Woman brushing up her virtual facilitation skills.


Everything You Need to Know About Virtual Facilitation

Switching your leadership development program to virtual courses? Learn how to brush up your virtual facilitation skills.

Publish Date: May 6, 2020

Read Time: 5 min

Author: Lynn Packham

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While the coronavirus has created a deeply uncertain future, one thing we know for sure is that we need to get used to a virtual world. For those of us who work in leadership development, the good news is that it’s easy to switch to a virtual classroom format. But it does mean we need to brush up on our virtual facilitation skills.

As we think differently about the classroom, we all need to adopt a growth mindset. We need to be thinking expansively with creativity, agility and a strong focused growth mindset. And remember: We don’t grow from the things that are easy. We grow when we face challenges.

While I know it can be a challenge to change your approach – especially if you’ve been facilitating in the traditional classroom for a long time – we have a lot of resources to help. At DDI, we’ve been offering virtual classroom for more than a decade, and have created many of the industry best practices. Here are a dozen of my favorite go-to tips for success in virtual facilitation.

How to Improve Your Virtual Facilitation Skills

  1. Plan for contingencies. We never like to think about what may go wrong during a delivery, but it’s important for virtual deliveries to have a plan. What happens if your internet goes down, or you lose your phone connection? What if there’s a bandwidth issue and you can’t use video?  Have a contingency plan in place so you can execute immediately and minimize the impact for the learners. Hopefully you will never need to use it!

  2. Prepare for the session. Ensure you have all your materials required for the session. Before the session, plan out the timing of the session content as a guide and identify where you can adjust should time become an issue. Don’t wait until you are leading the session to think of how you can make adjustments.

  3. Your voice is a key tool for success. You may or may not be using web cams in the session.  Either way, your voice is a key tool for engaging participants and clearly conveying information. Make sure you pace yourself appropriately, and you speak clearly. Even more importantly, make sure you have a warm, conversational tone to engage participants. 

  4. Set the stage for a safe learning environment. For many participants, this will be a new environment.  Welcome participants as they log into the session, and engage them immediately in some type of chat to make them feel at ease. These first few moments will give them a sense of what the session will be like and who you are as a facilitator.

  5. Use people’s names. Throughout the session, create a strong sense of connection with participants by always using their names. Whether asking questions, responding to comments, or in the chat box, people appreciate being addressed personally. It helps to bridge the digital gap.

  6. Respond to learners’ tech needs. For most people, it’s not enough to give instructions just one time around the buttons and tools in whatever platform you’re using. So be sure to coach people around the use of tools throughout the session. People appreciate the small nudges about where things are located. And be sure to allow for longer response times to questions and activity debriefs as learners continue to navigate these tools for interaction.

  7. Read your learners and adjust. Virtual facilitation depends on flexibility, and you need to be prepared to change your approach. You may have a group that is quiet and reluctant to speak up. If so, you can switch to chat for some of the time or have them type responses on the slides.  Or you may have a group that loves to talk, but it’s causing issues with covering the content in a timely manner. In that case, switch to the chat tool for some of the time. Read your participants and adjust accordingly.

  8. Encourage participant involvement. Make sure you get participants involved right from the start of the sessions. Ask questions when they log in, such as “How are you today? Where are you calling in from?” During the session ask them to share their experience or insights. ask where they see potential challenges and benefits. Ask them and ask them often to ensure a high level of involvement!

  9. Listen and respond with empathy, and build self-esteem. It may seem obvious, but it’s a key virtual facilitation skill that’s often overlooked: Listen to participants with empathy. It’s easy for them to get frustrated with unfamiliar technology. And it may feel like a hit to their self-esteem if they struggle. Watch for comments in the chat or verbal comments expressing feelings. If you see someone who needs help, demonstrate empathy. Recognize that this may be a new environment. Provide on-going coaching, guidance, and assurance of their ability. Reassure them that you will navigate the session together, and have fun doing so.

  10. Use examples and analogies. Storytelling is a powerful tool to illustrate concepts in the classroom, but the lack of non-verbal communication can make it tough to do successfully in a virtual environment. Instead, ensure you have succinct examples and analogies ready that you can use to illustrate the content. These shorter examples come across more effectively in the virtual classroom.

  11. Check in often. When transitioning from one topic to another, do a quick check in with learners to ensure they have understood the content and are good to move forward.  You can do this with feedback tools, a smiley face, or a thumbs up. If you see someone isn’t responding to questions or participating in activities, send a quick private chat to ensure everything is okay. You can also use the feedback tools to gauge how the group are feeling overall. For example, “Give me a green check mark if all is okay or a red X if you have a question.”  This way, you get a response from all participants and can re-engage them quickly.

  12. Have fun. As facilitators, we like to have fun in the traditional classrooms. The virtual classroom is no different. Don’t hesitate to joke, or use fun activities the same way you would if you were together in person.

Ready to become an expert on virtual facilitation? DDI-certified facilitators can sign up now for our Facilitator Booster: Virtual Classroom sessions. Not certified yet? Learn more about our train-the-trainer programs.

Lynn Packham is the Manager of Consulting Services for DDI Canada. When not collaborating with her team and clients to promote leadership growth you can find her enjoying the wide range of wildlife in her rural back garden, bears, coyotes, deer and squirrels to name a few. She is also totally addicted to TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé!