9 virtual workshop tips

Photo: Ray Bernoff

After conducting 15 clear writing workshops using videoconferencing tools, I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t.

I originated my workshops for in-person delivery, but for the last year, I’ve been delivering them online exclusively. There has been a surge of demand since I went virtual — I think people are looking for training that’s easy to fit into people’s days, broadly relevant, and a little fun. It also helps that virtual workshops can benefit people across multiple locations and time zones in a single session.

My workshop sizes range from three to 20 participants, and I’ve a variety of videoconferencing tools. My workshops are interactive, with multiple exercises.

Here’s what worked for me.

1 Complete the workshop in two 90-minute sessions

In-person workshops often take place over an entire morning or a whole day. But now everyone’s days are already filled with video meetings. While I’ve done three-and-a-half hour virtual workshops, they weren’t ideal; it was hard for people to block out that much time and to concentrate fully, and it’s remarkably difficult to present online for that length of time, even with breaks.

Usually, the admins for the teams I’m working with can block off two 90-minute sessions, especially if those sessions are scheduled three or four weeks in the future. I’ve conducted the sessions either on successive days, or one week apart. With 90-minute sessions that incorporate interactive exercises, there’s no need to build in time for breaks.

2 Limit attendance to 20 participants

When presenting in person, I pay close attention to the mood in the room — whether people look engaged, puzzled, confused, or happy, for example. I’ve transferred this habit to virtual workshops. I can observe 20 faces at a time; more than that is difficult.

With 20 people, I can make sure to pose questions or call on nearly everyone who attends over the course of the sessions. This keeps people attentive, because they never know if I’ll be asking them the next question.

When the client group I’m serving has more than 20 people, we just break them into subgroups and arrange repeat sessions, one for each subgroup. by varying the scheduling, I can serve attendees in different time zones or on different continents. It’s efficient for me, since I only need to prepare one set of materials customized to that group and deliver it several times.

I’ve done sessions for as few as three people, but it becomes a bit awkward to call on the same people again and again. Based on my experience, between five and 20 attendees is ideal.

My wife, an artist, delivers virtual workshops where she teaches basketry and fiber arts techniques. She’s told me that she has to limit attendance to about 12 people, because she needs to concentrate on the pieces everyone is creating and the challenges they are having duplicating what she is demonstrating.

3 Customize content

While all my workshops are based on the content in my Writing Without Bullshit book, they’re not identical.

I always use exercises drawn from the client group’s own writing, to keep the interactions and lessons as relevant as possible for that group.

I also rearrange content and emphasis. When working with a company that focuses on strategy memos and reports, I moved my sections on reports as stories to the front and cut other material that was less relevant. Rearranging content is easy for me, but boosts the value significantly for the client.

4 Mix up the types of interactions

I use PowerPoint slides, but this is not a lecture. In the course of a 90-minute session, I will present ideas, tell stories, ask questions, answer questions, and ask participants to complete exercises.

I also frequently stop and ask, “Do you have any questions?” especially after I’ve covered an intense topic. I wait 30 seconds or so, in case someone is a little shy with their question.

My exercises are designed to be completed in five to seven minutes, after which we look at people’s answers and discuss what they came up with. This tends to become more of an open discussion, which is often helpful, with multiple people raising hands to make points verbally and posting text comments.

This mix gives people’s brains a break. They concentrate on what I’m saying, but it’s not just me droning on. Anyone can interrupt me with a question at any time, and I take time to answer those questions thoughtfully. Asking them to immediately apply the techniques I’ve described in exercises reinforces the learning, even as it gives them a chance to engage beyond just listening.

5 Invest in the right equipment

People who speak for a living often invest in fancy and expensive microphones, webcams, backdrops, switchers, and other gear. That’s fine if you’re getting paid $20K to give a speech to 300 people, but it’s overkill for a workshop. I use the webcam built into my MacBook Pro and a $30 headset that plugs into the audio jack. They have never failed me and I’ve near heard a complaint. People aren’t paying me for the dulcet sounds of my voice or the beauty of the image of my face.

On the other hand, I have invested in gear that makes sure the workshop goes off without a hitch. I have a 1 GB home internet service and I connect with hard-wired ethernet, not WiFi, so I know my connection is rock solid. I have a dedicated space with a door I can shut, and my family knows that the piano in the next room is off limits during workshops. I don’t use a virtual background, because they can be glitchy and distracting.

I also have a three-monitor setup, which is extremely useful for presenting a workshop. I use one monitor for PowerPoint’s speaker mode and a second to show slides that I share with the group, as well as the exercises. I use the middle monitor, which is the laptop screen, to view the audience; this also ensures that I’m looking into the webcam as I present, rather than off to the side.

Before presenting, I shut down most applications and browser tabs. In addition to maximizing system performance, this helps prevent me from accidentally showing my email, my schedule, or some other client’s confidential material when I share my screen.

I also sometimes ask family members not to stream content while I’m conducting the workshop, to maximize bandwidth available.

When my wife teaches crafts, she uses a second camera, a document camera, that shows what she doing with her hands, separately from her face on the webcam. I think that’s pretty cool.

6 Use the videoconferencing tools effectively

You can pretty much assume that everyone is familiar with videoconferencing tools. That means you can use features of those tools during the workshop.

First off, I tell everyone it will go better if I can see their faces. The level of compliance I get depends on what the expectations for video sharing are at the client company.

I ask questions and ask people to put answers in the chat window. For example, early on I ask “How long do you think the average person spends on the average news article?” Everyone pastes an answer into the chat application, which means we can all see each others’ answers — plus, I’ve now trained people to use the chat for answering exercises.

I also ask questions that require a spoken response. People can “raise their hands” (typically with a videoconferencing feature) and I call on them. If no one volunteers, I’ll pick someone at random. This helps people realize that I will actually be expecting them to participate.

7 Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom all work well

Given the choice, I present with Zoom. I’m just more familiar with it and know where all the features are. But I’ve also presented with Google Meet when the client requests it, and I’ve gotten almost as good with that tool.

I know some clients use Microsoft Teams. While I’ve only used it for client meetings, I’m certain it would be fine for a workshop presentation as well.

8 Be flexible on time allocation

I have more material than I need. I often skip things if time is running short. I know which material is essential and which is not.

I’d rather spend time on a topic the client company is struggling with than hit everything I’d planned on.

Of course, like any presenter, I’ll move on when I think we’ve spent enough time on a topic.

I end the first session on an exercise. If I’m running short on time, I’ll ask the participants to do that exercise on their own as homework, and review their answers at the start of the second session.

9 Have fun

There are plenty of jokes in my material. Getting people laughing is a great way to break the ice.

I don’t get upset when a child or animal enters somebody’s camera space. I have presented to eight faces and one cat butt, which I just though was funny.

It’s stressful to be concentrating on training in a home space that you may share with others. I get that. So I want to treat people as humans operating in human spaces. We’re all just trying to get along.

Virtual training is here to stay

There are advantages to meeting in person. One is that you can force people to arrive and stay in a specific spot.

But I’ve now seen that there are also powerful advantages to virtual training. I think it is equally effective in most ways, and more effective in others. When no one has to travel, you can get a lot done in a short time. And when you’re training people on something fundamentally digital, like writing, there’s no particular reason we all have to be breathing the same air as we learn.

Even as the pandemic lifts, I’d expect to be doing many more writing workshops this way. And whatever you’re training people on — or hiring people to teach — you’ll probably find virtual training to be useful long after we’re back to flying in planes and shaking hands again.

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  1. On the equipment topic, I would just add that you need to get the light right. I turn off the overhead lights so that there is no glare off my balding head and add some soft room lighting. Then I turn on two video lights facing me that cost about $40 bucks to look some what human. Speakers who have a bright window behind them cause me to leave early.

    I agree on the virtual background. As long as my head disappears at random times, I will not use them.