Getting up close and personal in virtual space

Looking back over some 15 years of training senior executives to work and lead effectively across distance, from the collective feedback received from Nomadic’s participants so far, there is one comment in particular which stays with me.

And that is from Angela, a woman who – unlike many of our clients – is a senior leader in a global retail business and had already been running meetings and training events virtually for some years when she joined our programme.

Yet she had always seen virtual collaboration as a challenge and continued to miss the days when corporate travel budgets had allowed her to visit clients in person, rather than rely on an online platform to chat across the kilometres.  

Her comment?

‘I always thought that meeting clients and colleagues via the Internet was too formal and clinical to be enjoyable. I never knew how engaging it could be. It was fun, utterly fun, from start to finish!’

When asked for more detail on what had transformed her experience of working virtually from reluctant resignation to a ‘second-rate alternative’ to a positively pleasurable experience, the executive spoke about the level of interaction that was possible, and the appeal to the imagination through visual as well as verbal content in the online setting.

However, there was one thing that had struck her above all.

‘It’s the opportunity to tell and listen to stories with and from other people’ she said. ‘The possibility for sharing anecdotes from our experience and learning from each other in that way is far more powerful and inspiring than I could possibly have imagined.’

It’s interesting to think what this suggests about our preconceptions regarding virtual meetings and training events.

Aside from the obvious and prevalent concerns about managing the technology and the embarrassing impact when it fails us, we notice a tendency for many ‘newbie’ leaders, facilitators and trainers in virtual space to focus simply upon trying to do exactly what they do in the face to face setting via virtual technology, often with a dominating focus upon keeping control of the session as top priority.

In consequence, their eyes are upon managing the time tightly by keeping questions and interaction to a minimum or via written communication only rather than ‘out loud’ conversation – tendencies which become particularly marked when working with a large group of people online. 

We have got used to the idea of webinars, a one-way presentational style much akin to delivering a lecture over the Internet with extremely limited scope or space for audience reaction.

And where there is a dialogue or spontaneous interaction on a webinar it is usually between the facilitator and individual participants, rather than between the participants themselves.

Webinars do of course hold an important place in virtual learning and communication, and with justification, but let’s not forget that they are only one means to do so.

We know from experience that when participants are positioned passively on mute without the chance to speak or raise questions, it is akin to being held at arms’ length from the content of the session.

The participants opportunity to share comments and reflections stalled by the pressures of time or the facilitator’s fear of departing from the script and losing control of the session.

In these conditions, even with the most brilliant content and confident delivery, audience engagement will remain strictly limited by the fact that they are not given the chance to express, and develop, a personal connection with your material.

There is also increasing anecdotal evidence and a growing body of research which shows that virtual training can very often match – and sometimes actually surpass – the outcomes offered by its face to face equivalent. If virtual sessions are thoughtfully and realistically designed for the intensive, focussed and (in many ways) more demanding atmosphere of the online classroom.

That may mean that simply ‘translating’ content from the face to face setting without adjustment is not a 100% reliable recipe for success.

Perhaps it really is time, as Ashridge academic Professor Ghislaine Caulat has suggested, that we stopped thinking of virtual meetings as a ‘second rate alternative’ to their face to face counterpart and started considering the advantages for intimate collaboration and personal connection that the online meeting can provide.

Experiential learning via sharing and building upon examples from professional life is one form of storytelling, and a powerful means of building relationships and creating deeper understanding between colleagues and clients, as we know from its prevalence in face to face training and other forms of meeting for some years.

But in virtual space, it can be just as inspiring. Here, in no particular order of importance, are some ways in which trainers and leaders may wish to consider using it in meetings:

  • On many Internet platforms, it is possible to set up ‘breakout rooms’ where attendees are able to meet in small groups and engage in the kind of intimate, inclusive conversation that this setting provides.

Nomadic regularly uses breakout rooms to enable intensive story-sharing around personal and professional values, challenges and needs, much like a confidential group coaching session.

The outcome of such conversations is usually not only some highly stimulating, thought-provoking content, but also a heightened sense of enjoyment and emotional connection between those party to them.

  • In a larger group setting, without the opportunity for private collaboration in breakouts, meeting attendees can be invited to connect with a speaker/facilitator by writing or drawing their reactions and the personal connection they make with the topics discussed on a whiteboard.

This not only can create a sense of ‘gradual revelation’ as attendees reactions appear as words or short phrases, but also the intrigue of the metaphorical reaction via images or drawings.

Following this, some discussion of the reactions is usually possible even in a big group, and, crucially, some building of connections between the words and images spontaneously shown.

  • A third example is the use of images on a slide to trigger some group story-telling.

This is an activity where, in a group of up to 10 people, attendees take it in turns to comment on photos shown one at a time in sequence on the slide, so that they are not only adding their interpretation of the image’s significance within the story, but building the story step by step.

What is the value and purpose of storytelling in this context?

  • Enjoyment
  • Playfulness
  • Engagement
  • Harnessing the imagination and interpretive energy of participants
  • Finding individual and group connections
  • Collaboration around specific professional themes, aided by the stimulation of visual imagery and metaphorical text on whiteboards and slides

But, there is something even more important here.

Angela spoke of this herself. She had been asked in one of Nomadic’s ‘Train the Online Trainer’ sessions to prepare a practice presentation describing her summer holiday.

Inevitably this somewhat over-discussed and bland topic might have raised a sigh in a less creative person, but she introduced the topic through a single slide, showing images of her trip to the UK, and told a story relating to each image.

The story was unexceptional enough, but the attention paid to it was not. Her audience were asked to comment afterwards upon not only what she said, but also the ‘unspoken messages’ carried by the quality of her voice, the tone of her delivery in general.

When she had received the group’s commentary, Angela sat quiet for a moment or two. Then spoke, her voice a little shakey with emotion.

‘I have the feeling of being listened to, really listened to’ she said. ‘It’s as though this group understands what matters to me, and cares enough to pay attention to how I talk about it. That’s such a rare feeling in my professional life. It’s liberating, and I’ve really learned from this. Thank you.’

Providing synchronous online training is in many ways fundamentally different than face to face training and needs specific skills from the facilitator. Being unfamiliar with online facilitation, fear of technology, or simply not knowing where to start, may all be barriers to providing online training, so Nomadic IBP have a Train the Online Trainer – Virtual Facilitation Skills programme that you can read more about.

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