Sometimes there’s no way around it; you’re presenting solo in a virtual classroom session. While presenting without a facilitator is challenging, it’s also common. But, with adequate planning and preparation, your polished presentation will convince learners that you’ve got an army of facilitators at your beck and call.

Guild Master Karen Hyder, a certified technical trainer (CTT+) and online event producer, offers tips and advice that can help make that solo virtual classroom session proceed smoothly.

Plan, plan, and plan some more: Plan everything. Start with the content of the lesson or series of lessons. Break it into coherent, focused sections. Plan ways to engage students throughout each lesson. Then, set up everything ahead of the virtual session. “I preplan and pre-set each activity. I add the text of each question I’m going to ask. I pre-create polls, and pre-draw or paste in visuals. I add 50 percent more slides to the deck I would use in a face-to-face session. I use screen shots instead of application sharing when I can get away with it,” Hyder said. She also eschews complicated interactive activities in favor of simpler ones. “If breakouts are too difficult to handle by myself, I use paired or sequential chat-based activities. I find that I feel less frazzled and more in control if I reduce the number of hoops I have to jump through,” she said.

Recycle: There’s plenty of material that can be set up ahead of time—and reused. “Some instructions need to be given over and over again, and there’s no extra time to type accurately. ‘Pastables’ are blocks of pre-written text that can easily be copied from a document or a note pod and pasted into chat when needed,” Hyder explained. “For instance, I’ve pasted this phrase about 500 times: ‘Please run the Audio Setup Wizard... (under the Meeting menu.) In step 2, select the correct headset hardware. Test your mic using the recording. We can’t hear you while you’re in the Wizard.’ I’ve also typed it many times. Pasting is easier. I also use a slide file that includes welcome slides and tutorial slides to support learners using tools such as microphones, polls, and other tools. The file includes troubleshooting slides to display when typed or verbal instructions won’t help.”

Master your tools: As a solo presenter, you are the only one available to put up polls, respond to comments and questions, resolve technical glitches, make learners feel welcomed, heard, and included—and so much more. To accomplish this feat, it is imperative that you master your virtual platform. Learn all of its features and quirks, and feel completely comfortable using them. “It’s not practice that makes perfect; it’s perfect practice that makes perfect,” Hyder said. “Click through everything you intend to do, and be sure you know how it will play out for you and for participants. Record practice sessions to revisit and rework awkward moments and overcome obstacles.”

Anticipate the worst: Become one of those people who think up the most unlikely disasters—and prepare for them. “Without a backup person, you need to have a solution for everything,” Hyder said. Among her suggestions:

  • Log in with two computers. Using Adobe Connect, it is possible to log in as “Host” on two machines. “If one computer freezes up, I can still function. I have to lean over to reach the other keyboard, but at least I can keep going. Crashing your computer might be rare, but it’s like any insurance: You only care about having it when you need it.” If you’re using a virtual classroom platform that does not permit you to log in twice as the host, log in on the second machine as a presenter or co-host, Hyder advises. “As a co-presenter, I can still troubleshoot technical issues and turn on a microphone and speak. I can alert participants that I’m having technical difficulties and call a break or give instructions. If I’m really prepared, I might direct them to an assignment to do while I solve the issues on my primary machine. If my audio goes out, I can pick up the other headset and speak. Permission levels vary between software applications.”
  • Use two networks. Log in on a wired connection on the primary computer and put the backup computer on your Wi-Fi, for example. “Ensure that your secondary machine is completely set up and ready to use—headset, mouse, everything. If you aren’t able to use it as solution, it’s not a plan B; it’s just a good idea.”

    A workstation setup for presenting solo in a virtual classroom is shown in a labeled image provided by Karen Hyder.

    Figure 1: A labeled example of a workstation setup for a solo presenter (image provided by Karen Hyder)

  • Have a helper on standby. Ask a colleague who is attending the virtual session to be ready in an emergency. “If something goes wrong, where is your plan B? Do you have the contact information for a person who is logged into the room? You might need to call them to ask them to announce a 10-minute break while you fix your technology.”
  • Open the virtual space early. “Overwhelmed by start-of-session troubleshooting? Buffer the start time by several minutes to allow for individuals to get technical support before you get into content.” Hyder suggests at least 15 minutes of lead time, telling learners, “Log in at 9:45 for an on-time start of 10:00.”
  • Send learners some resources ahead of time. “Provide backups of all resources in an email or on a website or a learning management system (LMS),” she suggested. “Include handouts, slides, links to software self-tests, troubleshooting steps, FAQs, etc., to reduce the number of tasks you need to handle yourself.”

Encourage chatty learners: Hyder encourages participants to type comments and questions into the chat feature throughout her sessions, in addition to providing specific prompts and asking for input. “I invite people to type in chat from the very beginning of the session so they get used to using it to ask questions or to respond to questions,” she said. “I might not respond immediately, but I will pause and read regularly. My best tip is to ask questions to participants and get them to respond. The technique keeps what’s going on in chat more cohesive. People aren’t typing randomly; they are confirming that they are in the conversation.” She said that presenters can—and should—pause occasionally to read and respond to what’s in the chat box, and periodically remind participants to read others’ comments.

Give yourself a break: A great way to engage learners is to throw out a question. Polls are fine, but to spark discussion, ask a deeper question or ask learners to provide an example or share personal experience. Give everyone two minutes (or longer) to respond. Whew. Use that time to take a drink, catch your breath—then start reading the responses and choosing the ones to highlight when you call learners back to attention. Hyder has other suggestions for buying yourself a moment of “quiet time” during a session:

  • “Incorporate activities that have participants reading or watching something and then reacting to it. Short videos are great,” Hyder said. For webinars, she said, two to three minutes is a maximum for videos.
  • Other interactive ideas: “You can also script scenarios of the video you wish you had but haven’t been able to produce. Allow participants to read or role-play the scenario and react,” she suggested. “Build in application activities. Send participants out to a website to research the answer to a question. New hires find value in playing ‘scavenger hunt’ on the company website. New software users can complete practice units on their local machines and application-share results back to the group.”
  • When putting up a poll question or sharing something on screen, don’t feel as if you have to narrate every step. “I say to participants, ‘Here’s the poll question I’m going to ask. Please stand by as I launch the poll.’ I can stay quiet and do what needs to be done, then verbally facilitate the poll,” Hyder said. “Talking through every step is tedious. Allow yourself time to concentrate and breathe. Your online session should be a good balance of you talking and you staying quiet.”

Perhaps most important—manage expectations. That includes your own. “I cut myself lots of slack. Teaching online and running webinars alone is hard,” Hyder said. “I’ve been at it nearly 20 years, and I can’t easily manage all the buttons and menus, and read and respond by typing in chat, and advance the slides, and troubleshoot technical issues for anyone who needs help.” And involve the learners: “Let your participants know that this is a group effort and you need them to participate. That means they can and should communicate, ask questions, alert you to technical issues, and solve their own local problems.”

Finally: “Do not lose sight of the objectives. Remember that learners are real people out there, not just names in the Attendees list,” Hyder said. “Get them engaged early by asking questions, telling them how to respond. Be sure to wait for answers.”