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Virtual Training Best Practices

Virtual Training Best Practices: Transition, Setup, and Engagement

blog author
Written by Andy Springer
Chief Client Officer

Virtual training has become a necessity for remote teams. But designing and delivering effective virtual training is the exception more than the norm.

Virtual training failure is all too common. We’ve seen and heard it all:

  • Boring, static, dull
  • Repurposed haphazardly from standalone eLearning or in-person training
  • Bad slides
  • Bad facilitation
  • Technical issues

It’s easy to say, “There are many pitfalls to avoid,” for any kind of sales training, but virtual instructor-led training (VILT) initiatives take the cake. The decks are stacked against success!

But success is there for those who want it. Those who succeed not only succeed where others fail, but also take advantage of the unique benefits that VILT has to offer over other delivery modalities. 

For you to build and deliver the most impactful and effective virtual training—and, yes, so you don’t flop where so many others do—you must attend to the following 3 keys, which are the topic of our report, 9 Principles of Virtual Learning Success:

  1. Choose the right platform to support your training goals
  2. Design engaging and impactful training
  3. Prepare facilitators for successful delivery in a digital world

How to Choose the Right Virtual Training Platform

We’re asked all the time about which platform for use for VILT. With all of the choices out there—Zoom, Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, GoToWebinar, On24, etc.—which one is best?

Like any good consultant, our answer to this question is, “It depends.”

Not all platforms are created equal, and not all serve every objective. Different platforms excel at different things. You must choose wisely.

Think first about what you want to accomplish with your training:

  • Is it knowledge share with a large group? A webinar platform may suffice.
  • One-on-one or small-group coaching? A meeting platform with video is best.
  • In-depth instructor-led training similar to a physical classroom? A purpose-built virtual classroom platform is best.

Think about the tools you’ll need to deliver the experience you want learners to have. Do you require break-out rooms? Virtual whiteboards? Chat? Polls? Participants being able to share audio and video? All of these are considerations in your platform selection.

Our advice here:

  1. Architect what you're trying to accomplish
  2. Make a plan for how you'll accomplish it
  3. Pick your platform(s) to bring it to life

A big mistake we see organizations make is building the training for the platform they already have. This thinking is backward. Could it work? Maybe. But it requires a close look at your training needs versus current capabilities.

At RAIN Group, we’re platform agnostic and don't promote one platform over another. We partner with our clients to determine which platform is right for them and what they're looking to do.

There are, however, three key considerations for platform selection.

1. Think Outcomes First

Two key questions will drive your platform selection:

  1. What outcomes do you want to achieve?
  2. What types of virtual training do you want to deliver?

Are you doing short knowledge sharing with large groups? If so, a webinar platform could work. Are you doing meetings or virtual coaching? Then you need a virtual meeting platform. Do you want to deliver in-depth instructor-led training similar to a classroom? Then a platform with purpose-built virtual classroom tools such as breakout rooms, virtual whiteboarding, and more is the right pick. (More on tools in the next point.) And is your virtual learning blended into a multi-year, multi-skill, multi-modal education system? Then you’re going to need all this sitting inside a robust learning management system (LMS).

Architect what you're trying to accomplish first. Then, make a plan for how you'll accomplish it and pick your platform(s) to bring it to life. We often use multiple platforms for different outcomes and types of training.

A big mistake we see organizations make is to look at the platforms they’re already using and to build the training for the platform. This is backward.

Think training outcomes and experience first, then select the platform(s) that will get you there.

2. Identify the Right Tools for the Job

As you investigate platform options and how they operate, consider the toolkits they provide.

Tools matter. Tools support engagement. Tools aid learning. When participants are engaged, they buy into learning. They're much more likely to retain learning and apply it on-the-job, leading to the business outcomes and results you seek.

Tools fall into two categories:

  1. Participant tools to drive engagement
  2. Facilitator tools to support delivery and provide reporting

There are a plethora of participant tools to consider that can drive engagement, interaction, and enjoyment, such as:

  • Chat
  • Polling
  • Video
  • Website
  • Whiteboards
  • Breakouts
  • Microphones
  • Webcams
  • Photos
  • Recording
  • Gamification
  • Testing

Caveat: More is not necessarily better. Just because a platform has all the bells and whistles doesn’t mean it’s right for what you want to do. Review your learning objectives, consider how you’ll achieve them, and find the tools you need to make it happen. Don’t use tools without a learning- or business-focused objective.

The second category, facilitator tools, are often overlooked.

What does the facilitator need to drive engagement? Can they change on-screen layouts to capture and drive attention to important concepts? Do they have access to rich multimedia functionality? Can they monitor the engagement levels of individual participants? Can they call out individuals and pull up video feeds one-by-one? Is there reporting? Is it easy to log on and use the tools? What are the requirements to access and set-up the back end?

All are factors in platform selection.

3. Get Your IT Team on Board

In traditional instructor-led training (ILT), Learning & Development controls the training process from end-to-end. They:

  • Identify the need
  • Scope the work
  • Design the content
  • Deliver the content
  • Measure results

One of the challenges of VILT is the technology requirement, which typically involves representatives from IT to form your VILT team.

You need your IT team involved early on in the process to support the selection and use of the platform to avoid late-stage headwinds. We worked with one client who had selected their platform and then heard back from IT, “We can’t use that. Our systems don’t integrate with that platform.” After spending weeks evaluating technologies, they had to go back to the drawing board.

The critical technology considerations include:

  • Devices: From what devices will participants join? Mobile phones, tablets, computers?
  • Software integration and permissions: You need software on the devices that your participants are using and the right permissions set up.
  • Data bandwidth/speed: With more people working from home and in remote locations, data connectivity isn't always the same. Bandwidth impacts the multimedia you can run and the types of engagements you can design.
  • Microphones and webcams: Think about how you want people to participate. Are they using built-in computer microphones, headsets, mobile phones, earbuds, etc.? Are webcams required?
  • Technical support: IT can help set up virtual classrooms, make them functional, and provide tech support during the virtual sessions.
  • Security: Each organization and IT group have their own security requirements they must follow. Not every platform will work given security needs. VPNs, firewalls, and other security software can cause slower connections or restrict user access entirely. It’s a very important consideration when selecting the right platform.

When it comes to choosing the right VILT platform for your organization, be sure to attend to these three areas, letting your desired outcomes drive your selection criteria.

Design Engaging Training

Engagement Threshold (noun): The point at which attention is captured and maintained, and below which is lost.

We teach the concept of the engagement threshold to sellers that need to hold buyers’ attention in virtual sales meetings.

When we teach it to sellers, we need to gain and keep their attention.

It’s never been easy, but in a virtual environment, it’s significantly more difficult.

A big mistake companies make is carelessly turning their live, classroom training into VILT. They attempt to take what works in a 3D environment and use it in 2D. It simply doesn’t work.

VILT isn’t the web version of your live, instructor-led training delivered through an online meeting platform. Keep the following three principles in mind:

1. Design Specifically for VILT

Materials, facilitation, and exercises need to be purpose-built for virtual. So much is different: session kickoffs, content flow, discussion management, visual flow, visual and slide timing, ability to read the room, ability to interact, types of interaction, physical distance, distractions, technology, breaks, breakouts, exercises and activities, etc.

To design training for VILT that'll stand on its own, attend to the key learning design concepts of learn, feel, do:
  1. Learn: What do the participants need to know? What are the learning objectives?
  2. Feel: What do you want participants to feel? Emotion drives change. If you want training to drive change (and you do!), you have to elicit emotion.
  3. Do: What do you want participants to apply or what change in behavior are you looking for? Change requires action. Make sure your training clearly drives the action you want participants to take.

Then think about how you'll achieve these in a 2D online environment. Critical design elements include session flow, virtual sequencing, and engagement.

Keep It Short and Sharp

When it comes to VILT design, less is often more. Expecting to maintain participant attention online in four-hour chunks without decent breaks is setting yourself up for failure.

Instead, develop short sessions with clear messages of what you want the learner to take away. Don’t pack too much content in, and leave plenty of room for discussion and practice. This is how the training comes to life and keeps the session interesting from front to back.

More Slides, Less Content

Slide design is another important consideration when it comes to capturing and holding attention. The rule here is counterintuitive. Think: More, Less, More. You want more slides with less content and more visuals that connect emotionally.

With more slides, you’re able to maintain attention because learners crave moving screens.

One client was shocked to see 93 slides for a 60-minute session. They told us, “You have more than 1 slide per minute! You need to cut it down.” My response: “For a live presentation, yes, but for VILT, no. In fact, I pared down the content already, but increased the number of slides. Imagery and motion will help maintain participant attention and focus.”

After we delivered, it all made sense and he was happy we kept all the slides.

2. Keep Capturing Participant Attention

In VILT it’s much easier to lose the room and harder to get it back. If your instructional design and classroom management don’t tackle distraction head-on, upfront, and forcefully, your chances of failure increase exponentially.

The secret? Don’t think about capturing learner attention. Think about capturing it over and over and over again. In VILT, learners need to be doing something, seeing something new, challenged to think about what they’re seeing, or contributing frequently to maintain attention. If not, assume their attention will keep drifting away.

These best practices will help you capture and sustain participant attention:

  • Remove Distractions: Strongly request that participants shut off email, phones, notifications, and applications. Some may and some may not. Challenge them to remove distractions. In communications prior to the workshop, include a note that requests all participants turn off background applications and mute phones. As they enter the virtual classroom, reiterate these expectations and take a few minutes to allow participants to remove these distractions.
  • Require Active Participation: Virtual training means participating, not just listening. Prepare learners ahead of time with expectations of how they’ll participate, including being called on (see below), using video and audio, participating in small group breakouts, and more. Then, engage them early, so they're engaged and interested from the outset and put on notice that their full attention is required.
  • Launch Activities Frequently: In a physical classroom, you might have 15-20 minutes in between exercises and interactions. In the virtual classroom, you want participants engaged in activities much more frequently. You can use polls, chat, tests, videos, white boards, breakouts, and more to facilitate these activities (more on this below).
  • Encourage Interruptions: Much like live classrooms, encourage people to raise their hand, use the chat, or pipe in with comments and questions. The more interactive the better. Simulate a live classroom, not a movie theater.
  • Monitor Engagement: Do everything you can to make sure participants are laser-focused on the program, including monitoring engagement. For example, if you see that one of the learners is not participating in the polls or chats, you can send a private message to check in.
  • Call Out Participants by Name: This sharpens attention and engagement. For example, you might say, “After this activity, Jessica, I’m going to ask you to turn on your webcam and present to the group.” Or, “Joseph, how would you handle this objection in your sales conversations?” Once a few people’s names get called randomly, everyone tends to perk up.
  • Encourage a Fun Host and Facilitator Dynamic: You can create a dynamic environment for participants with the host and facilitator working together to break up the monotony. Play off each other and have some fun!

3. Maximize Engagement with Interaction

For training to have the greatest impact, you must engage participants—make sure they’re present, focused, and fully involved. While engagement goes hand-in-hand with attention, we’ve singled it out because it’s so critical to successful VILT.

The key to driving engagement—assuming the training is important to the participant’s role and success—is interaction, activities, and application. This is another reason why platform choice is so important: it governs your interaction options. When you design for VILT, you want to design frequent and diverse interactions.

First, you have to open strong. If you don’t, you’ve lost the participants out of the gate. Let’s assume, however, you capture their attention at the beginning. Once you have it, you want to keep it and increase it. The key to driving engagement—assuming the training is relevant to the participant’s role and success—is interaction, activities, and application.

For example, you can use:

  • Breakouts for group discussions
  • Partner chats for conversation between participants
  • Polls to drive thinking, action, curiosity, and discussion
  • Exercises for analysis, discussion, presentation, and feedback
  • Games and simulations with immediate feedback and scoring
  • Quizzes and tests to keep people on their toes
  • Webcams to create emotional connections
  • Microphones to engage verbally
  • Chat boxes for opinions and questions

As a best practice, use one of these or some other method to re-grab attention every three minutes or so on average. If you need to explain a concept for longer than that, do what you must, but consider breaking it up. Also, consider delivering longer one-way communications through pre-training videos or micro learning.

According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, people generally remember:

  • 10% of what they read
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 30% of what they see
  • 50% of what they see and hear
  • 70% of what they say and write
  • 90% of what they do

This is why engagement and contribution during virtual training is so important.

Prepare for Delivery Success

What makes for a great facilitator in the physical world does not automatically mean great facilitation in the virtual one.

Facilitators need to learn how to deliver and engage participants differently. As you think about the delivery of your virtual training, be sure to:

  1. Select the right facilitators: Facilitation in a virtual environment takes a significant amount of mental energy, preparation, and collaboration. Some facilitators are simply not built for a virtual environment. Facilitators need to understand the differences in delivering online versus in-person and work to hone their "digital senses."
  2. Partner facilitators with hosts: We can’t overstate the critical importance of having a host for each VILT session. There’s almost always something that requires serious attention behind the scenes. You need a host who can fix it all, allowing the facilitator to focus on participant experience and learning. Follow our advice on this one: don’t go it alone.
  3. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Preparation for any training matters. In the virtual classroom, it’s even more critical. It’s not just about being great versus being good. If you don’t prepare, you’re much more likely to fail. Three roles need preparation: the facilitator, the host (see the two points above), and the participant.

    Participants should know ahead of time what’s expected of them. Will they be on video? Expected to participate on audio? Is there pre-work to complete? What technology do they need to download and install ahead of time? Participant preparation is an often overlooked (yet critical) part of virtual training success.

Many organizations struggle to build virtual training or convert their in-person training to virtual. Virtual training that works is still in its infancy. With rampant technical, facilitator, and learning design-issues, virtual learning too often doesn’t go well.

When the entire experience is designed with the virtual learning environment in mind, you can create impactful and engaging training that achieves business results.

Last Updated September 20, 2023

Topics: Sales Training Virtual Selling