If you’re a facilitator, trainer or group coach, how can you best engage participants remotely, so that you have really creative online meetings and other live events? By applying your in-person best practices!

A great online facilitator uses what we know works in person – and figures out how to apply that online.

I’ve pulled together the key messages from my live virtual facilitator courses into a catchy new ENGAGE model.

How could you use these tips to improve the work you do with remote groups and teams?

  • Expectations: Start to build psychological safety before you start the event itself. Let participants know what’s going to happen, what’s expected of them, and what they’ll get out of attending your event. Can they test the technology? What else should they prepare in advance?
  • Numbers: Limit group size to make sure people can really connect with you and with each other. The larger the group, the more planning will be needed to make the event successful. Use breakout groups extensively – pairs and threes – to get people chatting. That will partially replace the casual conversations that typically happen around the edges of in-person meetings.
  • Groundrules: Ask everyone to call in from their own individual device, with a headset, from a quiet place with minimal disturbance.  Turning off electronic notifications may help participants to focus. You’ll use people’s names to invite them to speak (to keep things pacey), so make it clear that it’s OK to “pass” if they’ve nothing to say. Other rules might be decided by your group: for example, everyone is muted by default and switching on their mic indicates that they want to speak.
  • Activities: You already know that lecturing-over-powerpoint isn’t an effective training methodology in person. It’s even worse online, where your participants will be facing multiple distractions. Plan lots of exercises and activities, especially in breakout groups, to bring the learning to life for your participants. One large online training company advises trainers to invite participant action every 90 seconds! I wouldn’t go quite that far, but do make sure you’re in flipped classroom mode: get people to read or watch any instructional content before you all get on the call.
  • Groupthink: It’s terribly easy for groups to collapse into groupthink. This natural human tendency to maximise group conformity and minimise dissent can be an even greater danger in  a virtual meeting, stifling innovative thinking and effective decision-making. So, consciously make use of your in-person facilitation skills to make sure divergent ideas are expressed, and that people who have unique relevant experience and knowledge get a chance to share it. Enjoy the increased diversity you’re likely to have in a virtual space. Use introductions and icebreakers to help participants build a picture of each other. Be alert to potential language and cultural issues: keep activity instructions unambiguous.
  • Environment: You wouldn’t choose to facilitate an event in a pitch-dark room! So set high standards for your online environment, too. Use video for all your calls, and ensure everyone can see all the people on the call. This builds psychological safety rapidly, and is by far the quickest win for participant engagement. If your technology doesn’t allow this, change the tech! Always have some kind of backup communications system, just in case your video system fails completely. As you develop your online facilitation skills, using multiple online tools such as text chat, whiteboards, sticky-note boards etc will make your video calls even more engaging, and provide spaces to continue the conversation asynchronously.

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  • Most of my Virtual Facilitator courses have been inside companies. Shall I run an open one? If you’re interested, let me know.
  • Comments and questions most welcome! Please add yours below.

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