When Cindy Huggett envisions a great online training facilitator, she’s thinking about Oprah.

A key skill is “building rapport with an audience that you don’t have visual contact with. People do this all the time. Think of a television personality like Oprah. She’s the master of creating that connection. And how many of us have ever met her in person? But we feel like we know her. She just draws us in,” said Huggett, a virtual training consultant and a dynamic, experienced presenter.

But being a great presenter is only a starting point; online training is very different from presenting information, Huggett emphasized. In training, facilitators—instructors in the virtual classroom—should engage with learners every few minutes.

That’s a far cry from a lot of learners’ virtual classroom experiences, where a facilitator drones on … and on, and on, maybe grudgingly squeezing in a poll question or two.

In a recent conversation, Huggett emphasized the need for frequent, varied interactions—every three or four minutes. She gets pushback from instructors on this; people say they don’t have time to do that much interaction, or they ask a question and get no response.

Huggett’s response is to tell facilitators to look at the design of their virtual class session. “A presentation is different from training. A presentation is not the same thing. It’s not the same thing in person, and it is not the same thing online,” she said.

“If you have a design or you have a facilitator or delivery person who goes 15 minutes of lecturing and then asks a question—of course they [learners] are not going to respond,” Huggett said. “You are thinking of it as, ‘I need to fit this into my presentation.’ But really, it’s about engaging them from the start.”

Set expectations for learners up front

When designing training, Huggett emphasizes that facilitators have to let learners know that they are expected to participate—even before they enter the virtual classroom.

“It’s a little bit of an art, when you think about how to sculpt a class or design an online class so that the interaction is natural and it feels like a collaboration, instead of feeling forced. A lot of it goes back to setting the expectation that this is going to be interactive,” she said. “It’s learning—it’s not a meeting, it’s not ‘Let’s hop online for a conference call.’”

She advises facilitators not to send out the standard platform-generated messages to announce a session. They always say, “To join the meeting …” she says, which sets up an expectation among learners of a passive experience. Instead, she encourages facilitators to “create your own message that says, ‘I can’t wait to see you in our online class,’ or ‘Here’s the link to join us in our online classroom’ and ‘We want you to be engaged.’ Just add that in; I think that’s important.”

Setting the expectation of an interactive session also requires jumping right in with an activity. “When they log in, what do you do to engage them? Do you have an activity right there, ready to go? Something that is welcoming and greeting and engaging?” Huggett said.


  • Encourage learners to use the chat box to introduce themselves or chat about their experience with the platform
  • Put up a poll question and have them respond using chat or a status indicator

“Right at the beginning, it’s not five minutes of ‘Let me tell you what we’re going to do today’; and it’s not ‘It’s going to be interactive, but let me read to you these 10 bullet points that are on a slide,’ Huggett continued. “It’s constant engagement at the beginning, to set the stage.”

Variety is essential to engaging learners

Facilitators must be familiar with the platforms they use so that they can incorporate a variety of interactions.

“Some designers or facilitators get comfortable with chat, or get comfortable with polls, or get comfortable with raised hand. By the tenth time somebody’s done that in an hour…” Huggett trailed off. She suggests taking a hard look at the design and asking yourself:

  • Is there a good mix of discussion and interaction?
  • Is there time built in for learners to process information?
  • Is social interaction built in?
  • Does the session use a variety of interactions—chat, polls, discussion, sharing the whiteboard?

Instructors should plan the interactivity and build it into the design, rather than expecting it to happen organically. “I script it out. I don’t script out word for word what I, as the facilitator, will say, but I create, just like I would for an in-person class, facilitator guides,” Huggett said. The guide includes information for both the instructor (facilitator) and producer, if there is one, on when in the session to present a poll question, when to place learners in breakout rooms, when to solicit questions via chat, and more.

“Don’t do chat after chat after chat. Have interactivity in other ways: We’ve got a poll question and then let’s talk about it, or we’ve got a mixture—a variety,” Huggett said. “It’s not about the facilitator or the presenter being focused on themselves; it’s about getting the learners talking. Let’s go into a breakout room and get them talking about this issue and then get back together and debrief; here’s our next topic—who’s experienced this?”

This level of focus helps create sessions that flow well, address learning goals, and engage learners. “So, just like at the beginning of the design, you look at it holistically or big picture—before you finish a design, it’s good to step back and look at it that way as well: What does this flow feel like, start to finish?”

Learn more

Cindy Huggett, a virtual training consultant and instructional designer, will present a BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) session, “Ready-to-Use Activities for Engaging Virtual Training,” at Learning Solutions 2017 Conference & Expo, March 22 – 24 in Orlando, Florida.