Delighting the eye?

It happens all too often.  We spend hours, days, weeks even getting the most interesting and intelligent content together for our 2-hour virtual training session to wow our audience, and – guess what?   The session delivery is as flat as a pancake, and apparently about as engaging and exciting for attendees as watching paint dry, if you’ll forgive the double metaphor.

A colleague of mine who works regularly on Webex talks about the time when as a new virtual trainer she was running a session so focussed on getting key messages across that she spoke almost without a break for twenty minutes, showing endless text-heavy slides without a single visual to enliven them, and finally noticed that not only had some participants indicated their boredom by using a ‘sleeping’ emoticon to suggest this, but also in a few cases actually left the session without saying goodbye.  What had gone wrong? 

Well, some of the reason for the inducement to snooze was obvious. No trainer worth her salt will show slides with too much text in a face to face setting, so why do so in virtual space, where there is far less to engage and stimulate than in an actual classroom setting?

Time and time again, we’ve learned that when people get too engrossed in WHAT they are going to say when running live meetings online, they invariably forget to think about HOW they put their messages across.

And, if you’re not using a webcam in your live online meeting, it’s all too easy to forget that you’re talking to real people somewhere in the world – not just on your computer screen.

In our experience, many people new to virtual working get into something of a panic when they think about selecting and mastering the technology they’ll use. It’s as though nothing else counts. And once they’ve got used to whichever Internet platform or video conferencing suite they may have decided upon, it can feel like the job of running online training sessions or meetings is done. You can just sit back and relax. Can’t you?

The simple answer to that is ‘no’. Once you have the technology under your belt, the job of working effectively in virtual space has actually only just begun.

So, what invariably happens next? New recruits to virtual leadership, confident that they can get an Internet meeting up and running without technological challenges, may then spend little time considering how to make their meetings engaging and fun for participants. Or they may turn their focus to what we call ‘translation’ – literally taking the kinds of routines, rituals and activities they use in their face to face trainings or meetings, and finding a way to make these happen in exactly the same way in virtual space.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with ‘translation’ of this kind – in fact, it’s important to explore the multiple possibilities of the various Internet platforms now on offer, which of course increasingly grow in number and reduce in cost.

However, simply translating or transferring your content and training tools directly into a virtual setting, where that’s possible, is really missing the point.

As we regularly state in our Train the Online Trainer’ programme and via our website and virtual facilitation manual ‘Live Connections’, virtual communication is not at all the same as communicating face to face (excuse me if this seems obvious, but we sometimes forget it). Many of us have had the experience of being on holiday somewhere where we simply could not be understood in our native language and where the culture seemed alien and ‘out of sync’ with our own beliefs and values.

Communicating in virtual space with a new team, or attendees in a training programme whom we’ve never met before, is a little like that experience of learning to speak a new language in a culture where we just don’t yet know the rules of play.

In a previous blog, we’ve talked about the VELVET model, an acronym for six key elements in developing virtual leadership and facilitation skills. Engaging people visually is one of them, and while it is doubtless also of importance when working face to face, in that setting there is already plenty to catch the eye and stimulate the imagination.

In the virtual setting, where leaders and trainers are desperately hoping to keep their attendees’ attention focussed forwards onto their computer screen, making sure we can hold their gaze becomes something of an art form.

How do we do that? Here are three ways to hold attendees’ attention by appealing to their visual imagination.

  • The virtual ‘café’ space

What happens when you start your sessions with a brand new team or group of training attendees?

Do people chat, relax, get to know each other, or do they turn up, put themselves on ‘mute’, and disappear off to make a coffee or look at their emails?

In part, the answer to this question may depend upon the opening (visual) message that awaits people entering the session. As Nomadic facilitators, we make a point of starting any meeting with a slide or whiteboard of a strongly visual nature. Usually it is just an image, with a welcome message across it – sometimes we may also ask people to say something about themselves as they enter the session.  

One activity we use here is to show an actual café somewhere in the world, and ask people to guess in which country this might be. Any visual activity of this kind which gets people chatting and getting to know each other a little better is considerably more attractive and engaging than the typical ‘opening’ screen provided by the platform itself, which is usually a somewhat sparse-looking line of statistics about the meeting, and nothing to do.

  • ‘Positive graffiti’ – annotating slides

In face to face meetings or training events, facilitators these days try to be a little more circumspect with their use of Powerpoint slides, since reading text from a screen is not the most enlivening way to gather information – as my colleague’s experience above clearly highlights. 

But in virtual space, slides take on a completely different function. They not only provide a backbone to the session – highlighting process and timings, presenting activities, acting as a means to reflect and stimulate creativity – they are also a means to invite comment , conversation and ideas from participants, a discussion which thus takes place by inviting participants to annotate and draw on the slides. We’ve coined the phrase ‘positive graffiti’ to describe this collaborative way to involve and interact spontaneously with attendees, and it is usually at first surprising, and then extremely engaging to work together in this way.

And – as you can imagine – there is no obvious parallel activity in the face to face setting, where flip charted comments are usually managed by the trainer/ Chair, or at best by individuals contributing their ideas one at a time.

A group taking notes together by drawings and written commentary on a slide or whiteboard – at the same time, in the same shared space – is a powerfully energising (and sometimes relationship-building) process. Furthermore, people do not only feel visually stimulated by it; they also feel listened to, their views respected and included.

  • Make it personal – use photos of participants

Last on the list but it probably should be the first step in your preparation for a virtual session. Keeping the ‘human touch’ when working virtually (especially without a webcam) is to a great extent reminding yourself – and others within the group – that you are a human being talking to other human beings. When people work virtually for the first time, nerves and the general sense of distance between participants can make us feel detached, and sometimes rather formal and unfriendly in our delivery, compared with our usual ‘in the room’ presence. 

We always ask people attending Nomadic meetings to supply a photo of themselves in advance, which can then be uploaded to the slides used in the session. Just as we would in a f2f session, there are then introductions and a ‘Check In’ which includes people highlighting the photo they supplied, and saying a little bit about themselves.

It is astonishing what a difference this can make – the simple visual presence of a smiling face on a slide, and the possibility of connecting a face with a name. The reminder that you are talking to a real person, with real interests, skills, needs, values and a sense of humour – is one of the most important ways to build trust, develop relationships and generally help people to get on with each other (and therefore learn from and inform each other) as well as they possibly can, when separated by a geographical distance that often spans continents.

Please note: Many of the ideas discussed here are dealt with more fully in our book: Live Connections: Virtual Facilitation for High Engagement and Powerful Learning(Amazon, 2015). We would welcome your feedback, comments and questions on these ideas – please send to our email address below here.

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