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5 Tips to Avoid a Virtual Training Disaster

Published: Thursday, October 8, 2020

Have you ever had something go wrong during a training event? Even a minor setback can throw a facilitator off track and impede successful learning. From a projector bulb burning out to an upset stomach, setbacks are inevitable. Thankfully, most audiences will understand when something unexpected happens and seeing how their facilitator responds to adversity might even become an unexpected learning opportunity. It is important for every trainer to have a plan in place for setbacks and it is doubly important to plan for setbacks during virtual facilitation.

Virtual training presents an entirely different set of nuanced challenges. When something goes wrong during an in-person training, information can be verbally communicated to the group. If needed, the facilitator can assist learners directly with issues that pop-up. However, in a virtual environment, losing your internet connection can completely cut off your access to your learners which can leave everyone confused and frustrated. Connectivity is just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to virtual training setbacks, here are several more to consider:

    • Distractions within the participants environment
    • Outdated browsers, software or equipment
    • Server outage or software failure
    • Participants failing to use the mute button
    • Participants forgetting that they are on camera
    • Guest presenters struggling to share their screen/content
    • Minimal engagement, interaction or participation

It is important for facilitators to anticipate challenges and plan accordingly. Following the tips below can help facilitators minimize the negative impact of unplanned set backs:  
Tip #1: Develop a Backup Plan

Mike Tyson once said: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Thankfully, most facilitators do not have to worry about physical blows knocking them off track, but this quote highlights the need for effectively preparing for setbacks. Developing an effective back up plan can vary in scope and complexity based on the training being facilitated. In most cases, contingency planning starts by asking and answering a series of questions. Specifically, facilitators should start by imagining the worst possible scenario they might face and then frame it as a question. Continuing this process until all imagined scenarios are exhausted will help facilitators brainstorm solutions, for example:

    • “What should I do if the participants can’t hear me or I can’t hear them?
      • Switch to an audio-conferencing bridge
    • “What should I do if the break-out rooms don’t work?”
      • Switch to an alternative activity using the chat box.
    • “What should I do if a participant does something inappropriate on camera?”
      • Disable their camera, remove the participant and lock the meeting.
    • “What should I do if one of the presenters doesn’t show up or can’t connect?”Alter the order of the presenters.
      • Present the content on their behalf (request and review materials in advance of the meeting).
      • Have a fill-in topic, activity or presentation ready.

Once a list of potential solutions is formulated, facilitators should assess their proposed solutions to determine what additional actions need to be taken to prepare for each scenario. For example:

    • Reserve an audio-conferencing bridge and verify call-in details.
    • Develop an alternative activity for all three breakout sessions.
    • Practice using host controls for participant management.
    • Request presenter materials one week prior to meeting and review them with the presenter, request permission to cover content in their absence.
    • Gathering participant and presenter contact information in advance of the call can be tremendously helpful too. Facilitators can quickly call, text or email individual participants/presenters if something goes wrong.
    • Meeting hosts/facilitators should consider crafting an email or text with specific guidance for participants in the event of a catastrophic meeting failure. Next, hosts/facilitators should add participant email addresses to the drafted message (or phone numbers to a group text). Hopefully, this message will never need to be sent but if it does, the host/facilitator will be able to minimize communication delays, confusion and/or participant frustration.

Tip #2: Communicate Proactively


Prior to the start of the training session, send a communication to the participants and presenters. Be sure to include:

    • Dates and times
    • Directions for joining the meeting
    • Technical requirements
    • Helpful tips and resources (meeting etiquette, presentation files, etc.)
    • Engagement methods and expectations (video requirements, chat use, quizzing, etc.)
    • Many web and video conferencing platforms have “Getting Started” resources and/or “Support Libraries.” Copying and pasting links to these resources into your communications is a quick and easy way to empower participants and presenters.
    • It is also wise to include elements of your backup plan in your invitations/communications, this provides an all-in-one resource for participants to find the information. They will not have to scramble to locate phone numbers, web links or other information later.

Tip #3: Prepare and Test

Taking time to explore and understand the web or video conferencing software the facilitator will be using is an absolute must. Become an expert on the host and participant functions of the software. Effective preparation should deepen the facilitators understanding of the available functions and increase their ability to leverage these functions for maximum engagement.  Days or weeks before the training event, facilitators should practice every aspect of the virtual meeting. This might include:

    • Joining the meeting as a host and participant
    • Testing video and audio settings
    • Managing participant roles
    • Using all host functions (recording, mute all, remove participants, etc.)
    • Using all participant functions (raise hand, reactions, polling, etc.)
    • Screen sharing
    • File sharing
    • Playing video and audio files
    • Using the chat
    • Testing break-out rooms
    • Launching quizzes
    • Sharing notes and widgets
    • Sharing and clearing digital whiteboards
    • During testing (and during the meeting) it is helpful to sign into the meeting as a participant on second device. This allows the presenter to simultaneously test host and participant functions to ensure a seamless experience.
    • Whenever possible, it is recommended that meeting hosts upload meeting files to the conferencing software 1-2 days before the scheduled meeting. This can help minimize file incompatibility issues or file conversion delays.
    • To further minimize potential issues, hosts/presenters should sign into the meeting 30-45 minutes before the scheduled start time and verify everything is working correctly.
    • It is also wise to encourage participants to join 15-30 minutes early for testing and whenever possible the facilitator or producer should provide technical assistance to participants in advance of the meeting.
    • As a final precaution, facilitators might want to “promote” someone from the audience to co-host just in case the facilitator’s internet connection drops. This allows someone else to provide direction and keep the meeting moving forward. Co-hosts should be selected cautiously to avoid undesired outcomes.

 Tip #4: Take a “Tour”

Even if the meeting or presentation software being utilized seems intuitive, it is a good idea to spend a few minutes near the start of the meeting reviewing meeting features. The facilitator can ask participants to practice muting/unmuting themselves, turning the camera on/off, using the chat box and more. The goal is to get everyone familiar with the platform, so they understand how to use the various functions to maximize their engagement.

 Tip #5: Focus on Engagement

The facilitator’s delivery of the information is only one piece of the virtual training puzzle. One of the most important aspects of virtual facilitation is engagement. Engagement can also be one of the hardest elements of the facilitation to master. To ensure maximum impact focus on engagement with these tactics in mind:

    • Use webcams! One of the simplest ways to gauge engagement is through the use of webcams. Webcams enable facilitators to see if participants are looking at the screen, their phone or their environment. Webcams also provide facilitators with an opportunity to observe non-verbal communication which can help them determine the participant’s reaction to the content.
    • Many meeting platforms have engagement indicators that will notify facilitators if the participant is disengaged. Depending on the software these tools can even provide reporting on each participant and rate their engagement throughout the presentation.
    • Keep it interactive! Facilitators should strive to create an opportunity for participant interaction every 5 minutes or less whenever possible. Interaction might include complex activities like role plays, break out rooms or virtual games. However, it can also be simple! Examples might include typing an answer in chat, posting an emoji, or using a shared whiteboard. Frequency and variation will continue to keep participants engaged and allow facilitators to determine which participants are not completing the activities.
    • Another method for increasing engagement is to leverage external tools and resources. Even the most basic meeting software can be augmented with virtual whiteboard, quiz software, digital forums and more. When working within a tight budget, a little creativity can help facilitators deliver a more robust learner experience. Do not let the training platform limit your facilitation, think outside the box!

  Setbacks are inevitable but they can be mitigated with thorough planning and preparation. By following these tips, facilitators can adapt to nearly all challenges they face and avoid a virtual training disaster.

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Great tips!! Thank you. I never thought about logging into the meeting through my personal laptop. Does anyone know if having a second laptop running will slow down your wifi? I'm working remotely and I have Cincinnati Bell Fioptics internet. I don't want to do something that could bog down an already questionable connection. Again thank you!
Thank you. That does help. Have an awesome week!
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Thank you Pamela! That is a great question. More devices on WIFI can impact your connection. I've found that most of the time if I have a connection that is 100mbps or faster with 4-5 devices connected I do not notice a decrease in speed/performance. Apart from selecting a 100mbps or faster internet package, I don't normally turn the camera on the backup device, this minimizes the data being uploaded on the network and optimizes performance. I hope that helps!
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Having a second machine to log into as an attendee has saved me on many occasions!
I totally agree! Thank you for reading and sharing your experiences Kathryn!
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These are wonderful, I always block an extra 5 minutes into my curricula to show my participants around the Virtual Classroom (raising hands, muting, courtesy "step out" feature, etc.) it helps the class run more efficiently and gives the participants peace of mind. Also we typically max our VILT to 15 people, which is easier to keep them engaged. Thank you for sharing this article!
Great comments Bobbi! I love the "step out" feature too; it saves facilitators from "Bueller moments" and keeps the meeting/activity running smoothly, well said! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences!
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