When does a virtual training program begin? For participants, it begins the moment they log in to the virtual classroom. Since first impressions often establish what’s to come, it’s important to use this opening time to set expectations and get the program moving in the right direction.
Here are five quick tips to help you set the stage for an interactive virtual class.
1. Send Advance Messages
To inform participants about the program expectations, send personalized pre-event messages with key details. These messages should come from the facilitator and be in addition to any automated registration messages. Use these messages to let participants know that this will be an interactive program. You also can use this opportunity to include any other details they need to know, such as “you’ll need a telephone headset to keep your hands free for typing.”
It’s especially helpful to send a “day-of-event” message to participants. This just-in-time reminder helps participants get into the mindset that they have a training event that day. Have this message waiting in their inbox first thing in the morning. And be sure to include the connection details so they are at the learners’ fingertips when needed.
2. Warmly Greet Learners Upon Arrival
Welcome participants with a greeting, both visually and verbally. Just like a traditional training class, the virtual classroom should be welcoming, in preparation for the program that’s about to start. During an in-person classroom, this might mean charts hung on the wall, tables set with materials, appropriate music playing, and a facilitator who greets everyone. In the virtual classroom, this means a rotating set of slides with class information, participant materials available for download, and greetings from the producer or facilitator.
Once they’ve arrived and connected to audio, ask each participant to say hello. This warm greeting adds a personal touch to the program and tests their audio connection at the same time.
3. Invite Immediate Engagement With an On-Screen Activity
Interactive virtual classes should begin with immediate engagement. Therefore, have a “start before the start” activity on screen that involves participants right away. This soft opening activity helps participants know that this program will be interactive and their participation is expected. If they join the program early, then you don’t want them logging in and going back to their email or other potential distractions. Instead you want them to engage right away.
For example, post a question on screen and ask participants to respond to it in chat. Or ask them to use the status indicators to agree/disagree with an on-screen statement. Or use a slide to show a short checklist of tasks that you ask them to complete during this opening time (for example, download the job aid, introduce yourself in chat, and then click on ‘raise your hand.’)
The best “start before the start” on-screen activities are simple yet serve three important purposes: to capture participant attention, to set the stage for interaction, and—if needed—teach participants how to use the platform tools.
4. Connect Them to Other Participants
In most virtual training programs, participants are connected individually from geographically dispersed places. In other words, they are by themselves in their physical location. Unless you’re using webcams for every participant (this is possible but not typical due to bandwidth concerns), learners will not have visible eye contact with anyone in the virtual class. This naturally creates feelings of isolation, which means they are more likely to stay unengaged.
As a result, you should create a social experience as soon as you can at the beginning of a session. Ask everyone to introduce themselves and help participants find things they have in common. Ask them if they already know each other, and if not, have an icebreaker question on screen that gets them talking about mutual interests. You can have them talk about their local weather forecast, or share something about their work history. To add an element of fun, you can ask participants who are already connected to help you greet each person who arrives in the virtual classroom by typing personalized greetings in chat.
5. Begin Class With an Activity That Engages Everyone
Equally as important as the “start-before-the-start” activity is the initial opening activity. It should begin at the exact virtual training program start time. If you set the stage for interactivity in advance of the program, then you’ll want to deliver on that promise in the first few minutes.
For example, reveal the program agenda in a poll question and ask participants to select which topic items are of most interest. This activity serves both as the agenda review and gets everyone involved at the same time. Another option is to share a whiteboard and have participants type in their questions about the topic. This activity helps a facilitator connect the program content to immediately relevant questions. Whatever the opening activity, choose one that includes everyone and gets them engaged.
Setting the stage for interactivity in a virtual class creates a positive learning environment and ultimately helps you achieve your expected outcomes. Follow these five steps to help you and your participants get involved.
Want to learn more? Join me September 28-29 in Austin for ATD’s Core 4 Conference.
Editor’s note: This post is adapted from Virtual Training Tools and Templates: An Action Guide to Live Online Learning (© ATD Press 2017).