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How to design and run engaging virtual training

Virtual training has been the way of the future for a long time — until the coronavirus pandemic hit, and it very much became the way of the present. Suddenly, people from all around the world had to adapt their in-person training sessions to the virtual space — and the transition has been anything but smooth. 

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make sure your online training gives value to your clients, even in a virtual environment. Facilitators and trainers are a creative bunch, and adapting to the new normal has been productive and exciting, as well as challenging!

So whether you’re a trainer that’s looking to better adjust to a virtual environment or a more experienced virtual trainer who’s constantly looking for ways to up their game — we’re here to help. Our in-depth guide will give you all the information you need to properly manage virtual training and retain the attention of your attendees! 

What is virtual training?

Before we get into the weeds of engaging virtual training, some of you may rightfully be asking — what is this in the first place? 

Basically, it’s a form of training that takes place in a virtual environment. And no, unfortunately, current technology doesn’t allow for a Matrix-esque experience! When we say virtual training, we mean training that is delivered over the Internet and using platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams to imitate the experience of in-person training. 

In most cases, these virtual trainings are live — the trainer and their attendees log into the agreed-upon platform simultaneously and interact with one another. And make no mistake — an adequately managed virtual training session is far more than a glorified Zoom call.

Great virtual training allows participants to partake in lively discussions, practice their skills, ask questions, and share their own experiences with the subject matter. 

What are the benefits of virtual training? 

There are plenty of benefits that come with organizing training in a virtual space — whether you’re leading, taking part, or hiring a virtual trainer. Let’s take a look!

  • Budgeting
  • Efficiency
  • Engagement
  • Spaced learning 

Budgeting 

In terms of cost-effectiveness, virtual training is vastly superior to in-person training. And that’s true for both money and time.

The vast expenses tied up in a staff member going away for training and their airfare, meals, car rentals, and hotels are all gone when the sessions move to a virtual space — not to mention the lowered costs of the actual training itself. Instead, all those funds can be put to better use — like improving the quality of the training. 

Online employee training also means hugely decreased training expenses per individual employee — with virtual training, you may extend the training to as many staff members as you’d like without raising the training budget. 

Efficiency

It’s not all about the money either — physical workshops simply take longer than virtual training sessions. Online training gives us the ability to compress days’ worth of training into shorter, more easily “consumable” sessions in a virtual classroom. And no meaningful content is sacrificed in the process — it all comes from eliminating the “noise” and bringing the focus back on the actually relevant stuff. 

Engagement 

While some people think that virtual training is more passive than in-person training, the reality is entirely opposite. On the one hand, online platforms for virtual training have interactive tools that mimic physical interactivity — like breakout groups, chats, polling, etc. 

And on the other, the online environment eliminates the real-world anxiety that prevents plenty of people from participating in the training process. This results in learners being exposed to input from their peers and a more cooperative training environment. 

Plus, all trends indicate that remote work comes with a sizable productivity boost — meaning more and more companies will be switching to this kind of organizational structure, at least partially.

Virtual training sessions prepare employees for a future of remote work perfectly — resulting in a more flexible workforce. 

Spaced learning

Virtual training can be self-serve, fully real-time, or some combination of the two. Now more than ever, it’s possible for employees who might not otherwise have been able to attend training to get involved. 

By delivering shorter modules – some of which may not be live – participants can enjoy the benefits of learning on their schedule. There’s also a heap of benefits associated with spaced learning that incorporates breaks between shorter training modules. Learning retention can increase by as much as 200%

Making the switch to virtual training

While many trainers may be aware of the benefits of switching to virtual sessions, it’s not an easy transition — certainly not as simple as logging into a platform and hosting a call. There are plenty of things to consider while making the switch to ensure the same (or higher) level of quality for all attendees. 

Improving the training design 

Once we shift content from physically present training to a virtual environment, cracks may appear in the original learning design — some things that were perfectly acceptable for an in-person delivery just aren’t a great fit now. 

This is inevitable with such a considerable modality shift, and it’s no reason to feel frustrated — it’s simply an obstacle to overcome.

For instance, you may find that virtual environments lend themselves to more inductive teaching methods — like providing challenges that lead learners towards conclusions rather than a traditional didactic approach. 

In a virtual “classroom,” more interactivity is required to keep attendees engaged because of the physical distance — and your instructional design has to reflect that. 

A one-for-one transition is not advisable

As we’ve mentioned, your training design will have to change for the online format — and that likely means your 5-hour training will change from its original in-person form. Again, these are two entirely different mediums, and adapting training from one to another will require adjustments. 

The transition from radio to television is a good analogy here. When radio broadcasters began appearing on TV, they just went through their scripts and spoke into their microphones as if the camera wasn’t there.

Obviously, we’ve made significant strides since then — and a similar kind of switch has to happen between in-person and virtual meetings as well. 

Virtual instruction requires more interactive activities, more visuals, and a more dynamic presentation compared to the static slides of in-person training.

It’s a good idea to shorten content into smaller chunks of time and add in smaller but more frequent breaks — staring at screens requires more concentration than following a presentation that’s happening directly in front of you. Also, more instruction feedback and participant prompting are necessary to keep everyone engaged and ensure the lessons are running smoothly. 

Be creative with platform tools

Recognizing that virtual training requires more engagement is one thing — actually enabling it is another. And one of the best ways to engage with virtual attendees is to leverage the numerous tools designed to facilitate online engagement!

However, it’s also important not to use them as a gimmick — using platform tools just for the sake of it is the wrong idea. Instead, each exercise needs to be thoughtful, substantive, and relevant to the topic — with clear learning objectives that can be accomplished creatively. 

Using polling, collaborative writing, Q/A features, and chat rooms for smaller group discussions are all good — but make sure each of these features serves a specific purpose at the right time.

You need to become accustomed to the constant use of annotation tools that will direct your learners’ attention — arrow pointing, circling, highlighting, etc. All of this brings a necessary level of dynamism to your virtual training. 

Blended learning in a virtual environment

Virtual instruction reaches its peak efficiency with a blended learning approach. In other words, providing online instruction in real-time is excellent — but it should be combined with post-work and pre-work learning activities. 

Reading articles or blogs, reviewing an infographic, completing an additional assignment, or even listening to a related podcast — a wealth of virtual activities can act as beneficial supplements to a virtual training course.

Realistically, most learners would rather spend their time productively than traveling to venues for in-person training — and that time is completely freed up with this learning medium.

Plus, preparation before and after training sessions allows instructors and learners to spend their time more productively during the class time itself — evaluation, analysis, discussion, example review; this is all stuff you would have far less time for in a physical venue. 

Providing support to instructors

For companies that can afford it, providing instructors with a technical assistant is an excellent way to free up their time and increase the overall efficiency of their virtual training. This would lift the stress that comes with managing the technical aspects and logistics of virtual platforms.

These assistants could also bookend the sessions — establish class netiquette, welcome participants, give a brief platform tutorial, close the session, etc. 

Any session delivered virtually can encounter technical issues. Having someone in the room whose job it is to fix those issues while the trainer focuses on leading the group can be very helpful! You might also benefit from having such an assistant handle some aspects of admin or group sign-up. 

Design your training sessions the easy way

Making virtual training engaging and fun

While paying enough attention to the design of your virtual training is important — keeping attendees participative and engaging in practice is just as crucial. And while a virtual setting is conducive to learning, it also comes with more distractions and less oversight. With that in mind, we’ll go over some of the tactics you can use in your training to ensure maximum participation. 

Set the tone right away

Before you kick off your first session, the learners need to realize that this will be an interactive experience — one that will require their active attention. Set expectations and rules right away.

For instance, encouraging learners to close other browser tabs and switch off push notifications is great for keeping everyone focused on the content at hand. Remind them that your time together is limited and how you’d all do your best to make the most of it. 

It may be a good idea to provide this information in a pre-event email and then repeat it during the first session to cement the tone and ensure focus. 

Use video

If you were to take just one piece of advice from this guide, we’d encourage you to pick this one — always have your video camera on. And that goes for your attendees as well.

Even if they’re not fully invested in the beginning, the trainees will want to seem engaged and attentive — and if their cameras are on, there’s less chance they’ll succumb to other distractions from the training. 

Of course, not everyone is prepared to switch their cameras on at a moment’s notice. That’s why you should notify everyone about this video requirement in advance; they’ll have no excuse not to be camera-ready then, and they’ll be able to prepare their setup. 

This is equally important for the instructor as well — turning on your webcam will allow trainees to read your facial expressions and non-verbal clues for a deeper understanding of the subjects you’re covering. 

In the first session, you should also explain why turning on everyone’s video is important for collaboration and engagement. After all, you have no real authority at the start of the lesson, and people need logical reasons to listen to you.

Finally, thank the first participants who turn their video on individually — positive reinforcement will also encourage everyone else. 

Encourage engagement

A successful training session requires interaction, which means setting the tone for engagement and participation right away. Make sure you design opportunities for participation right away, ideally, in the first couple of minutes. That will get everyone on the same page, and they’ll be more open to engagement down the line as well. 

If you want to maintain the participants’ engagement throughout your session, aim for some kind of interaction every 10 minutes. And if that sounds like too much, it’s really not — we’re not talking about complex assignments or formal engagement.

Small, piecemeal casual engagement will keep everyone’s attention focused on the lesson. When they expect you to ask questions throughout the training, attendees will be far more attentive.

For example, you can encourage participants to share their experience with the current topic in the chat — or simply raise their hands if they’ve done something similar before. And at the end of each section, you can allow learners to share their biggest takeaways from that part of the lesson. 

Be patient with responses

In every virtual training group, you will inevitably encounter learners that are harder to draw out. Being patient with them is absolutely essential for the success of the entire group — if you don’t receive a response to a participation query, make sure to wait for someone to respond.

Conversely, if you were just to ignore the lack of participation and move on, you’d be setting a dangerous precedent — people would realize they can passively watch and not answer your questions. 

When you’re dealing with an unengaged audience, let them know you’re happy to wait for a couple of minutes for them to type out their responses. Also, ask if the question was clear and reframe it to clarify further. Finally, consider if you need to make the question simpler — sometimes, answering a vague or complex question via chat or a crowded call can be difficult. 

Also, once people respond — you should acknowledge their responses to encourage further interaction. A common technique is using first names to reward participants with attention and show you care about what they have to say — “John is saying he’s a beginner,” etc. 

Feedback loops 

As you can see, it’s essential to show learners that their responses are a crucial part of the training process. With that in mind, creating feedback loops that integrate these responses into the training is a great way to give them significance. 

For example, you can ask learners to rate their knowledge on a given topic before you begin covering it. If a majority of people have little to no experience with the subject matter, you can say something like, “I’ve noticed many of you guys are starting — that’s awesome, and I’ve got some useful tips for you!” 

You can find all kinds of logical places where similar feedback loops could increase learners’ engagement with your work and slowly shape how you go through the training. 

Maintain the focus on yourself

In many cases, attendees feel less engaged with a virtual training session if they look at an endless array of slides. While it’s necessary to point to visuals you’ve prepared throughout the lesson — make sure you begin and end each training session with yourself in focus instead of other content. Doing this will help you establish a more personal connection with your trainees. 

Maintain a conversational tone

Speaking of connecting to the audience — if you want to keep them engaged, remember that there’s no form of interaction more engaging than a human conversation. That’s why it’s important to keep your style and tone conversational.

Your goal here is for the trainees to feel like they’re having a chat with you, rather than just waiting for your monologue to end. 

Naturally, a large part of virtual training does consist of your exposition. However, there are ways of making it more conversational. For example, anticipating the audience’s response to what you’re saying and acting accordingly is a great technique to learn. 

For example, if you’re broaching a complex topic, assume people will start nodding in understanding and concentration and nod back. Or, if you’re trying to lighten the mood with a joke, feel free to laugh as well. This kind of approach acknowledges your audience and maintains a more conversational, less formal style. 

Use breakout groups

Sometimes, participants won’t feel comfortable talking about something in a bigger group — and breakout sessions with smaller groups are an excellent way to ensure everyone participates.

Just make sure each group has detailed, clear instructions on what to do during their breakout session. You can also select a random (or not random, depending on your preferences) leader in each group to make the activity or discussion less awkward. 

If you’re going to divide people into breakout groups, it can also be useful to give them some time to think about the subject individually before participating in group discussions. For example, a couple of minutes for solo preparation, followed by more time for group discussion, and then some more for a class-wide discussion.

As long as you structure these sessions properly, you’ll find that breakout sessions are an incredibly powerful sub-format within virtual training. 

Use virtual icebreakers

Just as with any other new social group — an online training session could always use an icebreaker. And that’s especially important for the trainers running these groups. If you get your training moving with a fun icebreaker, you’ll reduce a lot of the awkwardness that can be hard to shake in the beginning. 

Make a trivia game on relevant topics — or encourage people to show up with fun backgrounds that have become a staple of virtual work environments in the past couple of years.

This kind of lighthearted stuff can be a great conversation starter, and it definitely puts everyone at ease. 

Upscale your visual content

If there’s one rule that’s true for every medium — it’s that quality content always wins. And while most of our guide focuses on building a connection with your audience and keeping them engaged, your visual content plays a large part in that as well. 

Make sure your slides don’t look like something made in Microsoft Office 97. Luckily, the Internet is filled with ideas for modern presentation visuals. Also, ensure that your main takeaways for each slide are condensed in the header. 

The other rules are pretty much the same as creating an engaging presentation for in-person events — keep it light on text, highlight key points, and avoid long paragraphs that can be condensed into bullet points you’ll explain anyway.

A couple of fill-in-the-blanks from time to time will also keep people engaged — as will the occasional meme to maintain an informal mood. 

Mix synchronous and asynchronous tasks

Many of the best virtual training sessions are delivered engagingly and in real-time, but not all learning is done during the session. Many trainers and facilitators are finding success using asynchronous learning to buffer virtual training sessions and support further learning. 

Try adding tasks that participants can complete ahead of the session to get them in the right mindset for learning. Ask a set of questions they should answer ahead of the virtual training or even set a practical task. Simply suggesting that your group take some time to reflect on a certain point

When using asynchronous tasks in your virtual training, try to include a virtual space where your group can share results and reflect together. A shared Google Doc or online whiteboard to work and collect results ahead of training can be a great way to supplement your training materials!  

Create a community 

One ingredient of any learning experience is the cohort of people undertaking that learning together. Whether it’s at school, university, or in virtual training, people often gain value from their peers as well as from the sessions. 

Create a community where your trainees or participants can hang out, discuss tasks and simply get to know each other better.

Sharing knowledge and talking about challenges as a cohort can massively increase the value of your virtual training. And remember, it doesn’t need to be a fully featured community platform to be useful. A private LinkedIn or Facebook Group can be just as effective as any other space!

Virtual trainers and facilitators have a lot in common. While methods may differ, both professions look to guide a group through a process and help them achieve their goals. 

What skills do virtual trainers need to be successful? 

While modern technology makes organizing virtual training sessions easier than ever that doesn’t mean anyone can be a virtual trainer. There are certain skills that any budding virtual trainer needs to master to make their online training sessions professional, polished, and above all else — engaging. 

Multitasking 

As you might have gathered from some of the tips we’ve shared above — a great virtual trainer needs to keep the reins on multiple things at once. It’s quite easy to focus too heavily on the presentation at hand and lose focus when it comes to the other aspects of online teaching.

Remember — your success depends on your dialogue and engagement just as much as it does on how well you’ve presented information to the trainees. 

That’s why successful trainers facilitate activities, watch the group chat, and monitor the individual screens for anyone raising their hands or making other notable gestures at the same time.

This kind of multitasking doesn’t come to everyone naturally — but just like any other skill, it can be learned, and it’s something you will get better at over time. 

Becoming more tech-savvy

With in-person training sessions, trainers frequently take the time to familiarize themselves with the venue and any technology or props they’ll be using to make their presentation.

After all, you need to present a collected, professional face to build authority with the audience — fiddling around as you’re mastering the technology on the fly just erodes confidence.

The same thing is true with virtual training sessions — the instructor needs to have all the ins and outs of the virtual classroom in the palm of their hand. Knowing how to use every tool on your platform of choice is essential for basic lesson planning. It’s also unavoidable if you’re going to multitask — effortlessly switching between a virtual whiteboard, your own screen and interacting with the attendees takes practice and mastery over the software. 

This also allows you to be calm and collected when something goes wrong — as it inevitably will. An attendee might not be able to find the group chatbox or connect to the platform. Your own Internet connection might go down — there are all sorts of things you can’t predict.

However, someone who’s comfortable with the platform and the assorted technology will be able to cope with minor disasters without being overwhelmed. 

Making everyone comfortable

As obvious as this may seem — you need to develop a rapport with all of your attendees. They need to be as comfortable as possible in every group interaction, something that can be especially tough in a corporate virtual training environment. 

At the start of the training, you need to pay special attention to making everyone comfortable — recognize that they may be new to virtual learning and put any non-tech-savvy newcomers at ease.

If you’re someone who’s used to hosting in-person training events, you may need to adjust your rapport for an online environment. 

It takes a specific kind of social intelligence to overcome the unique challenge of forging a bond with attendees in a virtual space. Make sure you can establish a human connection with them regardless of your physical distance; they need to feel like they’re talking to a real person and not just a virtual instructor. 

If you’re having trouble with developing this skill, think of your job as something similar to a TV personality — someone engaging a remote audience but with more interaction.

This is where the importance of audience engagement really shines through. The more you encourage attendees to ask questions and discuss the subject matter, the more comfortable they’ll get with the virtual classroom. 

Teaching

Speaking of the classroom — you need to remember that there’s a reason why we call it a virtual classroom, and not just any virtual room. At the end of the day, the most important skill for virtual trainers is the same one you need for in-person training: teaching.

Especially in an online environment, it’s easy to get caught up in your own lecture — particularly when the attendees are unseen or quiet. You need to remember that you’re not a lecturer to a passive audience — you’re a teacher, someone who’s supposed to facilitate their learning process. 

Simultaneously, you need to master that delicate balance of acknowledging the needs of the audience while not reacting to every single chat comment or question. Instead of getting bogged down, you need to keep the training flowing by responding to similar questions in batches. 

Develop an authentic style

All of the skills we’ve mentioned above do not come to most people naturally — they take preparation and practice. So, you’ll need to develop them through constant experience, though preparing for sessions in detail is just as crucial to the success of your class. 

Sometimes, it’s useful to write out an entire script — you can deviate from it and improvise as needed, but having it in mind as a rough construct of the lesson is always useful.

If you’re a novice trainer, don’t worry — over time and through practice, you’ll develop your own authentic style that you’re comfortable with, and you won’t need to think about everything as much as it’ll come to you naturally. 

Improve your facilitation skills

Virtual trainers and facilitators have a lot in common. While methods may differ, both professions look to guide a group through a process and help them achieve their goals. 

Learning about facilitation and the skills a facilitator uses during workshops and meetings can be illuminating. You’ll likely find that you are doing lots of what a facilitator does while also learning lots of new tips and tricks for keeping a group engaged! 

Conclusion

Transitioning to online training and trying to stand out from the crowd can be a challenge. Developing more engaging virtual training with some of the tips above can help you win clients and shape the next generation of learning experiences. 

Anything to add? Did you find this guide useful or have any insights you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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