Cloud-based virtual training allows instructors to deliver content without being present in a classroom with the students. In virtual training, when you can’t see the participants, how do you compensate for the environment?

The answer is to engage learners through the pace of your presentation, skillful use of your voice, and thoughtful employment of the features of your conferencing platform. Here are a few tips for clearing away the fog and holding a successful virtual training session from the clouds.

Use pace to engage the learner

Engaging the learner is the single most important design criterion for successful distance learning via virtual classrooms.

As you are well aware, the reality is that people in the corporate world are busier than ever today. Because of downsizing, many individuals are doing the work that two or even three people formerly did. When people decide to attend a virtual training session, they are likely to encounter many distractions: e-mail, talking on a cell phone, working on a project, or multitasking on other activities that their duties force upon them.

Most learners will feel motivated to attend training if the topic is one in which they are interested, but in the case of "required" training … not so much. The content had better be great in either case, or else they will be off multitasking at the first sign of boredom. How do we keep the learner engaged in our live Webcast or virtual training session?

Keep it moving

Everyone loves to hate slide-based presentations, whether done with PowerPoint or some other presentation software, but a presentation will inevitably be part of most virtual training sessions. Depending on what you have available to support your session you may not have any other options – not all Web conferencing software provides a whiteboard, video, interactive features, or other capabilities.

The brain reacts to colors and images, and goes to great lengths not to miss anything once the eyes focus on a screen. If you were watching television, and the screen only changed every two or three minutes, it would not take you long to figure out that you could multitask and not miss anything at all. When you watch the news, notice the flow … the director starts with the anchor reading a teleprompter to begin the story, and then quickly switches off the headshot and rolls in field footage to help tell the story with images. By keeping things interesting, with compelling visuals that move and update quickly, viewers become more engaged because they don't want to miss anything.

The lesson is that in a virtual classroom, you must keep the content constantly moving. This means that, when presenting content, you will need more slides, with more pictures and less text per slide, than you may be accustomed to using for physical classroom training. Design the presentation to move along smoothly with pictures telling a story.  

Do not build your content with a few slides that only contain text. Slow-moving, text-heavy slides are a recipe for disaster. Participants refer to text-heavy slides as “Death by PowerPoint” … meaning, no one wants to read slides or (even worse) have a person read the slides to them. Learners leave these presentations, and the chances of their returning are slim.

So, when do you know that the change of imagery is fast enough and not too fast or too slow? One way to test this theory is to ask yourself another question:  If you posted the slide file as a stand-alone asset, could the students get the same benefit from it alone as they would get with an instructor? If the answer is “yes,” then you haven’t designed your content for a virtual training session with a live instructor.

Use your skills as a speaker

Many facilitators who are excellent face-to-face trainers approach virtual training with the attitude of “how hard can it be?” However, delivery in the virtual classroom is completely different from face-to-face training, and requires simultaneously mastering the technology and the content. It’s like asking a news anchor to direct the news and deliver the news at the same time ... not an easy thing to do!

Bring it to life, don’t flatline it

Figure 1. Listen to radio hosts and commercials to
get ideas on creating voice inflections.

You must become the master of visual stimulation, and the master of show direction, and the master of focusing your learners’ attention at the right time. While all this is going on, you are unable to see them to know if you are delivering an impactful training session or if you put them to sleep. So what can you do?

Your voice has a tremendous impact on the quality of your virtual sessions. You must focus on inflections, speed, the tone that you use with the learners, and how you pace your delivery of the content. Learners will evaluate you not only on the quality of your content, but on how pleasant, natural, confident, and interesting you sound. Reading slides is not training. Maximum impact and higher retention levels require dynamic delivery – coupled with your visuals.

To build vitality in your voice, pay attention to radio commercials and listen to how the narrator changes pitch, rate, and volume to get your attention. (Figure 1) Just like a radio personality, you can’t see the audience, and, in many cases, they cannot see you. A dynamic voice and changing visuals must stimulate the learner to pay attention. You are not “reading the material,” you are delivering ideas, facts, concepts, and examples in a way that brings them to life for the learner. 

Team up for variety

Another great tip for longer training sessions is to deliver content with a co-presenter whenever possible. This immediately adds vocal variety to your virtual sessions. Think about the news or any sporting event … there is always more than one broadcaster so personalities can interact with each other and keep the delivery more interesting.

We call this vocal variety. This style of training is less predictable, so people will be more inclined to pay attention. Have the co-presenter start off the presentation by giving the introduction and explaining the proper etiquette and ground rules of the training session, and then taking on a moderator role. Your co-presenter can also help to answer questions, prompt you for questions, reiterate points for clarification, provide time checks, and keep the conversation focused. With this type of co-presenter coordination, the meeting will come across as professionally organized and VERY engaging.

Use the conferencing features

Although platforms differ, all conferencing software provides some set of features that will help you keep your learners engaged. Here are some tips for using the more commonly available features.

Annotate, don’t just dictate

Use of annotation tools in your conferencing software, such as pointers, arrows, or highlighters, will command and direct the learner’s attention to specific points on complex graphics. These tools allow you to drive the learner to the exact item that you are referring to. (See Figure 2.)


Figure 2. The green arrow allows the participants to focus on a specific spot in complex graphics

Tailor the training space to the task

Always customize the virtual training room to reproduce the format that learners would experience in a live face-to-face classroom. Leveraging room layouts (such as those available in Adobe Connect – a Flash-based rich-media platform) is a great way to build a portion of the training with PowerPoint, a portion with pre-produced digital video, and a portion that uses video capabilities to broadcast several subject matter experts at the same time during a Q&A session. In an advanced platform like Adobe Connect that permits “multi-camera broadcasting,” each person can broadcast simultaneously so the learner can see the person answering their question.

Customization is a great way to make the training session dynamic and engaging to maximize the learner’s attention. This is especially important for well-known speakers or high-level executives. Put them on stage, let the learners interact with them, and they become part of the learning exercises.

Learners should not be listeners only

Polling is a great way to help you acquire instant and quantifiable input from your learners, and engage their minds. Even if you can’t see the learners, you can use polls to gain insight on their thoughts and emotions about the training content. A good polling question can get learners thinking in depth about the implications or applications of key points in the presentation. You can also use polling questions to determine the level of interest in a topic, and then make adjustments on the fly based upon real-time feedback to make the session more dynamic and fresh for each group of learners. 

There are different types of polling questions, each with its own special characteristics. (See Figures 3 and 4) Don’t overuse polling questions, use them when necessary, and make them useful so the feature does not become redundant to the learner.


Figure 3. Multiple-answer polls allow more than one selection.


 Figure 4. Multiple-choice polls allow only one selection.

Check their status to maintain engagement – and stimulate thinking

Another method to engage the learner is by using “status tools,” or emoticons. Leverage student engagement by using whatever emoticons or response icons are available from your conferencing platform. (See Figure 5)

Figure 5. Emoticons

Status tools or emoticons compensate for lack of visibility between the instructor and the student. These icons can help you replace the visual cues you would normally get in a physical environment where you see people. Encourage all participants to use them throughout the presentation.

This type of classroom structure lets the participants know that you will accept interruptions and that you are paying attention to their opinions. It makes the delivery dynamic – not just some “cookie cutter” or canned presentation. A great example of use of status tools is to ask if they “agree” or “disagree” with a question or statement you deliver. As a trainer you would say, “Give me a thumbs up if you agree that this solution fits well within your company,” and you would see the feedback in real-time. This also allows a trainer to “see” the type of audience they are working with and make adjustments on the fly if necessary.

Are you ready for your close-up?

If supported by the conferencing software, use the Webcam feature so you can employ your presentation skills and gestures; this brings learners into the content and helps them take the journey with you.

Your Webcam is the direct link to your audience. Use it wisely, and look into the lens when speaking to your audience to give the illusion of eye contact with each of them. (Figure 6) Even though you cannot see your audience, they can see you. When using the Webcam, you must use facial expressions, inflections on words, and gestures to build a connection with your learners. You may even want to place a sticky note next to your Webcam, to remind you to stay focused on keeping the connection with your learners.

Figure 6: Webcams allow you to have a direct, emotional link with your audience.

Key advice: rehearse it, don’t wing it

The more you rehearse the content in real time, the easier it is to keep eye contact with the Webcam. Rehearsal gives you mastery of the content.

More key advice: use the Webcam wisely

New virtual trainers often ask, “When should I turn the Webcam on and when should I turn it off?”

Remember this guideline: content that includes data, statistics, and facts that require reasoning and analysis can be included in a PowerPoint format without a Webcam. When you have any complex graphics or content, you don’t want the Webcam competing with it so turn it off. The Webcam image will command the learner’s attention and focus – in other words, if they see you on the Webcam, that’s where they will look. Movement in the Webcam will distract them from the graphics, and learners will not be sure which area of the screen to focus on. 

Content that appeals to participants’ emotions is better expressed through the full-motion Webcam, because gestures and facial expression can sell the emotional side of your message. I like to use the Webcam when conducting polls and getting feedback so learners can see and hear my inflections along with the specifics I’m asking about.

Always be aware of your learners’ environments

Figure 8. Design your presentation
with smaller screen resolution in mind.

Finally, you must be cognizant of the devices used by your audience. Many people are now participating via tablet devices with smaller screens. (Figures 7 and 8) You should design your content so that the images are legible on smaller screens, including on smartphones. Learn about the mobile applications for these devices with the virtual training platform you use. If learners can tab around on window options, you must include narration that will guide them to the proper window when discussing graphics or charts. If it’s hard to read on your screen, it’s probably more difficult to read on a participant’s computer or tablet device. Make the effort to keep screens simple, and include less text and more visuals to help tell your story.

Figure 7. Mobile devices, like this tablet, are becoming
more popular

Melt the fog away with engagement and interactivity

It tends to be very foggy when you are training in the cloud, but remember, if you know your content, and design your training with user engagement and frequent interactivity, you will be sure to attain great results with virtual training from the cloud.