The 3 Realms of Virtual Facilitation
How do you create a truly engaging experience in the virtual world? When I think of my most memorable moments in life, I think of them in terms of sound, smell, touch, taste, and feel. For instance, the sound of clinking climbing gear and the feel of the rock on my first multi-pitch climb, or the smell of home cooking at my grandma’s house on Thanksgiving. At first it might seem a futile task to try and tap into these senses in the virtual space, but what if we could? Maybe we could even achieve this right here in these words. Stop reading and listen for a moment…what do you hear? Now put on some of your favorite music. Find something nearby that smells good and smell it. Did you think that all we could do here was read? Now snap your fingers, find a beat and get ready to explore the 3 realms of virtual facilitation.
When conducting group work over a virtual meeting platform, a facilitator should be aware of the multiple layers of interaction that can be happening at any given time. The first, and most often overlooked, realm of virtual facilitation is the actual physical space from which a participant is connecting. They might be in their basement, or their office, or their mother’s house. Whether you acknowledge it or not, they will be interacting with that space all the time during a virtual program. Ways to intentionally incorporate this space into your program are plentiful:
- Be compassionate in inviting participants to manage distractions like kids, animals or roommates without fear of judgement.
- Use activities that incorporate their actual physical space (simon says, share a meaningful object in the room, chair dancing, follow the leader, etc.)
- Avoid making assumptions about their level of comfort with technology or the quality of the technology they are using. Be able to help them troubleshoot problems whether they are on a Mac, PC, tablet, phone, or desktop computer.
If you are facilitating a meeting that is longer than an hour, it is imperative that you incorporate some movement. At a minimum, this could be a scheduled break during which you encourage participants to take a lap around the house, stretch, or anything else that gets them away from the screen.
The next realm is the platform you are using for your virtual meeting such as Zoom, MS Teams, Skype, etc. This is likely to be where most of the interaction is going to happen and it is worth your time to become an expert on the platform you are using. Masterful use of your meeting platform is what can make some aspects of virtual facilitation even better than in-person. Chat, for example, is an excellent way to invite participation from folks who may be less inclined to speak in front of the group. Let’s take a look at a few common built-in tools and how you might use them during a program:
Chat – While commonly used with simple prompts like “type your answer in the chat,” this function has a wide variety of applications. Here’s a few:
First of all, you should clarify HOW you would like your audience to use the tool. Some facilitators are fine with the audience using chat for side conversations while others only want them to use it in response to prompts or questions.
Get a pulse on the room by asking fill-in-the-blank questions like “The topic that I want to explore further is ____” or “So far, my day has been ____.”
Ask participants to type the answer to a question or prompt in the chat but WAIT TO HIT ENTER until you say go. Then you get to see a lot of opinions that have not been influenced by anyone else’s answer.
Use the responses in chat to find a thread that you as the facilitator would like to follow and then ask the person who wrote it to elaborate.
Breakout Rooms – It can be challenging (but certainly not impossible) to have a productive discussion with more than 6 or 7 people at one time. Breakout rooms are a very useful tool to create space for verbal processing and/or authentic connection as well as to increase engagement with the material. A classic tool in the facilitator toolbox is the ‘pair & share’ approach. This is just as effective in the virtual space as it is in person.
Video Options – We usually encourage participants to keep their video on when possible, but remember this can be used as a tool as well. For example, consider offering a journal prompt and inviting participants to turn off their video to reflect and write for a period of time. You can also create a unique virtual atmosphere by having everyone turn their camera off, asking a question, and then having them turn their camera back on only while they are sharing their answer. It’s like having people step into a spotlight on a stage. You will also want to maintain awareness and coach participants on appropriate times to switch between gallery view and speaker view.
Audio Options – One wonderful aspect of the virtual space is that you can pipe in sound quite easily to add an audio element to the experience. It can be really pleasant to throw in some music while people are just coming into the meeting, during a break, or while they are filling out a poll. A quick round of ‘Name That Tune’ can be a great unofficial start as folks are just signing in. In addition to recorded music, you can play an actual instrument! While it is still not possible to have all your participants jamming out in sync while unmuted, you CAN still jam! Some companies are even hosting virtual songwriting workshops where participants compose and perform a song during the session.
Screen Sharing – Utilizing dynamic visuals during a virtual program will greatly enhance engagement and most meeting platforms offer some form of screen sharing to accomplish this. Hopefully you already know that striking, high quality, visual images work much better than words on a white background. Text can certainly be used, but if you really feel the need to share a lot of written words with your audience then you are better off sending them an article to read on their own instead of trying to put all that info on the screen. A great virtual program will have a steady mix of visual aides as well as discussion time in gallery or speaker view. Pro-tip: Remember to stop sharing your screen when it is no longer relevant.
Annotation – This feature allows participants to contribute to a screen being shared with drawings, text, and stamps. A classic example of this might be to put up a picture of a map and ask participants to place a stamp where they are from. It adds a kinesthetic element to virtual presentations and increases engagement.
The third realm includes the myriad of applications that exist outside of your meeting platform and can be incorporated into your virtual program. The options are massive and growing everyday. They can be grouped in the following buckets:
Visual Enhancements – Applications like Powerpoint, Prezi, Flippity, Bitmoji, and others allow you to create customized visual aides. Whether virtual or in-person, adding visuals to a presentation helps you cater to more than one learning style and will increase engagement.
Polling and Choice – Some meeting platforms will have a built in polling option but those are usually limited in functionality and visually unsatisfying. Platforms like MentiMeter and Poll Everywhere allow the facilitator to set up a variety of poll types (multiple choice, open ended, ranking, etc.) and visually stimulating ways to share the results.
Interactive Sandbox – These platforms allow participants to enter a shared virtual space in which they can interact with additional tools alongside each other in real time. Applications like Google Slides, Jamboard, and Mural are great for adapting experiential activities to the virtual environment or replacing classic brainstorming sessions that necessitate sticky notes and a white board.
Supplemental Information – This bucket catches everything else. Simply providing a link to an interesting article or video will add to the dynamics of your program. A trip to your favorite vacation spot using Google Earth can be a fun diversion as well! Many of these tools can also be used asynchronously.
If the attention span of the average adult is 20 minutes, then that same adult will probably only be able to stay focused during a virtual meeting for about half of that. This means you will need to provide visual stimulation or interaction prompts (type in the chat, select an image, write a poem, complete this poll, raise your hand, stretch, etc.) about every 5 – 10 minutes during a program. With all of the tools available in each of these realms, you have more than enough options to keep participants engaged. Be aware, you may see a decline in engagement anytime you linger in one of these realms for too long.
By varying our activities between our participants’ actual physical space and the meeting platform they are on, as well as utilizing outside platforms for additional methods of interaction, we can deliver outstanding virtual programs. Engaging participants in all three of these realms will lead to increased retention and, most importantly, more fun! For the facilitator it also unlocks new avenues for creativity and sequencing. Mastering all these tools allows you to tap into the senses of your participants and draw them into a truly memorable experience.
Dan Miller is the founder of Fifth Pillar Consulting and works passionately to help improve the safety and quality of outdoor, experiential, and virtual education programs.