Running an engaging online training: Top tips

How do you stop people zoning out during an online training? How can you read facial expressions and body language when everyone is sat behind a screen? Here are Nim's top tips:

This blog is part of a wider-series written by Bootcamp’s lead trainer, Nim Ralph, focused on how to run engaging online trainings in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. To see the other blogs in the series, scroll to the end of this post.

In the previous blog, I looked at how you can build trust and strong group dynamics within your virtual training. This blog builds on that topic, looking at how you can use different participatory techniques and manage evolving group dynamics throughout your training to create the most engaging atmosphere online.

The two biggest challenges of moving trainings online are how to still read the group and respond to group dynamics, and how to hold sessions that are engaging and dynamic. 

Group Dynamics:

One of the things that is most challenging in an online session versus real life is reading the room. Often in a training space group dynamics are as important to supporting people’s learning as the content itself. If the dynamics are bad then people can check out, start messaging each other outside the call and start limiting their and other participant’s engagement. If you don’t catch it then you not only miss the opportunity to have them learn the most from your session, but you also miss an opportunity to potentially have them learn about group work, culture and anti-oppression by leaning into the tensions, conflicts or ways people are feeling outside the group. 

As a trainer I depend heavily on all sorts of communication from participants to understand what is going on between them:

  • Facial expressions
  • Body language
  • What they say to the group
  • What they say to each other
  • Noises and breath they make (or don’t make) when others are speaking
  • Outputs of personal work or small group work

Online, with everyone on mute, the only direct sources of information from this list are often facial expressions and what they say to the group. 

Facial expressions in real life trainings are a limited source of information because a lot of people have facial expressions that we read based on our own biases because of things like culture, class background and gender. This is why the other communication channels are so important. Someone who looks really bored or pissed off on your call might actually just be concentrating. I find this especially hard online because there is *so much* of everyone’s face on a screen — the message you think is being sent can feel more amplified than if they were pulling that face in the real life room! 

There’s no easy answers here, but there are some tips to make it easier:

  • Remember that people’s faces aren’t always conveying what they feel — perhaps stick a post it note next to your screen to remind yourself
  • Have lots of interactive activities that allow people to feedback their thoughts and feelings so that you can assess what’s really going on:
    • Type ideas or thoughts in response to a question into a sheet
    • Have people select a gif or emoji that shows their feelings right now for a quick temperature check
    • Build in small group, pair and solo work with feedback
    • If it’s a small group have them come off mute
  • If it is clear there is conflict, tension or boredom arising don’t ignore it. Lean into it — ask what’s going on but make a call about whether it’s best to do that one-on-one or in the whole group. It’s harder then when you are face to face because you can’t pull someone off to one side – but you could give the group a 20 minute break and have a check in with someone for 10.
  • If it’s a group you are working with in an ongoing sense you could think about bringing in a virtual mediator or even running a facilitated conversation or training addressing the issues coming up.
  • It’s easier for us as trainers to avoid conflicts when we are online and sometimes that means that we don’t address it for want of an easier life — if we really want to keep building the world of social justice that we have spent all our time working for in real life, we will need to challenge ourselves to also lean into these conversations online.

Here’s some more advice from Training for Change on “reading” the group in different virtual settings. 

Dynamic engagement:

One of the big challenges in moving to online training is thinking about how we keep the magic of the training alive in a virtual setting. Very quickly online we can default to talking at people a lot and losing engagement and learning styles. As anyone who has been to one of my trainings knows, I strongly believe in experiential and participatory trainings that bring all sorts of unexpected elements into the training room; from deep emotional content through to lip syncing. 

There’s a lot of tips and tricks for more participatory meetings flying around at the moment – the fundamental trick is to avoid having people just listening at all costs.

  • Minimise the number of go-rounds you do as people won’t stay focussed for long if your group is more than 4 people. But find fun ways to alternate who speaks when you do e.g. go alphabetically, by age, by star sign or use this free online wheel of names (thanks to Matthew Armstead for sharing that with me!)
  • Use google docs (or a collaborative doc site) for everyone to type notes into at the same time. You could have tables of questions or ask people to write what they’re learning as you move through. Engaging people through typing keeps them more engaged
  • Use google slides (or a collaborative online slide tool) to create online versions of some of the great participatory tools you would use in a real life training like spectrum lines/spectograms
  • Here’s a google slides deck from Training for Change that you can download for free to create virtual post it notes, lists, and go round tables

But you can also think outside the box. When I am training other trainers up one of the key aspects of what I think makes a trainer great is when they bring themselves into the room including skills they have that they don’t think of as “training” skills:

  • Can you bring your favourite online game into the session
  • Have people draw things in real life or offline
  • Find ways to encourage people to move — maybe a shared stretch part way through, or an activity where one person does and action and everyone else copies it
  • Why not have a 5 minute lip sync battle?
  • What other things bring you joy in life?

In my experience, you also need to structure in a lot more breaks online than in real life. The fatigue of sitting still looking at a screen sets in fast. 

  • Don’t go for longer than 90 minutes max without giving people a break
  • Try to schedule shorter recurring sessions instead of a whole day
  • If you are running a half/all day meeting or training then try to think about where you can build in “offline” time — set people up for a task and give them 30 – 60 mins to do it off the call, and reassemble at a set time
  • Schedule some energisers in there too — why not share your screen and have everyone do a 10 minute online workout?
  • You will get fatigued too: I often find I’m far more exhausted immediately after an online training than an in real life one. Try to find ways to keep your energy up, make sure you are staying hydrated (and remind your participants to, too!) and if it’s a long session consider finding a co-trainer/facilitator. Also remember to take some time out after the session and gather your energy

You should also consider some of the other things you would do in a real life training to engage and enable different forms of participation:

  • Different group sizes: lots of online platforms have a “breakout room” function which enables you to break the group down into smaller groups for better participation
  • Personal reflection: give people time on their own to make notes and reflections before asking them to share in the big group
  • Lists on flipcharts: type straight into a shared slide show as people are talking as if you would a flipchart
  • Post it notes: there’s lots of free post it note apps online!
  • Pair shares: if you don’t have a breakout room feature, have pairs call each other for some pair time

Read the other blogs in the series on online trainings here:

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the whole series

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Previous & Next Articles

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Post online training application and follow up: Top tips

What happens next? When your online training is coming to an end, how to you ensure participant engagement, evaluation and reflection? Nim shares their top tips in the final part of their blog-series.

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Building trust in online trainings: Top tips

How do you build trust online? Bootcamp lead trainer Nim shares their top tips and tricks for 'building the container' in a virtual setting, including some great virtual icebreakers: