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Is it always preferable to be physically visible when training online? Jude Tavanyar explores the connection between visual presence and trust in virtual sessions.

Posted on January 15th, 2019

I met up recently with an old friend and trainer colleague Gary, and (since it was New Year) before long the conversation turned to resolutions and goals – or, more specifically, what we would both be seeking to do more and do less of as trainers.

This somewhat high-minded initiative soon degenerated into laughter, after I asked Gary what would he avoid doing as a trainer in 2019, he replied: ‘getting dressed in the dark’.  

The story behind Gary’s New Year resolution is rather memorable.

A new Associate with a major UK training company, Gary was tasked with the design and delivery of a new training programme for a client in the financial sector.

On top of not really knowing the client, he had limited time to prepare and - given the newness of the relationship - suffered from a severe bout of nerves on the day before the training assignment, which was to be delivered in a local hotel. So, Gary’s wife kindly joined him, checking into the hotel to help soothe frayed nerves.

Gary however, had overlooked to set the alarm, and so finally woke up late in a panic, and (as his wife was still asleep) dressed in the dark, snatching at clothes from the wardrobe, and raced out of the hotel room with barely a glance at his own appearance.

On arrival in the training room, out of breath and perspiring slightly, he noticed that the gathered attendees were staring at him in disbelief. Indeed, some of them were openly laughing.

Poor Gary, mortified, glanced down to see what the group were sniggering about.   It was then that he realised that instead of the tailored, pinstripe jacket he thought he had put on, he had instead hurriedly thrown on a pink ‘flamenco’ style button-up top decorated with large sequinned flowers and a silver tasselled hem, which belonged to his wife a similar build to him, whose clothes were next to his in the hotel wardrobe.

What flashed through Gary’s mind at that point?

Various thoughts, apparently. Chiefly, however, that he had prepared endless, tightly-worded powerpoint slides to ‘wow’ the group with and that now all his hard work would go to waste without him even opening his mouth.

But the group were still standing looking at him, and he was still standing in front of them wearing the ludicrous jacket, and something had to be done.

So Gary decided to improvise. With a swift, impulsive movement, he ripped off the offending jacket, threw it into the air, caught it again, executed a rapid (and somewhat clumsy) 1970s dance move on the spot, and pointing into the group ‘Saturday Night Fever’ style, threw the jacket towards them with the cheekiest ‘John Travolta’ grin.

The jacket came instantly flying back and hit Gary in the chest, of course. But it didn’t matter. The group, laughing out of sheer incredulity at his unorthodox introduction, were engaged.

And while the embarrassing jacket was not exactly forgotten, Gary ended up establishing a confident connection with his attendees in a far more engaging way than merely ‘dressing to impress’ in a more traditional sense would have afforded him.  

Obviously this kind of behaviour is something of a high-risk strategy, and Gary has no intention of seeing if it works on a second occasion.

But what interested me most of all was his final comment:

‘Thank goodness for training virtually. You can wear what you like, and without the webcam, no one’s got a clue if you’re half-shaved or in your pyjamas, and you can relax, use your voice and let your training content and activities to do the job for you. It’s liberating, actually.’

One of the most commonly discussed aspects of maintaining engagement and building a relationship with attendees when training and coaching virtually is that of whether to be ‘physically visible’ to them, via webcam or through video conference connection.  

The long-established idea remains powerful: that being able to see the person talking to you to gauge their credibility and confidence from their appearance and non-verbal communication is still an essential component of establishing credibility and trust as trainer and coach, face to face and virtually.

And, naturally, since most facilitators have worked f2f with clients for years before also working virtually, their initial motivation may well be to take what they do f2f and make it work in exactly the same way in the virtual setting.

From this perspective, using a webcam to make oneself visible to participants seems at first sight to be an obvious way to overcome the sense of ‘distance’ and emotional ‘disengagement’ that some professionals fear will negatively affect their sessions when working with others online.

But perhaps it’s time to review the belief that being physically visible when coaching or training online is ALWAYS a benefit in establishing trust and engagement. Here are some of the arguments for and against, that Nomadic trainers have learned from our own experience or gathered from attending our accredited ‘Train the Online Trainer’ programme.

In favour of a webcam use in the virtual setting:

  • People tell us that, especially for the inexperienced virtual facilitator, loss of face to face connection feels (initially at least) like loss indeed. If you’re working with a training group who expect a webcam out of habit, you may need to anticipate negative reactions, and think of ways to manage those, if you do not use it. Starting with a webcam in the initial session may therefore be helpful for some attendees to relax and get to know each other better.
  • When working with small groups who are meeting for the first time, using a webcam may be engaging, energising and a friendly way to get group relationships going.
  • Using the webcam to ‘highlight’ transitions in the session from one activity to another, and to introduce a change of pace can be a very good method to keep engagement.
  • Many of the reasons why people dislike webcams – such as the ‘noise activation’ factor eg sudden unintentional visibility when a participant sneezes, coughs, drinks etc – can usually be minimised by increasingly sophisticated technology. It will soon become ever easier to see multiple faces on screen, all moving and reacting to what they are seeing and hearing from the facilitator, with no camera ‘crashes’ or noisy embarrassments.
  • Culturally speaking there are diverse preferences regarding visual contact, and for some cultures, not being able to see the face of the facilitator may seriously diminish trust and respect for the learning process/meeting.

Against using a webcam, people argue the following:

  • Those interested in innovative ways of working in virtual space notice the power of visual slides, for example, to create a mood and imaginative/collaborative focus of attention. When the webcam is switched on, we are back to the ‘here and now’ realities of where people are located physically. This is OK for some aspects of the session but may get in the way when people want to use their imagination, brainstorm, and so forth.
  • As Gary clearly stated, invisibility can sometimes confer a helpfully relaxed and calm mood. Less than glamorous surroundings are invisible without webcam and working virtually may well be – as he suggested – a ‘liberating’ approach which helps us as trainers and coaches avoid the easy assumptions and constraints (‘unconscious bias’) that judgements about physical appearance and training environment may sometimes impose. This is an important factor in cost/image terms, and in many ways a great ‘equaliser’ of human differences.
  • Increasingly, researchers and academics notice the ‘power of voice’ and the ability vocal tone and range has to create nuanced meanings, convey energy and build trust. Some even argue that visual connection via webcam can be simply a distracting diversion for participants from the ‘action’ of the session, carried via vocal contact and what our screens show us.
  • A further dimension of invisibility is that some people are distracted by their own image on webcam when facilitating or participating. It is too tempting to look at how we are coming across, rather than simply get on with engaging with the activity at hand. The ‘distraction factor’ applies to men and women alike, and can be significant at times. 

Ultimately, choosing to be visible or not when training and coaching virtually depends upon the facilitator’s purpose, and personal style. In next week’s blogpost, I’ll be looking more closely at the ways in which professionals working without visual presence in session can use a variety of activities and approaches to strengthen the impact they make and the effectiveness of their content.

Have a successsful new year and please do get in touch if you would like to know more about any aspect of our blogposts. Please note: We do run through the year our ‘Train the Online Trainer’ 8 week modular online programme for all coaches, trainers and facilitators. If you want to know when our next scehduled session is, check out our calendar. 

 Image source: www.freepik.com

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