That was my “straight-to-the-point” answer every time I was invited to bring one of my experiential learning workshops online. I’ve worked as a Trainer for the greater part of the past decade, and, considering my experience and certification in Experiential Learning, I was certain this work could not be done with the same impact in the online space.
I held these deep seeded limiting beliefs that:
1) Experiential Learning could not be implemented in an engaging manner virtually; and
2) I was not tech-savvy enough to deliver training online.
It prevented me from ever trying to facilitate training courses virtually… until March 2020. If there is one thing I can thank the Coronavirus pandemic for, it is that it forced me to tackle my limiting beliefs head on. I recognized early in the year that if I wasn’t willing to adapt, learn, and grow in this space then I might as well find myself a whole new career (not an option considering training is my purpose and my passion!)
I spent the greater part of 2020 learning, participating, experimenting, ideating, and challenging all my previous thoughts about what was possible in the online training room. I’m excited to share that it is possible to create engaging, interactive, connecting, meaningful, impactful, and FUN online meetings. For the first time in my life I’m a huge proponent of virtual learning! Who would have thought?
Over the course of this year, I’ve grown and learned a tremendous amount, and am still honing my craft each day. However, I’m excited to share with you My Top 10 Tips I’ve discovered along the way. I hope it will be helpful and also motivate you to try your hand at more online experiments and possibilities.
1. Engage from the Get – Go
In the face-to-face training space, trainers never usually welcome participants with a deafeningly quiet room and sit in total silence until all attendees have arrived. So why do we settle for this in the online space? The exact moment your participants arrive at your online workshop, you set the tone for how the meeting will run.
It’s important to facilitate activities from the very beginning for the early arrivers, which serves multiple purposes:
a) it engages everyone early on to foster interaction later on,
b) it creates a welcoming atmosphere and builds psychological safety,
c) it creates curiosity and intrigue and
d) it invites your participants to be present and ready to interact (instead of checking email until the official start).
Ways to engage from the get-go:
- Play music! This is so important. If you do nothing else, please just welcome participants with music in the background to create a welcoming mood.
- Invite participants to introduce themselves in the chat with some fun question prompts projected on the screen.
- “Guess that Tune” – play different songs and ask your participants to guess it in the chat.
- Share the whiteboard feature and ask participants to draw a group picture (using Zoom Annotation tool) incorporating the topic of the meeting.
2. Explain the Engagement
We forget that in the online space, there are many different ways to interact. Depending on the types of meetings most people are accustomed to, their idea of interaction may be completely different. Never take it for granted! It’s valuable to spend the time at the introduction of the meeting (or in a preparation email if you have limited time) teaching people the technology they’ll be using in the meeting, and explicitly outlining how you’d like them to engage.
- Should they hold their questions until the end?
- Comment in the chat?
- Unmute themselves to ask questions?
- Digitally raise their hand?
There are SO many options so be sure to know your preferences and communicate them out loud. Stating them explicitly encourages engagement from the kick off.
3. Connection before Content
There is something about the online format that makes the default communication one-directional. Even if we usually bring in icebreakers and energizers in our in-person workshops, it is easy to forget about them the second we arrive at the Zoom meeting. Yes, we are craving to get down to the meat of the meeting for efficiency and results, however, connection before content is key for trust building and paves the way for those results.
You can’t expect people to actively contribute if they don’t feel some sense of connection with the others in the Zoom room first. They may seem like frivolous activities to cut out when time is limited, but energizers, icebreakers, and connection activities may be more important in the virtual space than the in-person one. During this time of social distancing, we all crave connection; Ignoring this component is a disservice to all involved.
How to foster connection before content:
- Do a check in at the beginning of the meeting (more than just asking people how they are and not expecting honest answers, run activities to check the temperature and emotional climate of the group before you begin).
- Split people into breakout rooms to share about a particular fun or connecting topic. (For example, share something from this week you are grateful for).
- Play a game that encourages vulnerability and/or sharing, such as creating a common story – each person contributing one line at a time – to collectively make a story.
- Adjust your favorite in-person energizer and ice-breaker in the online context (most things can work online if you think creatively!).
4. Keep it Kinesthetic!
During my face-to-face workshops, I always incorporate activities that invite movement among participants. I realized that the moment I started my online workshops, the set up encourages us to stay immobile and within the Zoom square the entire time. Having people move around to interact is really important!
A wealth of research shows the importance of a quick movement or an embodied practice to stimulate the brain. We are all jumping from meeting to meeting where we have to stay seated in the same position. They say sitting is the new smoking. It’s not only bad for our bodies… it makes it harder to focus and engage with the content. Regular physical breaks are important.
Ways to invite movement online:
- Facilitate active energizing activities that encourage participants to move their bodies. You’d be surprised how many great energizers can translate in the virtual space. Don’t be afraid of looking silly, your participants will thank you for the body-mind break later!
- Lead regular group stretches throughout the session.
- Ask participants to stand up / sit down for quizzes and polls.
- Ask participants to bring materials to the camera/ workspace to gain a few minutes standing up, walking around, getting refreshed and refocused
5. Use Your Surroundings
I don’t believe that virtual meetings are better than in-person ones (and am still very skeptical when trainers claim so). However, one of the greatest advantages we have in the online learning space is this amazing window into the personal lives of our colleagues and participants!
The Zoom square acts as a window into the “behind the scenes” personal lives that we would never usually get to see if we met together in a white-walled training room. Many people like to use virtual backgrounds but why not use this square to our advantage? If done correctly, the results can prove to be truly connecting!
Ways to use the surrounding:
- Scavenger Hunt Activities: Participants bring objects from their surroundings to show on the camera. It’s always fun to ask for fluffy or loved objects, which usually results in pets and partners making a cameo appearance!
- Expeditions / Journeys: If the foundation of trust is there and the setting is right, it’s amazing to explore different locations and spaces during this time where traveling is very restricted. I love to ask participants to physically pick up their laptop and walk around with us to particular spaces. This is an especially great way to travel virtually when working with international groups!
6. Use Technology to Enhance Connection, not Distract From It
When I first thought about shifting to virtual workshops I was nervous I would have to learn about ALL the latest technological platforms to transfer my in-person methods online. I was stressed just thinking about all the new applications and elements I would have to keep introducing to my participants to keep it fresh and interesting for them.
However, what I saw was that fear of technology is a real pressure for attendees of all ages. Yes, even the youngest generation. Everyone wants to be sure they are doing it correctly, and with new tech platforms, there is a risk you’ll spend a large chunk of the meeting on explanations and orientation instead of the actual activity.
What I’ve earned is that less is more. It is better to simplify the technology and introduce small elements at a time (or spend time on larger tech orientation if you know you’ll be using the same platform with the same team for an extended period of time). One thing I dislike about external applications is that we end up staring at our screens instead of the faces of the people. While EdTech may look cool and be effective, it is important to always ask yourself if the tool will increase or decrease connection.
Tech hacks for increasing connection:
- Side by Side mode on Zoom (to see the faces of the people, not just the presentation slides). Also, be sure you stop screen sharing at moments and allow the group to see each other.
- Hide Self View (to recreate the in-person feeling by looking at the others instead of yourself)).
- Zoom Annotation (to invite interaction and engagement with the slides/content).
- Reactions and Emojis in the Zoom Chat and in the Rename Feature.
7. Design Moments Away from the Screen
Zoom Fatigue is real. The more time we spend staring at the screen, the more exhausting it is for our brains. Intentionally designing activities and methods where your participants can look away from the screen can prove extremely refreshing and invigorating for an online meeting.
Sure there are LOTS of flashy cool tools for digital collaboration, but sometimes an old fashioned pen and paper and holding our creations up to the screen can recreate that in-person feeling.
Methods to do this:
- Journaling activity with pen and paper
- Drawing on paper
- Visualizations / Guided Meditations that invite for closed eyes
- Mindful breathing and breaks
- Activities that invite focus around the physical room instead of the computer (Eye Spy is a great energizer to play)
8. Ask for nonverbal cues don’t just expect them
A key challenge for virtual training is the lack of non-verbal communication. It’s easy to ask participants to keep their video on in the meetings, however if you’re not going to question, engage, and ask for visual confirmation, then it becomes pointless for them to keep their videos on.
Non-verbal communication is not as apparent as it is in face-to-face workshops. It’s important to specifically ask participants for cues to be sure to know when to move on, or gage the feeling in the room.
Prompts to ask for non-verbal cues:
- Can I get a finger wiggle if…
- Thumbs up / Thumbs down if…
- Come closer to the camera or move as far away as possible if…
- Give me a big beautiful smile when you are ready to…
- Type done in the chat when you’ve finished.
9. Dual-Channel Learning
I used to be VERY hesitant to ever use Powerpoint slides in my work as they represent lectures to me, which have no place in my experiential training. However, I recognize now that these slides/visual inputs are very important for online training.
Slides provide dual-channel processing. Since we are not in person, the challenge is greater train for understanding. Visuals are important in this regard!
I’ve learned that having directions both on the slides and stating my directions out loud create better odds that everyone understands. I do use pictures and limit the amount of text, but I’ve noticed I use more text than I ever would have beforehand.
Where to download and use “plug and play” slides:
10. Never underestimate the power of music
I can’t stress this enough. Music creates the atmosphere. Implementing the same activities online with and without music can distinguish the difference between dry and playful interaction. Engaging the senses is a powerful way to stimulate the brain.
There are Zoom features that enable us to share music while sharing the screen as well as sharing only the audio.
Great moments to share music:
- On arrival (see point #1)
- When participants come back from the breakout rooms (much nicer than arriving again in a silent room until everyone circles back).
- During individual activities like journaling and drawing
- For energizing activities
- At the end of the session (when saying goodbye can be awkward, put on a song and invite participants to leave at any point before it ends).
These are my top 10 lessons, but there are SO many more. I’d love to hear from you in the comments section which one of these is your favorite and/or some of your own lessons you’ve learned in the transition to remote learning workshops. Let’s all continue learning and growing together in this new Zoomiverse.
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