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Virtual Facilitation — How to connect with your remote audience.



“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end...

with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality,

whatever they might be.”


— Admiral Jim Stockdale





In the current reality of a global pandemic, fassforward ran a wide-ranging study on remote learning. The goal: to understand how remote work would fundamentally change. As part of the study, we conducted qualitative interviews with over ninety business leaders, HR professionals, learning practitioners, and academics to find out how remote learning would change. At the same time, our learning designers and facilitators grappled with that same reality. This is their story.



The start of a dog-year.

It was the end of February 2020, having come off a week of warmth and sunshine on one of those islands you dream about sometime right after the holidays. I returned home completely relaxed — energized, and ready to go. I was scheduled to travel Monday morning to facilitate a series of in-person workshops. I knew the drill; I was confident in the material, comfortable with the venue and I looked forward to reuniting with my co-facilitator. It was not to be. Sunday the phone rings and my colleague said, “the workshop is on hold, sit tight, I’ve been told that everyone has been sent home.”


The significance of what she said at that moment was stunning. This client is a Fortune 15 company with well over 100,000 employees. One dog-year later, our firm had to face a brutal fact. In-person facilitation was on hold for the foreseeable future. We had to pivot quickly to remote delivery to survive. And I had to learn how to facilitate virtual workshops.


That might sound easy, given 12 years of experience in face-to-face facilitation, but soon I found out, it wasn’t. The rules had changed. The primary senses we rely on for feedback; touch, sight, and sound were gone or became so nuanced, they might as well be gone. I even missed the smell of a conference room and the taste of coffee and refreshments. Sure, I still had sight and sound, but now these sights and sounds were reduced to a one-inch video tile in two dimensions on my laptop screen. On top of that, like many of us, I struggled with technology challenges while working from home. What I found was not only did I have a steep learning curve but so did my audience.



It was a rough start.

What was once considered a “shared” space in my home transformed quickly into “my” space. The initial start-up was a lot of trial and error. Installing the hardware, headset, webcam, lighting, and fast internet was the easy part. Delivering my first virtual session is when the heavy lifting began.


The firm chose to be platform agnostic. Whatever the client uses — or wants to use — is what we will use to facilitate their session. Today we deliver our programs across a half dozen platforms, all of which have their own nuances. Think of it like driving a car every day. Everyone does that. But with one small wrinkle — it's a different car every day. The indicator switch and gas cap constantly change sides, the radio is never set up the way you like it, and you can never find the fog lamp button. I mention this because technology adds another level of complexity and stress beyond delivering your content. By comparison, I could walk into an in-person workshop confident in my knowledge of the content and my years of experience as a facilitator and predict a high probability of success.


This is not the case with a virtual session. Plan on almost certain technical difficulties. Troubleshooting and having a back-up plan now become a necessity and a newly learned skill. And the level of stress is not just with the facilitator, but the participants as well. My colleague remembers the time when I was in control of the slides and was suddenly knocked out of the session. It took several attempts to get back in. Fortunately, his ad-lib skills kept everyone engaged until I resumed control of the slides. To this day he still has nightmares over that.


Facilitating virtual conversations and content presents some unique challenges. For example, we had a client whereby not all the participants had access to a webcam or audio technology. That meant some had no audio and video capability while others did. Those without had to use the chat function. The path of least resistance for me was to engage those who were more present. I would never consider that in an in-person workshop. Making it easier for everyone to engage within the group is the number one goal for all facilitators. The ease of facilitating that conversation all but eliminated the spontaneity. We searched the chat box for input to ensure their voices were heard and made sure those on camera didn’t dominate the conversation.


A good length for an online session runs 40-60 minutes. Compare that with an in-person workshop that is usually designed to be a day to a day and a half. It would be an understatement to say I am not more exhausted running a virtual session than an in-person session. Perhaps Sarah Gershman captured my feelings best in her article “Yes, Virtual Presenting Is Weird.” Pre-Covid when we presented in person, we could rely on the audience’s response to confirm that our message was being received. In virtual presentations, however, we lack audience feedback. We no longer see body language. We often don’t see people nodding their heads (or nodding off if they are bored) and it is much harder to make eye contact.


As a result, we feel like no one is listening. Unfortunately, this makes us even more anxious about speaking. And even worse, because we feel as if no one is listening, we speak as if no one is listening. We sound less connected to the audience. We speak in more of a monotone. We ramble and have trouble finishing a thought. This only makes the problem worse — it both reinforces our anxiety and makes for a poor presentation. After all, the more disconnected we sound, the harder it is for the audience to listen.”¹ What I miss most about facilitating in-person workshops was creating the conditions for conversations to occur between participants themselves. I never felt the need to be the center of the conversation.



Mindset matters.

It was time for me to eat my own “dog food” as we say in our firm. Taken from a recent article that I wrote on Thinking Patterns, “How you think, act and lead.” Fixed thinking or reacting to problems can be very stressful. Expansive thinking or having a growth mindset puts us in a state of flow, which creates better outcomes.

When I reflect back on early 2020 and several of my initial live online experiences I found myself fixed in my thinking. I had convinced myself that virtual facilitation was a completely different experience than face-to-face facilitation. I was trying to solve a problem that actually didn’t exist. I’m not suggesting that there are no differences between the two — clearly, there are. But the outcome for either situation is not.



Create, discover and apply.

What had not changed was my job. Encourage participation, allow for discovery and connect the content to the participants' work. Fortunately, I had help. Over the years I trained hundreds of professionals on the art of facilitating our programs. My number 1 tip to them — rely on the content. Our instructional designers are world-class when it comes to creating content that is engaging, visually appealing, and highly interactive. My job had not changed. I was still the facilitator between the audience and the content.

The four I’s — a fassforward discipline.

Regardless of a virtual environment or face-to-face facilitation, time spent is a learning event. I needed to focus on the four I’s. Provide Insights — learning points that people can apply quickly to their work. Moderate discussions — Interactions with questions and activities that keep people engaged with their fingers on the keyboard. Create Intimacy — allow time for questions and takeaways and in some cases offer office hours after the session ends for participants that have a specific question. Impact — great design that keeps the participant learning long after the workshop has ended. We accomplish this by connecting with the participants at different intervals a day, a week a month with a simple activity to refresh their knowledge.



Final thoughts.

Technology.

There will be audio and visual glitches… have patience it’s getting better. People will have connection issues. This challenge cannot be eliminated completely. A best practice is to send clear instructions in advance of the session.. A good internet connection in a quiet place is a minimum requirement. If you want your participants on camera let them know they will need a webcam. A soundcheck before the session is a must. Another best practice is to have everyone check-in 15 minutes before the start of the session to resolve technical issues. The last thing you want is to have a technical problem at the start of the session.


How will this session work?

It's important to know who’s showing up. We’ve run virtual sessions with both very experienced and first-time participants. First-time participants may need a tour of the platform. How to navigate the chat function, polling activity, or how to raise their hand. Here is an example of an opening slide that we use to help participants feel comfortable at the start of the session.



Connect with your audience.

A difficult transition to virtual facilitation is connecting with your audience. The loss of visual cues-body language; the non-verbal cues that provide instant feedback. There are many studies available describing what percent of communication is non-verbal and they vary by a wide margin. The general consensus is non-verbal communication matters. So what should a facilitator do? Do what you do best!


“A study of TED speakers, watched by hundreds of volunteers, showed that people are more interested in speakers who use gestures. This happens in part because seeing more physical motion helps people pay attention for a longer time. Some research has also suggested that using more gestures makes you come across as more “warm, agreeable, and energetic.”


There is a tendency to be stiff and almost robotic as you peer through your camera. Instead, do what you've learned to do. Keep gesturing, smiling, and focusing on the tone of your voice. Use emotional or vivid words. And as with any good facilitation listen to your audience's response.

Where are you? …. the dreadful silence. An important thing to remember about virtual conversations-it takes time to respond. “You’re on mute!” Or they are typing. In either case, don’t panic! Fill the void with stories if necessary, but don’t distract them from formulating their responses.


Engage your audience.

Engaging the audience in a virtual setting is another challenge to overcome. Taking part in fassforward’s study on remote learning, Nicole Lipkin, CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting, describes this challenge: “There are certain things that are giveaways, but reading the room has been harder, number one." Reading the energy and making sure I’m not guessing, but going to the next level to have that two-way engagement.” Do what you do best, ask rhetorical questions. “One way to simulate the back and forth nature of a conversation is to ask rhetorical questions throughout your presentation. For example, when you introduce a new idea, you might say, “Are you ready to try something new?” Or, if you want people to notice something, you might say, “Do you see the shift from low to high on the chart?” For the audience, rhetorical questions create open loops in the brain which we then want to close by answering in our heads. This helps the audience stay active and connected to your content, even when they can’t talk to you. By asking questions, you’ll feel more as though you were having a conversation, which eases some of the anxiety.”²


Saying goodbye is hard.

Time to say good-bye: but before we do we’d like to hear about your takeaways or aha moments. This is a best practice. Experience has shown that if you ask, “are there any questions,” you might find yourself back at that “dreadful silence.” Taken from our study on remote learning Bob Kelner, Business Impact Strategist, Knewview Consulting discovered; “people really want to have safe environments, to be able to go and practice things. A lot of people don't want to participate and contribute because they are insecure or not sure of themselves. A virtual environment allows people that would not normally contribute to feel more safe, confident, and competent to contribute.” Asking for a takeaway or an aha moment creates an environment that encourages everyone to respond.








Frank Mazza is a Principal Consultant, Executive Coach, and Lead Facilitator at fassforward. He works as a coach one on one, and a facilitator with intact teams, and large organizations across a wide range of fassforward's live and online programs. Known for his ability to present familiar concepts in such a manner as to give "life" to the content and spark renewed and sustained interest.