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Explore worst-case scenarios and have back-up plans for every possible online challenge!

Virtually prepared for everything: Ten tips for running interactive workshops online

Pippa Griffin

So to the outside world it’s like this. Here’s this facilitator – smartly dressed (from the waist up at least!), looks pretty calm actually, background neatly blurred with no bookshelves in sight to distract everyone checking out your reading habits, everyone joins OK and waves hello before most re-hide themselves off-camera. The session gets going and there’s polls and voting and unmuting and muting and everyone’s talking and raising their hand to add their views and sharing comments to the chat stream and it’s all going very well.

What participants don’t realise is that behind the scenes: your internet seems a little unstable, your online polls are playing up, sometimes when you’re talking you can hear an echo of yourself, when you try to share a different screen, nothing seems to be happening and you realise you’re going to have to make a live change to the running order without anyone noticing. But your participants will never know that any of this is going on is because you’ve done so much preparation, you’ve already explored the worst case scenarios and put in place back-up plans for every possible online challenge. All of which means that the participant experience remains as seamless and as involving as it can be!

So as we’re seeing more and more face-to-face workshops moving online, here are our top tips on how to make these sessions run as smoothly as possible while still enabling the same quality of learning and collaboration:

  1. Prepare your participants. Make sure they know before the session that it’s going to be interactive and that they can share and contribute, it’s not a one-way broadcast. Send anything complex they will need to comment on beforehand.
  2. Think back-up plans. Back-up internet (mobile hotspot if you need to) to avoid ‘face freeze’, back-up survey links (using more than one survey mechanism e.g. Survey Monkey and Polly), back-up slide decks on all facilitators’ desktops, back-up email addresses of all participants (if appropriate), back-up headphones.
  3. Have a delegate list with full names nearby. Some platforms only show participants’ initials – so when GB joins you – you can do a quick check down the list and know that’s ‘Gideon Bernto’ and give a personal invite for them to share their comment. If you’re replying in the chat, use their name in your reply in case others have commented since.
  4. Rehearse. Ask your peers to act as participants in the dress rehearsal. Brief them beforehand to test you hard (technical questions, not talking, survey problems, content challenges etc).
  5. Have a calm and prepared support team in place. One lead facilitator, and a second monitoring comments but who can also step in to take the lead at any point in your session. Add a third moderator who’s also a technical whizz.
  6. Be together but separate. Ideally be in the same location as the rest of the support team (albeit safely socially-distanced), so (worst-case scenario) you can pass Post-It notes out of vision in case the unexpected happens. Everyone will also need separate headsets to avoid the dreaded ‘howlaround’ echoes.
  7. Pre-prepare technical answers for questions that might come up so your Moderator can quickly paste answers into the chat e.g. the answers to ‘I can’t get the survey to work’ and ‘I can’t see the slides’ etc.
  8. Think like a live TV presenter. Think Question Time live rather than News at Ten, because you need to juggle inviting your experts to talk with encouraging everyone else watching and listening to also contribute. You can’t stop. You’re live on air. You can’t turn and respond to a colleague’s question. Keep concentrating on your job, let your back up team do theirs. Keep going – no matter what!
  9. Slow down. You’re used to facilitating and running webinars, presenting slides to the world. But explaining what you want people to do in an online learning and collaboration session – you need to go even slower. Ask a question. Wait. Hold that nerve. Comments will come. Explain things more slowly. than. you. ever. thought. possible (without sounding patronising).
  10. Join other webinars to see how the rest of the world is doing it. Go beyond the business space (e.g. online literary festivals, science forums). Look for what works well and what doesn’t and which other platforms are also worth exploring.

If you’re one of the many clients now moving rapidly into the digital engagement space and you need help running your online workshops or developing digital solutions to continue to  engage your teams in those vital conversations – well, we’re here as you need us.

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