Conducting an online training session can be an intimidating prospect. The idea of presenting to an invisible audience is a daunting for even the most seasoned classroom trainers. Delivering virtual training doesn’t need to be scary, though. It can be a very easy and very effective by taking into consideration some best practices.
First and foremost, virtual training is not classroom training. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s an important place to start. While it would be easy to simply take training designed for the classroom and conduct it over the internet, it would also be a mistake. There is certainly some overlap between the two methods of delivering learning, but virtual training has its own separate and distinct set of concepts. So, no, training sessions cannot simply be moved from classroom to virtual settings. They first need be modified, or even redesigned, to suit the new medium.
One necessary modification will be to the way in which the audience is kept engaged. Successful virtual trainers know that they will naturally lose the attention of their audience much more quickly and easily than they will in a classroom setting. That is in no way a reflection on the skills or abilities of the trainer, or the general interest in or importance of the topic, but rather a matter of human nature. It is just far easier to be distracted staring at a screen than it is staring at a person. It’s a much better learning experience for the audience if they’re given something to do every few minutes. Fortunately, most online learning platforms include several tools that can be used for this purpose.
One of those is a chat feature. Asking questions of the participants that can be answered in chat is an easy and effective way to engage an audience, while also giving the trainer an idea of who is participating and who is not. Respondents should be recognized by name to encourage more participation, providing praise when appropriate or corrective feedback when needed. The chat panel is also a great place for participants to ask questions of the trainer, or to engage with each other, without distracting from the central lesson. Taking full advantage of this feature is an important part of online learning.
Another great feature for asking questions, gauging participation, and engaging the audience is polling. Polls serve as a knowledge check, break up periods of lecture or discussion, and interject an opportunity for quiet reflection. Polls also measure the percentage of the audience that is actively participating, which is helpful information for the trainer.
In addition to polling and chat features, most online learning platforms will include, in some form or another, feedback icons. Icons can be used as quick, informal polling tools, with certain buttons representing certain responses (for example, using a hand raise icon in response to the prompt, “raise your hand if…”) They provide a way for the audience to give real-time feedback to the trainer; expressing confusion, a desire to move faster or slower, agreement with a certain point, or the need for a break. Icons, in all their various forms, interject an element of interactive participation into virtual training that should not be overlooked.
Breakout sessions are also an available feature in most web hosting platforms and are a very effective way to engage a virtual audience. Breakouts are best used for smaller group discussions, activities, or assignments conducted away from the larger training session. They are, like their classroom
counterparts, a way to apply concepts discussed during the training session and are best followed by a whole-group discussion about the breakout activity.
Incorporating strong and powerful visuals are also an important part of being a successful virtual trainer. Visuals form a connection with an idea or topic in a way that words alone will not; hence the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A screen should never be cluttered with text when an image will do instead. There’s a reason pie charts and bar graphs are so popular: they’re an effective way to tell a story using a powerful visual.
The visual elements are critically important, but so too is the audio portion of the presentation. Successful virtual trainers should sound natural and conversational in their delivery, while also speaking with authority. A low, definitive tone is often best. There should be some enthusiasm too, but not to the point of obsequiousness. Avoiding up-speak, or the tendency to end sentences with a higher pitch so they sound like questions, is essential. So too is eliminating the dreaded filler words, such as “umm” and “uh” and “like.” Because a virtual audience is typically separated from the non-verbal cues of body language and facial expressions, the way they connect with a message will be based largely on how they hear it.
Successful virtual trainers also understand the power of incorporating changes in a learning presentation, and those changes come in two forms: macro changes and micro changes. Macro changes will involve stopping the flow of one activity (such as a lecture) to engage in another (such as a discussion) and the following it with yet another activity (such as a poll question) and then another (like a breakout session).
Macro changes serve to keep the audience active, while micro changes serve to hold the interest of the audience. Micro changes are slight and subtle changes to the visual or audio of a presentation that signal the need for continued attention. This is a technique borrowed from the entertainment industry. Movies and TV shows will often include several cuts in perspective to keep the audience looking, or audio cues to keep the audience listening. Successful virtual trainers can use similar methods. These will typically be in the form of something like advancing a slide, activating an animation, or changing the voice of the presenter. These small but mighty micro changes play a key part in holding the human attention span.
When it comes to human attention spans, it’s important to note again that they are severely shortened in virtual training compared to classroom training. This means that, in addition to using the techniques established so far to engage the audience, it’s also crucial to take frequent short breaks. More breaks are needed in fact for virtual training than for classroom training. There is no absolute rule of thumb for how often a break should occur, with each audience and topic being unique in that regard, but successful virtual trainers must plan to include regular breaks in their sessions.
Another consideration when planning virtual training is whether to include someone who will join the session in a support role to assist the trainer with various functions. This person is often called the producer, and will typically be responsible for greeting participants, introducing the presenter, monitoring the chat or Q&A panels for questions, answering questions in chat or interjecting with questions or discussion items as appropriate, and providing a change of voice to add interest. The producer also plays a valuable role in time management, assuring the session stays on schedule and breaks are taken as needed. The producer can also provide troubleshooting for any potentially
distracting technical issues. It is a virtual training best practice to include a producer and it should be done whenever possible.
The most successful virtual trainers are also experienced virtual students. Trainers should participate in as many virtual events as possible to evaluate best practices to incorporate into their own training sessions. Attending virtual training also gives a certain empathy for the audience, making trainers more attuned to what works and what doesn’t, and more aware of what it’s like on the other side of the experience.
Finally, practice. A successful actor would never perform their part without first rehearsing their lines. A successful athlete never take the field without first practicing their moves. A successful virtual trainer should not begin a training session without first practicing the material multiple times. As the saying goes: practice makes perfect.
Conducting virtual training can be intimidating, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Incorporating a few best practices, paying attention to the style of delivery, and considering the experience of the audience are the keys to becoming a successful virtual trainer.