THE pandemic forced those of us fortunate enough to continue working throughout its course to adjust how we perform our jobs, collaborate with colleagues, and serve customers and clients. For many, this required conducting a vast proportion of business interactions (as well as education and everything else) via one virtual platform or another.
For Kenning Associates, one of the significant adjustments was translating in-person, full-day training workshops into the virtual world. The company had been moving in this direction already, as much of the one-on-one coaching work had already migrated to video conference, but in 2020 it became critical to rethink group workshops for a changed environment.
Many of the core training offerings, such as “Strategic Communications,” were still in demand. Could we make them work in a 100-per-cent virtual setting? The short answer is a resounding yes.
After piloting multiple programs with multiple employers, virtual workshop experiences easily equal, if not improve upon, the in-person versions. Programs have been so well received that we predict that even after the pandemic, many employers will opt for the virtual versions. But, given all the limitations of virtual delivery, what makes them work?
On reflection, three tactics that we’ve adopted have contributed the most to designing and delivering high-impact virtual learning programs:
Deliver content in small bites to allow for mental breaks and reflection: Virtual meeting screen time is exhausting, and for a variety of reasons well-documented elsewhere, attention spans are getting shorter. With this in mind, four hours, with generous break time, ought to be the absolute maximum for any one workshop or portion thereof. Three hours is even better.
So, in some cases we took what had been about a full day’s worth of content and split it across three or four modules or segments. For instance, with the “Balcony Conversations” workshop, which includes video-recorded roleplays and playback/debrief sessions, we devised a multi-day sequence conducted in a single week. For the “Strategic Communications” program, the modules were split across several weeks.
Either way, participants have said in feedback surveys that they appreciate the opportunity to absorb and process new learning between sessions. They can practise skills purposefully, and then talk about how it went when the next module reconvenes. They also like that they don’t have to take a whole day at once away from their day job to take advantage of a learning opportunity.
As facilitators, we were able to benefit from the same reflection. We could prepare more thoughtfully for the next module, noting how groups and individuals had responded to the material and making targeted adjustments for the next round.
Some of these “small bite” modules can also be offered a la carte. With everyone working virtually, it’s easier to pull a whole team together (even one that is globally dispersed) for a learning experience that can be completed in just a couple of hours.
Mix modalities to boost engagement and make use of what the virtual world provides: Even with in-person training, it’s important to mix things up. It’s deadly for participants to hear the same voice go on and on in any medium, but virtual platforms somehow amplify that. And facilitators face the mental challenge of managing materials and delivery while also trying to glean clues about how things are landing by glancing at a gallery of tiny participant faces on the screen.
The best way to manage these engagement challenges is to create more opportunities for interaction, and to make full use of the features of video conferencing platforms. To do so, minimize lectures by introducing concepts briefly and then turning quickly to a different modality, such as group discussion or breakout exercises.
If possible, keep group sizes small, so participants feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions and engaging in discussion. For larger groups, pose questions and ask participants to share their answers through a variety of tools such as reactions, chat and word cloud generators, and then look at and highlight as many responses as possible.
In large groups, it also can be helpful to encourage participants to submit their questions at any point via chat and then pause occasionally to respond to them.
In the Strategic Communications workshop, small groups are sent to breakout rooms to work on an exercise together, provided with electronic instructions, templates and materials. In this case, on-screen document sharing actually works better than asking an in-person breakout group to live edit on paper. And when groups reconvene to debrief the exercise, they can easily display their work for the full group to see.
For Balcony Conversations, the program has always involved recording and debriefing roleplays in breakouts. The built-in recording features of virtual platforms actually makes this even easier to do, eliminating previous problems with inconsistent recording volumes, switching devices for recording and playback.
Lean into the performance when presenting virtually: As Mama Rose would say, “Sing out, Louise!” (For non-musical-theatre buffs, that’s one of the classic lines from the musical Gypsy.) Facilitators need to put out a lot of effort and use all of their vocal skills to keep the energy and attention up during virtual workshops. This is also true for anyone leading a group meeting or presenting virtually.
Here’s why: Studies seeking to measure the components of impact of a message delivered in a live setting generally conclude that about half of the impact comes from the visual cues or information that the speaker displays; slightly less comes from the vocal delivery or tone and, surprisingly, only a small fraction comes from the content of the message itself.
Content is of course important in business, but studies like this suggest that how you look and what you sound like when delivering your message make a big difference in terms of how it is received.
Because the visuals on virtual platforms tend to be cluttered and scattered, between shared documents and the gallery of tiny faces, the quality and impact of visual information an audience can take from a speaker in most virtual situations is greatly diminished. This means the best point of leverage to ensure you’re keeping the audience’s attention in virtual settings is your voice. Make an extra effort to mix pace, tone, volume and pauses, for example, to make delivery more effective and engaging.