Back in the day, I was an OK trainer. I received good evaluations, but I knew I was a slow burn. If the program was 2-3 days in duration, I could shine because I could engage and overwhelm participants with my in-depth knowledge and real-life stories. My sense of humor also helped. A shorter session was more challenging.
I was reflective rather than dynamic which was good for some audiences (particularly in Asia), but less optimal for others (e.g. investment bankers anywhere). My training materials were always packed with useful information that could be referenced after the class (though I doubt they were). I was an intellectually passionate ‘content guy’ who was happy to be in a state of cognitive overload most of the time. How many unwarranted assumptions I must have made about the audience sharing my passion for extreme learning.
I could have continued like this until retirement, but something forced me to re-evaluate my style – technology. Our clients at TMA World and Country Navigator were demanding relatively short virtual classroom (VC) deliveries, and I needed to adapt.
My first few attempts were a mess because I tried to replicate what I did in the face-to-face (F2F) classroom. The virtual classroom didn’t lend itself to my slow burn, knowledge-heavy approach, and I had to take a long hard look at my skill set. Let me share four things I had to think about more carefully.
1 Intensifying my preparation
I would prepare for my F2F classes by making sure I knew the objectives, content, and design, and something about the audience. For VCs I had to up my game. Virtual training requires more multi-tasking than F2F, i.e. not only must you pay attention to the content and activities, but also to continuous signals on the screen that demand your attention: private and public comments in chat boxes, input from participants in note-pods, and electronic hands being raised to signal someone has a question. These signals can be easier to see when F2F. Despite having to multi-task, moving the class along smoothly is essential to your perceived competence. No matter how good your subject expertise, dead ‘air time’ throws doubt on your overall credibility. Make sure you rehearse, and not just in your head; you must reach a high comfort level with the technology so that it becomes a natural extension of your body and mind, not a clumsy appendage.
Preparing for a VC also means more contingency planning. What if you lose the Internet? Do you have someone in your company or the client company who can act as a producer – someone to forward slides, conduct polls, and put people into breakout rooms and help find a solution? On several occasions, I have been ‘virtually blind”, i.e. not being able to see the live screen and only able to proceed by using a hardcopy of the slides and a phone connection. I have also agreed with a neighbor that I can use her network if mine goes down, and I also know where to find public wi-fi hotspots.
2 Managing my tendency to over-teach
Interactional momentum – that became my mantra for designing a VC. The success of a VC rests on the frequency of interactions which are just as important as the content itself. Content isn’t king or queen in a virtual space, and that was a hard lesson for me to learn. I had to let go of ‘teaching’ and start facilitating learning. I had to strip content out – sometimes brutally – to uncover the essentials. I also had to make sure participants could engage with the content and with each other almost immediately by using chat boxes, polls, whiteboards, and breakout rooms. Good virtual classroom tools allow you to create pre-defined instructional layouts so that moving from content slides to activities happens at the click of a button. Master virtual trainers say the facilitator should interact with participants every 3-5 min, e.g. by asking questions and collecting and discussing input. Personally, I think 5 minutes is too long.
3 Controlling my tendency to go rogue
In face-to-face classes, I would ‘read’ my audience and spontaneously take the session in a different direction if I thought it would be more productive. I have found that spontaneity to be almost impossible in a VC. Are slides instantly available to support your new track? You cannot spend time looking for them or creating something new on a whiteboard. What are your participants doing in the meantime? Most likely switching off and doing their email. Everything in a VC needs to be tighter, e.g. the structural design, timing, and signposting. Organization and coordination of all the elements are critical for VC success. I thought I would hate the discipline of training in a VC, but it felt liberating. Stick to the script (without reading it), and you will be less stressed. Your participants will also more easily grasp the logic of the session.
4 Making the most of my voice
I suppose my persona in face-to-face classes was that of the ‘Sage’, the ‘Professor’. My voice was typically soft, even monotonal at times, and that can be deadly for the virtual space. I had to become much more aware of the impact of my voice. What impact did my inflections and pauses have on the meaning I was trying to convey? What about my voice tone – was it upbeat, warm and personable, confident, and calm? I remember recording my voice, and not being happy. I couldn’t believe how slow and hesitant I sounded, and my lack of tonal variation could put me to sleep. I had to learn the discipline of voice acting. That was difficult because sometimes I sounded inauthentic – at least to my own ears – but learning to use the voice as an instrument became fun and yet again . . . liberating.
The VC world helped me be a better trainer. Proof that an old dog can learn new tricks.