Classrooms Moved Online? Time to Step Up the Delivery Game!
September 29, 2020
Over the past 6 months, COVID-19 has forced many classroom training programs and presentations to move online. Zoom, WebEx, Skype, and Teams are now the de facto standard tools instead of whiteboards, flip charts and overhead projectors.
On the surface, the delivery should be the same - it's still a live session featuring slides and an instructor leading people through the content. The reality, of course, is quite different. As those in-person programs have moved online, facilitators have discovered that there are actually major differences between the two delivery methods. To deliver virtual training and presentations successfully, those differences need to be recognized and the special challenges of a virtual environment need to be addressed.
Here are some things to consider to maximize the effectiveness of live online delivery.
In a physical classroom, there are social cues that participants pick up on during the event. If everyone else is paying rapt attention to the speaker, students will feel like they should as well. If others are zoning out, they're more likely to do it too.
In the context of a conference presentation or meeting, that can extend as far as determining whether or not people stay or leave the session. In a physical presentation at a conference, attendees may realize they're not interested in the content and want to leave, but they'll weigh that against the amount of disruption they'll cause by walking out. That's part of why a lot of people want to sit on the end of a row or take seats at the back, so they can make a hasty, quiet exit.
Online, however, none of the social factors exist. Even in virtual training sessions where the cameras are on, you still can't tell exactly what the other participants are doing all the time. With some virtual meeting tools you can't easily see the other participants when the instructor is talking, making it even tougher. That means participants can tune out more easily, do something else without it being obvious, or leave the session altogether. To prevent that, those virtual sessions need to be a lot more compelling.
Competition for Attention
Added to the lack of social cues in a virtual session are the many other things competing for the participant's attention. In a physical classroom, it's assumed that the instructor can see each time a participant looks down at their phone or stops paying attention to the speaker. Online? Not so much.
Even with cameras on, it's impossible to know if the participant is looking at the presentation or something else. If they're typing, are they taking notes (which many people do as a way of learning the content) or are they sending messages to their friends? When they're not taking notes are they paying attention to the speaker or surfing other sites?
Much like the social cues in a physical class that keep people paying attention, the physical immersion in a dedicated environment helps to keep people focused on the subject at hand and not distracted by other things. When they're away from that physical environment, sitting at their desk with all the various notifications popping up and the lure of easy access to activities that escape the eye of the instructor, it's a lot harder for people to stay focused on the speaker.
Putting these two points together - lack of immersion in the physical environment and lack of social cues driving behavior - and it's easy to see the added challenge virtual delivery faces. Without those elements to help out, the presentation itself - the speaker, the content, and the slides - need to do all the work to maintain the engagement level.
Many instructors do the job because they know the content well and are comfortable talking to an audience. That's not the same as being a compelling speaker, engaging educator, or great curriculum designer. In a physical environment where everyone is together, you can get away with that. It's not great, but you can get away with it. Think of the many examples of ‘instructors' (I'm using the word very loosely here) who stand at the front and either read the slides or just recite stories from their own experience.
Online, that doesn't work. Without the supports provided by physical attendance, a lacklustre delivery falls flat and loses the audience fast. Once you've done that, there's really no returning - the participants won't respect or pay attention to what you're saying.
To make online delivery work, instructors need to be able to speak comfortably at a consistent pace, with inflection and energy in their voice, and without endless umms and uhhs. It doesn't need to sound like an over-caffeinated radio DJ, but it does have to have pacing and life in the voice. More like a newscaster, delivering content in a way that the audience can follow, but also keeping them interested.
Making the audience work a little bit to maintain their engagement, but not too hard. That requires speaking with a certain amount of polish - rising and falling pitch in the voice with no monotone sections, strong consonants so it's clear what's being said, and most of all… NO READING OF THE SLIDES. I have a whole webinar that talks about how to create and deliver Powerpoint presentations effectively and this is pretty much rule number one for delivery.
The key to that kind of delivery is to rehearse it. If the slides are built today and the session delivered tomorrow, without any rehearsing in between, it will sound rough and clunky. Take some time to rehearse the content so you can deliver it without stumbling or sounding like you're rushing through it, and the effort will pay off. Even two runthroughs, going end to end without stopping, will make a big difference in the smoothness of delivery during the live session.
Building on the last point, the slides need to give people something to look at that isn't the script you're reading. It doesn't have to be a lot - it can be an image that illustrates your point, maybe the key points in bullet form - but it needs to be something for the audience to use as a mental bookmark for the content you're presenting. The subject of creating effective Powerpoint slides is a HUGE one, so I won't go into it in detail here (if you're interested, here's my webinar on the subject) but spend a bit of time thinking about what should and shouldn't be on those slides.
You also don't always have to rely on slides. Sometimes videos can work, and sometimes just cut the slides altogether and have your face on screen. That can be great way to connect better with the audience, but it has its own set of challenges, which leads us to…
Lights, Camera, Sound
This is an area I find endlessly fascinating, now that the entire world has moved to virtual meetings, classes, and interviews. Watching interview segments on news and infotainment shows, you see a wide variety of camera positions, lighting setups, and audio quality, all making a much bigger difference on the final product than the speakers appear to realize.
To do it right, there are some simple steps that anyone can follow:
- If at all possible, have the camera at or slightly above eye level. No one wants to look up your nose, but the camera shouldn't be too high above your head either (it's not a selfie).
- If you're sitting down, position yourself close enough to the camera that you're visible from the chest up. If you're too close it can look like a disembodied head on screen, and if you're too far it will pick up too much hand movement that can be distracting for the audience.
- Adjust the lighting to minimize shadows. There are standardized lighting setups that professionals use (examples here) and you can mimic that pretty well with just a couple of lamps and selective use of curtains or blinds to control natural light.
- Use wireless headphones/mic or the kind of in-ear phones/mic that typically come with mobile phones. If you use a large over-the-ear headset you look like you're directing air traffic. If you rely on the computer's built in audio you'll invariably get tons of background noise and poor quality audio. Mobile phone headsets are surprisingly good at providing clean audio, so there's no reason not to use them.
Put those things together and you'll be surprised at how much better the picture and audio quality of the presentation is. Add in the points above to create more engaging slides and deliver in a cleaner, smoother fashion, and you'll be amazed at how much better the finished product looks.
Delivering live training and presentations online may be a new adventure for many people, but it's not rocket science so anyone can do it well, with a little preparation and practice.