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ATD Blog

4 Favorites for Phenomenal Virtual Facilitation

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

During college, childhood fantasies of stage and screen turned into nightmares of clumsy waitressing. Leaving Broadway dreams behind, I joined an HR firm. But the thespian within awoke as I watched my boss facilitate a workshop. Here she was, paid to be in front of a rapt audience for eight hours. I was enthralled. “Glad you like it,” she said. “You’re training next week’s session.”

Shortly after, I discovered facilitation was not an acting gig—though it is an art. One that is founded in the science of learning. Applying that science in virtual contexts, I cultivated four favorites for facilitating phenomenal learning.


Before people are willing to learn, they need to care.

The Science: Malcolm Knowles’s adult learning theory explains that adults want to know why they need to learn something before undertaking that learning (Knowles et al., 2005).

Pro Tip: Prior to a session, send participants a welcoming note speaking to the relevance of the workshop in their terms.

Example: Record a video welcome enticing participants to expect the unexpected and describe how they will come away better able to tackle daily challenges.


Adults learn best when following their curiosity and finding their answers.

The Science (a two-for!):

  • John Medina, author of The Brain Rules, calls the first two minutes with a group “cognitive hallowed ground.” These precious 120 seconds are when your participants are the most attentive.
  • Advice and persuasive messages can be perceived as limiting an individual’s choice or control, which triggers people to try to regain control by countering the argument or acting counter to the recommendation (Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control by Sharon and Jack Brehm).

Pro Tip: Immediately signal safety and engage participants’ curiosity. Don’t foul the sacred first moments with introductions or a list of learning objectives. Get your participants talking, thinking, and interacting.

Instead of using valuable synchronous time “telling” or “teaching,” consider how you could create opportunities for them to discover the insight, test the skill, or experience the attitude for themselves.

Example 1: At the start, send participants to virtual breakouts with a scavenger hunt list. Give them a tight timeframe to gather the items and regroup to share what they found. Focus the debrief on how well people collaborated to complete the task.

Example 2: Instead of showing a slide and explaining a theory about human behavior, re-create the original experiment with the participants allowing them to experience the theory in action.


Did you wonder why I used the word “phenomenal” earlier? Phenomenal learning is extraordinary, sensory, memorable, and retrievable. It creates conditions needed for participants to step out of their comfort zones and into the unknown.

The Science: Neuroscientist Beau Lotto explains that the first step to change is not going from A to B but rather going from A not to A. Our perception of awe helps our brains go to this scary space. Awe opens our minds and makes us feel more connected to each other and to something larger than ourselves.


Pro Tip: Ask, what can I do to surprise and delight participants, triggering awe and wonder, readying them for not A? Use art, humor, creation, and the unexpected to produce open-mindedness, a sense of community, and curiosity.

Example: To ready participants for a rigorous practice activity, show them a visually stunning yet mentally soothing video of ocean waves crashing onto a beach.


If you are exhausted after facilitating, chances are you are working too hard and your participants are not working hard enough. Learning takes effort and experience.

The Science: In Make It Stick, author Peter Brown posits that the difference between those who learn from experience and those who do not is the habit of self-reflection.

Pro-Tip: Devote most of the synchronous learning time to practice, reflection, and feedback.

Example: To develop a mentors’ ability to connect with mentees, use a story, image, or video to trigger awe and paint a clear picture of the skill in its entirety. Then, practice the components individually. For example, with video and mics on, run an improv game to practice listening. Give participants a minute to quietly reflect on their performance followed by group debrief. Repeat this cadence with each component. Then, in small breakout groups, participants put the components together connecting with each other. Hold a full group debrief to surface and socialize insights from the breakouts.

The secret to phenomenal learning lies in your mindset. You are not an actor, presenter, or faculty. Think like an orchestra conductor. Unify your participants, set the tempo, provide clear instructions, listen critically, and create conditions for them to be at their best.

About the Author

For the last 29 years, it’s been a joy to deliver learning that equips people to perform at their best.

I love the art and science of learning. It's a delight creating fun, challenging, effective facilitated, self-paced, and blended learning. My secret sauce is a mix of neuroscience, narratives, and playfulness that produces rich learning journeys. Learners enjoy, engage, and get equipped through exploration, discovery, play, practice, reflection, feedback, and immediate application. I believe serious learning happens when we don’t take ourselves so seriously! It's a blast to design learning learners love and watch them flourish as a result!

Ways I contribute...

Performance consulting Learning strategy Instructional design  Learner-centered facilitation Change management - strategy and implementation

Sampling of Results...

Currently designing distributed learning. Developing phenomenal blended journeys that surprise, delight, and equip. Choosing media to meet outcomes and create challenging fun experiences for participants and facilitators. Designed a “MasterClass”-style highly engaging and entertaining orientation experience currently being used by a Fortune 50 client to onboard people around the world Crafted an escape-room style orientation for a Fortune 50 client that exceeds new hire expectations, lives up to the brand promise, increases retention and speeds time to productivity Transformed several traditional training events into blended learning journeys that better equip leaders to contribute to business priorities. Focus areas included career and leadership development for underrepresented populations as well as new promotes transitioning to higher career levels  Partnered with a dynamic team to design game-based and real-time immersive simulations coupled with a cohort-based coaching model to prepare thousands of newly promoted executives to lead their organization 

Areas of Expertise: Career & leadership development | Onboarding | D&I | Relationship Management | Storytelling

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Thanks for the very helpful, practical tips. Appreciate the concrete examples.
Sure thing!
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And now I can safely steal someone's good ideas...again! (You had me at "thespian". And "clumsy".) The bit about recreating the social science experiments in the classroom is a gem (as long as it's not the Stanford Prison Experiment; that one may not work out so well in the next Team Building session).
LOL! Agreed, Stanford Prison Experiment is a big no-no!!
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Great article. I love the examples you give. I will be putting a lot of these into practice as I convert 3 days of face to face training to virtual.
Hi Jennifer! So glad the article provided ideas you can put into action! Mission accomplished!
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