Tips for conducting successful virtual workshops

 

Written by Josephine Palermo, co-Creator Higher Spaces

Five years ago, an online recruitment company Flex.Jobs projected that 50% of people in the US will work remotely by 2020. Little did they know that the whole world would be working remotely by March 2020 due to Covid-19.

For those of us who coach and train others for living, this rapid shift has us asking, how do we adapt what we do best to an online environment. Here are some tips for conducting your successful virtual workshop:

  1. Your physical environment creates a relaxed and trust-evoking session
  2. Activate people
  3. Choose the right tools to suit your workshop objectives
  4. Hold people’s focus and attention for the whole time
  5. Practice it first, seek feedback and make adjustments

Set up your physical environment to create a relaxed trust-evoking session

Many web-based video conferencing software products allow you to add a graphics background to your screen while presenting. While they look very cool, you may not be conveying a feeling of trustworthiness to your audience who just want to see the real you. If you want to create a more authentic presentation environment, pay attention to your physical background and design it to fit your own unique personality.

Jane Anderson understands the importance of creating the right physical environment. At a recent virtual content creation workshop she created a warm landscape in her home office. It even included a whiteboard and flipchart, reminiscent of a more traditional face-to-face workshop environment. She elevated her screen so she could present while standing which keeps her energised. She positioned lamps and lighting to remove shadows from her face and illuminated the entire area. Some of you might like to place your favourite books on bookcases behind you, or plants and artwork to generate your own unique background. I love the way natural light lights up your skin so I always go virtual in front of a big window. If one isn’t available I point a lamp up to the ceiling to provide the diffused light.

Activate People

Good facilitation strategies are repeatable in a virtual environment. It just takes a bit of forward planning and practice. Don’t make the mistake of taking a presentation you gave in front of a live audience and deliver it in the same way in front of an online audience. There are adaptations you need to make because the audience’s attention and participation require activation in a different way.

Howspace is a digital platform that helps people collaborate and create together virtually. They encourage their users to think about how to activate people whilst presenting online. 

Encouraging participants to take part, whilst managing dominant voices and activating collaborative creativity are all hallmarks of advanced facilitation. In virtual workshops, these characteristics are even more important as people are more reluctant to speak up and more likely to hide behind their screens. When I give a virtual workshop I always start out with setting expectations about participant feedback, and virtual netiquette. Sharing expectations about how people will speak and respect others’ voices are important.

I always begin with an energiser exercise that gets everyone on the call speaking. This also ensures that everyone has the capability to take part and it’s a great time to check on anyone experiencing internet connection or audio problems. Sometimes participants have the capability to participate but are reluctant for various reasons. A great idea I picked up from a speaker recently (thanks Simon Fieldhouse!) encouraged the audience to stay connected via video. After ensuring everyone was connected, he encouraged people to stay visible by stating that he was running a competition for the best background and that would announce the winner towards the end of the session. There was no prize, but the game kept us all attentive and commenting on each others’ home environment. What a great incentive to keep our cameras switched on!

It’s always a good idea to plan collaborative or experiential moments during the workshop to maintain audience involvement throughout the workshop. Structuring activity to allow participants to share with others as a whole group or in break out rooms is a possibility in a virtual environment. Even allowing for personal reflection at appropriate moments during the workshop can increase participation at other moments.

Choose the right tools to suit your workshop objectives

The problem here is that there are lots of choices, too many to choose from. So my advice is, keep it simple.

Susan Colaric, (Assistant Vice president for Instructional Technology at Saint Leo University) agrees, “The most effective web conferences are those that only use the technology you need. Keep it simple; is the best way to have people focus on your message and not the technology.” (cited from Inc.com)

You might need different tools for different parts of the workshop. Great video conference software examples are ZoomMicrosoft Teams or Hangouts, as they also have chat and share screen functionality. Others include Bluejeans, Adobe Acrobat Connect, GoToMeeting and WebEx. Miro is a great collaborative software tool that uses virtual post-it notes on a virtual whiteboard. I have often used sli.do to create live polls and seek questions from an online audience. There are also lots of tools for providing platforms for online course delivery such as Teachable, Udemy, and Coursera.

Hold people’s focus and attention for the whole time

Moving to an online environment might need you to re-think that day-long workshop into shorter chunks of time.

Susan Colaric suggests that video-conference presentations should actually move at a slower pace than a typical meeting due to a two to three second delay for most systems to communicate.

Make sure there are enough pauses after you have asked a question to the group and wait a couple of minutes before continuing. Social interaction in online environments can sometimes take longer as people wait for one speaker to finish speaking before offering the next point. If you have planned participatory moments in your workshop expect them to take longer than when you deliver them face-to-face. Check-in on how people are feeling and whether they need a break. Think about getting people up on their feet and stretching. Or better still invite a trained professional to take the participants through gentle movement and stretching during the breaks. Considering the physical wellbeing of participants will people to remain alert and participate .

Invite speakers that will hold people’s attention and curiosity

In face to face workshops, there are extra costs related to inviting speakers to your event, including travel, accommodation, and subsistence. These costs disappear during a time when everyone is attending virtually. So get audacious with your invited speaker goals. Reach out to people you have previously thought were beyond your reach. Think of your dream dinner date (mine is Richard Branson) and invite them. You never know what could happen. Virtual environments are powerful levelling fields. Go beyond your current circle of influence, it’s worth a shot!

Interview an expert, engage your audience in asking questions

Think of variations in the presentation mode you usually use in a face-to-face environment. One idea could be to use an interview to elicit the ideas you would like to share in your workshop. You could interview an influencer or form a panel of people with various skills and expertise. Invite people your target audience would see as credible and plan your questions beforehand. Better still, invite your participants to input their questions before the event. This gives them a reason to engage with you and other participants even before the start of your workshop. If you want to replicate the experience of having people ask questions to the speaker in real-time, you might want to consider using the chat functionality in the video conferencing platform you are using (they all have one). For more advanced functionality use sli.do to create polls that participants can respond to during the interview, with immediate results available to them and you as responses come in.

Consider LIVE-Streaming

Eventbrite suggests live streaming workshop events to allow others to join who are not directly taking part in the session. There are lots of options if you’re on a budget, like using Facebook or Instagram Live. This could attract more interest in later workshops you run and create a larger audience for engaging in feedback post your workshop. According to Facebook Live, users watch live video 3x longer and comment 10x more than recorded footage.

Practice it first,  seek feedback and make adjustments

There are many elements that need to come together when delivering a workshop online.  Even if you are a seasoned presenter, it’s always a good idea to take a test run. Conduct a focus group or conduct a mock session with a group of trusted friends or colleagues (thanks to elearningindustry.com for this tip). You can use their feedback to test the technology and improve the structure of your workshop. And what a great way to get testimonials pre-workshop to drum up more participants and clients. Higher Spaces can provide you with a mentor or coach to assist you in gaining valuable feedback so you can guarantee your proof perfect successful virtual workshop.

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