Virtual Training – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Three years ago, my colleagues and I delivered our first virtual training event for participants from around the world. It certainly was a steep learning curve and pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did – including the MD of the Moscow office taking over one of the meeting rooms for his senior team meeting. He flatly refused to move rooms so the first 30 minutes of our event was hijacked. Fortunately, there was no confidentiality issue as none of the participants (or us for that matter) spoke a word of Russian.

We’ve moved on a lot from those days and have mastered the art of minimising the risk of things going wrong. We’ve learnt that we need to be proactive to ensure:

  1. The technology works in the facilitator’s favour
  2. Participants are actively engaged and involved throughout
  3. The facilitator can fully concentrate on delivering the training knowing the technical logistics are being taken care of by a colleague, where possible.

How can you ensure this for YOUR virtual training events? Here are our top tips for making your virtual training go without a hitch.



Our top technology tip is to make sure you’re familiar with the platform you’ll be using. And I mean very familiar, so that it becomes second nature. Test out all the functionality and rope in colleagues or even family members to be your guinea pigs. We spent quite some time doing this before our first virtual event.

When you send out the invitation, ask participants to test the link before the day of the training – and to let you know that they’ve done so. That way you know you won’t be dealing with connectivity issues which will delay the start.

For those platforms that have an app make sure that participants download it rather than joining via the browser. We discovered that on Zoom for example, there is limited functionality and no access to breakout rooms when joining via the browser which will seriously limit participation.


Engagement and Participation

We all know either as facilitators or participants that training is more enjoyable and memorable if there is plenty of opportunity to get involved, contribute, take part in activities, chat with other participants, etc.  We’ve learnt not to allow the technology to stop us from doing this. We’ve been able to transfer pretty much every activity to a virtual context. It’s required a little lateral thinking and creativity but is definitely worthwhile. Our participants consistently tell us that they didn’t expect the training to be so interactive.

Here are some of the methods we’ve used:

Managing the Content

Break the training into shorter virtual modules – for instance, a one day face to face course is now 3 virtual modules of approximately 2.5 hours with plenty of breaks. A two day course is now 5 virtual modules. One of our biggest challenges (well for 3 of us anyway) is limiting the time we spend talking – keep it to a maximum of two slides or 5 to 10 minutes. If more information is required send it as pre-reading or create a short e-learning module to be completed before joining.

Building a Relationship with the Participants

As part of the joining information, we ask participants to join 15 minutes early. This has worked really well as we have time to chat with them, find out where they are joining from and build a personal relationship with them before the formal event starts. It also creates space to sort out any technical issues should they arise.

After briefly introducing the event, kick things off by asking each person to share a challenge or question related to the content of the training. You can use these to help you decide the priorities for the training and, at the end of the event build in time for participants to talk in pairs or small groups where they can support (or ideally coach) each other to answer their question or identify strategies to overcome their challenges.

Managing Participation

Unlike webinars, we ask participants not to mute their microphones but instead encourage them to contribute, ask questions and make comments as they would in a face to face set up. This can be a little chaotic at times but creates energy within the group.

We’ve really valued the Annotation, Polling and Chat functions and the participants seem to like them too as it allows them to contribute in different ways. We use Chat for participants to log questions and comments and then at the end to post their top two or three actions – we follow up on these after the training and again about a month later to check in with them on their progress, in the same way as we would in a face-to-face setting.

Breakout Rooms

We use breakout rooms as much as possible. Participants tell us that this is the most enjoyable and productive part of the training, particularly for introverts who find it more challenging to contribute in a larger group. We use them for small group discussions, skills practise and feedback, working on specific tasks together, coaching each other, sharing relevant stories and creating virtual flipcharts to share in the whole group.

Participant Materials

Create a tailored participant pack to send out before the training. This should include instructions for breakout activities, space to log outputs and a learning and actions log. Keep it simple though, they don’t necessarily need all of the content you will be sharing – you can send this after the training. Ideally, it helps if participants either print the pack or have it on another device rather than trying to see the pack, facilitator, shared screens and participants.


Virtual Producer

In our experience, facilitating a virtual training event feels like spinning a multitude of plates. As well as needing to follow the plan, manage activities, tune in to individual participants and keep an eye on the time, you also need to manage the platform and any technology hiccups. Where possible, a colleague has joined our events to act as the Producer. Their role is to host the virtual environment, launching polls, setting up breakout groups, managing Chat and being the first port of call for participants with technical issues. We provide their mobile number in the joining information and at the beginning of the event. This frees up the facilitator to concentrate on facilitation and participation. You may not always have the luxury of a colleague to take on this role, but we would definitely recommend it for your first event or until you become more familiar and confident facilitating virtually.

And finally . . . don’t be too hard on yourself. Inevitably there will be the odd issue (hopefully not involving a takeover from Moscow), but participants are likely to be very forgiving. Make light of things that go wrong which are outside of your control and move on – that in itself will be impressive – the unflappable facilitator! I was recently the Producer for a colleague’s virtual training event. She had forgotten to plug in her laptop and it died mid event without warning. I was there to take over, although unfortunately I’d misread the activity brief and so unknowingly provided the wrong instructions. By the time she re-joined, the participants were in their breakout rooms utterly confused. She took charge and got them back on track. With the help of some self-deprecating humour, everyone saw the funny side.

I hope these tips are helpful and encourage you to have a go at virtual training if you haven’t ventured into this world yet. It really is worthwhile, engaging and fun!

Posted by Julie Turner

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