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The blind dancer and the invisible partner


David Hall questions whether we're using our learning technologies in the best way.

Whether taking part in webinars, virtual classrooms or remote meetings using VoIP or webcam or any other form of collaboration or communication technology the greatest challenge is engagement. Engagement is an issue when you are face-to-face in the same room, thanks to so much digital noise, flashing reminders and nagging vibrates, not to mention the chaos of concerns and distractions in the privacy of your head; it is amazing that anyone sticks around to the end of a sentence. So how do we grab and keep the attention of attendees in the virtual space?

A vendor of Adobe Connect recently astounded me by answering this question with 'click rate'. Click rate? He seriously believed that the more you can encourage attendees to click to raise a hand or agree with a point or give an opinion in a poll you have them eating out of the palm of your hand. It should be said that having attended a webinar given by one of his expert team, in which one of the attendees was engaged enough about half way through to write in the classroom chat box "You are not inspiring me at all!" His response was to read it out loud, say "oh” and move on. So how do we increase the engagement of attendees? First things first:

Why do it?
Be absolutely clear about what you are wanting to achieve. We have all sat through interminable teleconferences and web conferences or meetings and thought 'what was that all about?' Rambling, unstructured, dull, colourless, time-wasting torture will be dealt with later, but if you can’t complete the following sentences please, please DONT DO IT.

'The purpose of this session is to...'
'By the end of this meeting/webinar/virtual classroom/dance class,
you will understand...
you will be able to...
you will feel...'

Why do it this way?
We have more ways than ever to connect and communicate in human history and as a consequence we abuse those choices by using the hammer of email or web conference for every need that arises regardless of similarity to a nail. Virtual communication and collaboration technology enables us to reach a previously unreachable audience, to save money, to manage remotely, to inform, educate and enable without the need for getting on the wheels or wings or getting off our backsides. Brilliant, but - think before you send out the invite.

Will it work?
Be absolutely sure that it can be done in this medium - if not don’t do it - you will waste yours and everybody else’s time. Maybe, some of your objectives can be met with this medium and other objectives  need to use writing, face-to-face meetings, one-to-one conversations etc.
So, will it achieve the objective?

Can you make it work?
Do you have the competence, confidence, personality, resources, technology, bandwidth and creativity to make it work?

Fly before you buy
There are many technical solutions to choose from, some richer in features than others and some easier to use than others. Everyone is getting on the bandwagon and promising magic in a box.
So get in the cockpit and fly the technology before you take on passengers, compare competing solutions and make sure that it will do everything you need it to do before you sign the contract.


You cannot wing it in the virtual classroom, there is too much to do and too much to go wrong. You have to prepare meticulously and even then allow 20% of your attention to be directed to dealing with what goes wrong on the day. You must dedicate time, money and expertise to preparing to be brilliant.

  • Prepare your story, your content, the learning journey, the interactivity, the exercises, games and fun
  • Prepare your virtual space, set up the classroom in advance with preloaded, surveys, polls, quizzes, videos, presentation slides, layouts and breakout rooms
  • Prepare your audience by letting them know in advance what is expected of them by way of any preparatory work, material, case studies, examples you want them to bring with them.

Make sure they have familiarised themselves with the virtual environment, have downloaded the plug-in, tested system compatibility in advance of the session or you will waste tons of time and frustrate those who are hot to trot. Prepare yourself by practising driving the virtual classroom with panache. Make sure you can switch layouts, deal with chats, manage polls, move whiteboard contributions from breakout rooms and move learners from one room to another with the ease and style of a ballroom dancer. Prepare yourself by bringing enthusiasm, energy and personal experiences to the way in which you take the learners on the learning journey. The magic is in the magician, not the trick.

For the first time you run a virtual class or webinar you would be advised to use a producer. This is an extra cost that will pay for itself in the long run. The producer can deal with many of the technical issues whilst you facilitate the engagement, interaction and learning of the learners. It may well be that after three or four successful sessions you can fly solo, but initially use a co-pilot wherever you can - it will save crashing the plane.

Generation Y learners have grown up with high levels of interactivity, multimedia, self-directed learning and social networking. The Internet has meant that they can satisfy their curiosity about anything instantly on multiple portable devices, they can ask for help and help others they have never met who live and work in different cultures, countries and continents. If you give them a text-based PowerPoint presentation that you read through with predictable questions and meaningless polls that masquerade as engagement they will eat you alive and abandon your class and your company faster than you can apologise.

Learn from gaming, television, YouTube, films, podcasts, apps, and storytelling and absolutely anything else that is new. Use it in the design of the learning journey and let that be your guide to engagement - not the nonsense comfort statistic of 'get them to do something every 3-4 minutes.'

Now you have spent more hours than you ever thought you had available for anything preparing your virtual circus, you now have to get on stage and perform. There is much written and spoken about the death of  'the sage on the stage' and much of it nonsense. I am a great believer in discovery learning, project-based learning and high levels of interactivity. However, when people pay good money to attend a course which promises to enrich them, develop their confidence and competence they will be very short-changed if they are a group of people who struggle to manage change, for example, and are put together and told to figure it out.

They expect and deserve some expertise, they have a right to a facilitator who is inspirational, educational and motivational, who will present and perform with energy and personality and not just click through the PowerPoint slides and summarise brain storms. Crossing the virtual void is not easy and not for everyone.

Learners have a responsibility to learn. We cannot make them. We can however invite, entice, and engage. First we have to overcome the obstacle of negative experience. Most learners will have had enough dull, turgid webinars delivered by uninspiring slide readers to assume that yours will be no different. Therefore we need to grab them, fast and fascinatingly. We have just a few minutes to prove that this learning journey will be worth them putting their boots on. Once you have them, keep them, do not lose them because they have given you their trust, they are trusting that you will not let them down, so don’t.

But how do you know that they are connected, that they are paying attention, that they are engaged? You don’t. There are now ways in which the technology can tell you whether they are opening another app on their computer, whether they are using the keyboard, whether they are eating a sandwich. But what do you do with that, tell them off? Embarrass them? Privately? Publicly? Absolutely not. One of the key principles of of caring for your clients is to protect their dignity, at all costs.

So you do not know. You can only believe that they are with you and that you are with them. When it is all over you will know the truth. In the meantime communicate with enthusiasm and colour, listen carefully to them, adapt and respond, and above all make sure that this dead programme comes alive for them in their world, addresses their needs and gives them a voice and an answer.
Above all, believe in your story, your learning journey, your personal capability and their good will and desire to learn. Then you will dance with eyes that can see an audience that is visible.

And then, make sure you have your prayer beads, rabbits foot, four leaved clover and lucky hat all at the ready.

David Hall is director of The Business Theatre

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