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Virtual training: Stick to the script or seek ‘creative chaos’ when working in bigger groups? By Jude Tavanyar

Posted on August 5th, 2019

A colleague and friend with a strong reputation in delivering innovative and inspirational trainings in virtual space was telling me recently about a training participant, David, who had attended one of her programmes and who had initially seemed terrified at the idea of having to work across distance with large, interculturally mixed groups spread across three continents.

David is a trainer, and his greatest fear was that ‘something would go wrong with the technology’ when delivering training online, and that he would be made to look foolish in front of his training attendees.

In many ways, David’s fears were entirely understandable.

Not even the most seasoned online facilitators feel entirely relaxed running a training session for a large, mixed global group of attendees for the first time.

My colleague mentioned that she hadn’t heard from David for quite a few weeks after the end of her last session with him, then had suddenly received a phone call from him out of the blue to thank her for the training and to let her know that he had just delivered his first training session with a group of 30 participants.

‘How did it go?’

The answer was not encouraging. ‘Well, I thought it had gone really well’ said David sadly. ‘But the evaluations from my attendees were actually pretty low. They said the content was OK and lots of learning points, but in general the session was boring, lacked engagement, and they couldn’t see how to immediately apply what they learned in their professional roles and would have liked the chance to discuss this in session.

But how can you have a group of 30 people discussing their own individual situations in a 90 minute training session without losing control of the entire thing? It’s just not possible!’

Poor David. His anxiety about ‘making technical mistakes’, ‘not sticking to time’ and ‘deviating from the session script’ had led him to deliver a training event that had excelled in terms of time-keeping and meeting content delivery objectives, but almost entirely failed in energising and engaging participants.

Upon further discussion, David revealed that his over-riding focus on keeping to time had led him to mute participants all the way through the session, so there was literally no chance for them to speak aloud.

The only voice heard throughout was his, and there were so many (as he put it) ‘points of information’ to convey to the group that he had literally crammed his ppt slides full of text and avoided running any kind of other activity that might mean he had less time to convey the messages he wanted to get across, and which might also present technical challenges.

In many ways, these are classic mistakes for the first-time online facilitator. David’s panic about keeping control of the session and running his presentation smoothly had clearly led him to forget some basic but important tips:

  • Using images on slide rather than text is not only more appealing to participants’ imagination, causing them to work a little harder to ‘interpret’ the message carried, but also, in a group of varied languages and national cultures, gets beyond the obvious challenge of language difficulties. Reflecting and using our visual imagination to ‘interpret’ what we see requires focus and engagement from participants – exactly what is wanted in the online classroom, where there are so many distractions to take people’s attention away from the computer screen in front of them.

 

  • Although using visually appealing, imaginative material to awaken interest via a strong slide deck is even more important in the virtual setting, where holding the gaze of your participants is so important, running any single activity (no matter how initially riveting) for an entire session online, without break or variety, is doomed to fail. The point is, to use the old cliché, variety really is the spice of life in virtual training. David’s relentless, text-filled slide deck was bound to induce boredom finally, no matter how interesting the points he made.  And reading out what is on the slide, when participants can see it perfectly well for themselves, is just as much of a ‘no-no’ when training online as it is when delivering trainingface to face. Sarah suggested using a whiteboard at regular intervals to encourage participants to annotate their reactions and ideas freely in session and raise any questions they might have.

 

  • One particular concern for David was that he had thought the session had been going well, and it was only when he received the evaluation survey results at the end that he realised how bored and disengaged his participants had been.He had simply been so intent on ‘getting through the session without any technical challenges’ that he had barely paid attention to the fact that his participants were unable to share their reactions and questions aloud, and had not been given information about how to participate via tools such as Chat Space, the poll or Q&A features so that he could run a ‘temperature check’ on the mood and level of engagement in session, and send questions in writing for him to respond to.

 

Under pressure, online training participants often resort to their ‘default’ position in communication – which in David’s case as an experienced f2f trainer and sales leader was high energy, high control delivery with a great deal of presentational content.

Why had this not worked for him in the virtual setting? Aside from the above tips, he had forgotten that at times, high-powered energy without ‘in the room’ presence can at times feel over-powering and therefore disengaging rather than motivational.

Being able to vary the pace and pitch with a more reflective, calm and measured style at times is often useful in establishing an all-important sense of intimacy and warm collaboration where trust and cooperation between trainer and trainees can develop and thrive.

One of the key tricks for any virtual facilitator, is to make a virtual training feel like a structured but relaxed and informal conversation, where there is free-flowing dialogue, moments of humour and plenty of spontaneous interaction. ‘It’s a bit like talking to friends’. ‘You need to include everyone and help each person feel that they matter to you.’

But how on earth – as David’s own question highlighted – does a virtual facilitator help each person in a group of more than 20 relative strangers feel included, involved and important?

Understandably, going ‘off piste’ from the script to accommodate individual needs in a bigger group session may seem risky, but Sarah pointed out some ideas to try in future sessions.

  • Get to know your participants’ needs BEFORE you are in session.

Online surveys and pre-session evaluation tools not only help inform course content and enable trainers to do a bit of advance ‘tailoring’ so the training has maximum impact. They also help the trainer feel s/he knows the group a little, and the kinds of questions to be prepared for.

 

  • Ensure communication flow not only between attendees and facilitator (no matter how big the group) but also between attendees themselves, by ‘pairing up’ people at the start of the session – shown via a slide or advance document/email – so that attendees can send messages, share ideas and reflections with their pair partner throughout the session.

 

If it’s clear in advance that this is part of the approach, engagement in a big group is generally increased, because there’s a commitment by each attendee to their allocated pair partner to attend and contribute to pair reflections throughout the session. Furthermore, if those reflections remain private, they are likely to be more open and personal – consequently, perhaps, more engaging and thought-provoking - than if they had been shared widely in the plenary.

 

  • Using the full advantage of platform features such as online breakouts (where private space for groups of 2 people or more offers wonderful opportunities for reflective brainstorming, sharing experiences and ‘stories’) is a great way to keep emotional engagement and intensity in big group online training.

 

Even groups of 100 or more can work productively in this way, and debriefs can be run as a simultaneous, silent ‘scribing’ of one idea per group onto a whiteboard, or, if time allows, the (automatically appointed) presenter in each breakout can share just one point or short phrase aloud in plenary.

 

  • Creating safety to encourage interaction by clarifying from the outset the virtual etiquette of the session and allowing for spontaneity, mishaps and ‘creative chaos’ within it is perhaps, as Sarah suggested, the most important point of all.

 

If participants do not know how to respond to the facilitator or each other, they will most likely not respond at all and ultimately disengage.

David again recently had a further session with the same virtual training group, which had gone considerably better. When asked what he’d changed in his approach, he said: ‘I’ve had to sit back much more, and listen. I’ve learned to let go of control a bit and allow the group more space. They talk more in breakouts, and sometimes it feels like chaos, but the ratings are much better. Above all – I found myself actually enjoying this! Thank you.’

Nomadic run an open enrolment ‘Train the Online Trainer’ programme in virtual facilitation skills (read more here). We also will be publish a briefing paper on working in bigger groups and will run a new training programme on this topic in late 2019 - keep upto date with what's happening at Nomadic IBP by visiting our website.

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