There no amount of apologies that will rectify a 5 minute gap in your session. Design these into the course. EVERY time.

Ultimately, regardless of the tools/tips you use (and I’d love to hear them!!), your virtual session HAS to be engaging, interesting and move like clockwork… or they’ll turn the channel.

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