Blog Post

Best Practices for Virtual Facilitation

Jordan Hopkins, MEd
May 21, 2024
Best Practices for Virtual Facilitation blog thumbnail

Recent Forrester research showed a decline in-person workshops and training over the last five years.

And it makes sense, right? With the COVID-19 pandemic, companies shifted their training to more on-demand and virtual offerings.

And while in-person training is resuming once again, virtual facilitation is here to stay.

In this article, I’m sharing some of my top tips for making virtual facilitation more engaging.

5 Ways to Improve Virtual Facilitation

If you’ve ever facilitated both virtual and in-person workshops, you know that what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other.

With virtual facilitation especially, learners are more likely to be distracted by other tabs on their screen and things competing for their attention in their environment. Here are practices I’ve found to increase engagement and participation in a virtual learning environment:

1. Use an opener.

Open your training with a hook, discussion, quote, fun metaphor, or poll to reveal where they can grow. Choose something fun and relevant to the topic. Having an engaging opener gets them involved from the start.

2. Get learners hands-on.

Merrill's First Principles of Instruction tells us that learning is best when it's task-oriented (i.e., real-world things) and promotes immediate application (i.e., hands-on).

But even think about your own education: What learning experiences were most helpful to you? Usually having an opportunity to practice what you’re learning hands-on cements knowledge. 

Engage learners by providing situations, challenges, or tasks to build or use the skills you want them to learn. Rather than talking at them for 30 minutes, spend a few minutes setting the scene and sparking any pre-requisite knowledge, and then having the participants engage in the skill on their end. 

Try virtual labs using tools like Strigo and SkyTap, or build a simulation in a content authoring tool like Intellum Evolve to give learners an opportunity for practical application.

In virtual training, you can get creative by using the chat, digital whiteboards, and tools like Mentimeter, Padlet, and others.

3. Provide job aids and other resources to support application after training.

Provide job aids and resources learners can use during a virtual instructor-led training (VILT) and after it to promote knowledge transfer. 

Here’s what this looks like in practice: I recently hosted a workshop on how to create and market Challenges on the Intellum Platform (a part of our gamification capabilities). I created a takeaway handout with space for participants to plan a challenge and outline a marketing plan—with a variety of ideas included. 

 For this particular feature, marketing is crucial, so we wanted participants to walk away with something to help them take the next step. The handout gave them something to share with their internal teams to spark ideas and keep the conversation going.

4. Get personal and check in.

Let’s face it: Talking to a laptop camera just isn’t the same as interacting with people in-person. To combat this, I move the line of participant screens to the top of my laptop screen, right underneath the camera lens. That way I can “look someone in the eyes” while training to make it more personal. This also helps me see real-time reactions from those with screens on. 

What if participants don’t have their cameras on? In all likelihood, this is the case for at least some of your learners. Get creative with check-ins. Use tools like Mentimeter, polls, or even sharing a favorite emoji to gauge sentiment.

5. Keep learning.

The great news is: You don’t have to have it all figured out today. You’ll gain new skills—and implement new ideas—over time.

When you participate in someone else’s training, take time to reflect on what you liked and what you didn’t like. How can you apply those learnings to your own VILT?

You can also follow people like Said Saddouk, The Facilitainer, for ideas and inspiration you can take into your virtual classroom.

Avoid These Common Virtual Facilitation Mistakes

Like with any occupation, there are pitfalls to be aware of. Here are a few worth keeping in mind:

1. Not leaving room for reflection and participation.

I can't speak for everyone, but as an attendee of virtual training, I appreciate when there are practical takeaways and actionable steps with room for reflection. When it's just someone talking at you for an hour, my attention totally wanes. Using the engagement tactics above can keep the conversation from being one-sided.

2. Not letting attendees speak. 

People learn best when they can engage with the material. There’s a temptation to talk non-stop as a virtual trainer. Especially in a digital world, silence can be deafening.

I’ve found that often participants need a good 10 seconds or so of time to think before they respond. Of course, this can feel like much longer than 10 seconds! Some ways to make this space feel less daunting are to encourage replies in the chat (for those who don’t want to come off mute) or even to take a drink of water while you’re waiting.

3. Not leveraging breakout rooms and small group discussions.

Learning is a social activity—but we don’t tend to leverage social learning as much as we could. Use breakout rooms, peer examples, or sharing wins and pain points as ways to engage participants. 

Often, if we cut out these interactive elements, it’s because there’s too much to get through in such a short period of time. If this is the case, consider if there’s a way to “front-load” information but sharing pre-read materials. Could you share a  pre-training handout, knowledge base article, blog post, or short video for learners to review before the training? That would allow you to spend more time together in a live environment discussing, rather than sharing information.

3 Tips for Getting Started with Virtual Training

If you’re just getting started with VILT, you’re in for a great time! Here are a few tips that might help you:

1. Invest in your development.

If you're getting started with virtual training, it's important to get some practice in while learning more about it. I highly recommend books like Tellin' Ain't Training and The Art and Science of Training for starters. If you're looking for a more formal outlet to learn, look for some webinars and professional development in this area. The Learning and Performance Institute (LPI) offers a Certified Online Learning Facilitator opportunity.

2. Record yourself.

I know, none of us likes to see ourselves on video. But this will make a huge difference in your growth as a virtual trainer or facilitator. Record yourself teaching. Watch the recording and evaluate yourself with a rubric your team has agreed on. 

When I edit my transcripts for captions, that's when it’s easiest for me to notice habits I have, like using filler words when I present. It's also a great way to reflect on your wait time, pacing, clarity, participant engagement, and more.

3. Practice with a peer.

It can be helpful to co-facilitate first and learn from an experienced facilitator/trainer. If you have a seasoned trainer at your company, see if you can help them plan and facilitate a virtual training. 

When they feel you're ready, dive in and lead a training with the veteran as your co-facilitator. Make time for a debrief afterward—this is a great opportunity to learn together!

I hope these tips have been helpful. Best of luck in your virtual training!

About the Author

Jordan Hopkins, MEd Speaker Headshot
Jordan Hopkins, MEd
Education Program Manager
Jordan Hopkins is a self-described "learning design nerd" and is passionate about putting the learning first. For the last 16+ years, Jordan has practiced education through a unique blend of corporate enablement, training, consulting, and learning design.