Trenton Moss

By Trenton Moss

There are online events and conferences. And then there’s Team Sterka workshops – high energy, super-interactive and a great learning experience for everyone.

We run workshops with up to 100 people at a time over Zoom. Here’s how we do it…

1. Have a high-energy start

First impressions count so get going with participant interaction as soon as possible:

  • If people join more than 5 minutes before the start, stick them in breakout rooms (2-4 people per room). They can informally catch up on a topic you suggest – ideally something related to what the session is about
  • Once you get started, put people in breakout rooms to do an exercise within the first 1-2 minutes. We find pairwork is best for this as everyone then gets the chance to speak

You can also give people the space to offload things they’re stressed about or which might distract them. An exercise we like to do is to have everyone:

  1. Write down on a piece of paper (in large letters) one reason they’re excited to be here and one reason they don’t want to be here
  2. Hold up their paper so we can all see what each other has written
  3. Discuss what they’ve written especially the reason they don’t want to be here
  4. Write down (on a new sheet of paper) what they’re going to do about why they don’t want to be there, starting with, “I commit to…”
  5. Talk through what they’ve written down and their commitment

For larger groups, do steps 3-5 in smaller breakout rooms. This is a great way to get people to emotionally commit to the workshop.

First impressions count so get going with participant interaction as soon as possible

2. Break it up into small chunks

All workshops should have regular breaks, which is even more important when doing remote workshops. Have a 10-minute break every hour at the same time past the hour, so everyone knows when the next break is coming. (You can also set optional mini-assignments during the breaks.)

And get rid of day-long (or worse, 2-day or 3-day) workshops – it’s too much remotely! Split your workshops up into max. half-day sessions, ideally hour-long sessions if you can. You can then get your participants practising their new skills between sessions. This is a great way for them to cement their learnings.

We love bite-sized learning here at Team Sterka. We focus on just one learning outcome per session. The stats seem to back up that it’s a better learning experience too – shorter learning sessions result in a 22% improvement in retention of information and make the transfer of learning 17% more efficient (really?).

Shorter learning sessions make the transfer of learning more efficient

3. Minimise talking and avoid slides

Set a target of max. 10 minutes (and a stretch target of max. 5 minutes) for keeping everyone together in the main room. You should be using breakout rooms a lot! You don’t have all the answers so allow people to generate new ideas themselves and learn from each other.

Generally, the only time you should be talking to everyone is when you’re:

  • Going through the answers to a group exercise they’ve finished. Ideally, you’ll be coaching participants to give you the answers themselves (more on this in point 5)
  • Giving instructions to an upcoming exercise… but keep this quick. And instead of using slides, share a link to written instructions over chat. This way, everyone can remind themselves what to do in their own time

On the topic of slides, avoid these as much as possible. Slides with high impact imagery can work well in-person, but they don’t work so well remotely. And slides with text that repeats what you’re saying don’t work well in any setting.

Every time you screen share, your face becomes teeny-tiny to your participants… so avoid this as much as you can.

A nifty alternative to screen sharing slides is to embed key points within a virtual background. Create a plain image and put the text on the left side. Then, set this image as your virtual background and stand to the right. You’ll then have a summary of what you’re saying next to you!

Avoid using slides as much as possible

4. Use lots of non-verbal interactions

With remote workshops, you can capture instant feedback from everyone very quickly. This is a good thing! For example, you can get everyone to:

  • Respond to a poll to gauge a feel of where the group is generally at with something
  • Post a few words into group chat (chat waves are fun when you get everyone to type in a response and then all hit enter at the same time)
  • Write out longer, written answers in a shared doc which everyone can access

You can also get the group doing hand movements (or anything with physical movement). For example, do a series of questions with yes, no or maybe as possible responses. Then get everyone to do thumbs up, thumbs sideways or thumbs down for their response.

Or if they’re up for it, do yes/no questions where they put their hands on their head for yes and touch their nose with both index fingers for no.

Getting people to respond with physical movements is a nice way to vary the interaction

5. Carefully manage whole-group sharing

When you put people into breakout rooms, they’ll be discussing something, doing roleplays, brainstorming answers etc. You’ll then bring everyone back together to share key learnings.

Polls, chat and shared docs don’t work so well after in-depth discussion, so you’ll need to use good old-fashioned talking here.

Tell groups to make a note of their group number and to nominate a speaker. When you get everyone back together, use a random number generator in screen share to select a group to share. Then, facilitate that person to share their group’s answers and write these up on the virtual whiteboard.

A random number generator avoids those tumbleweed moments when no one volunteers to speak

6. Use collaboration tools

Collaboration tools are key to successful workshops over video conference. They provide another benefit over traditional face-to-face workshops.

Google Docs is great for people to work together within breakout groups. You can replicate almost any face-to-face interaction with a bit of imagination. Best of all, you can keep an eye on what everyone is doing and track progress in real-time! Miro and Mural also work well for ideation sessions.

Not everyone can access Google Docs due to corporate policy so double-check this before (we’ve learnt the hard way). You should also double-check you’ve assigned the correct sharing privileges to the docs you’re using (also learnt the hard way).

If everyone is from the same organisation, try to use their internal messaging system for chat (Slack, Teams etc.). This way, everyone can access everything after the course (the conversation, questions, instructions, links to worksheets etc.). It also means people can easily send you a private message.

Internal messaging systems like Slack and Teams are great alternatives to Zoom chat

7. Enable self-service when in breakout rooms

You can (and should) set a time limit on every breakout session. People in the breakout rooms can see the timer counting down so are empowered to manage their time. No more nagging from the trainer to remind groups of time running out!

Do also share a link to the written instructions over chat, so everyone can remind themselves what to do. You should repeat some standard actions in the instructions, at the bottom, every time. For example:

  • If you want people to remember their group number then tell them where to find this (i.e. at the top of the screen)
  • Remind them to nominate a spokesperson, in case their group is chosen to share
  • Tell people to ‘raise a hand’ if they need help or have a question etc.

Finally, and wherever possible, keep the group sizes the same for consecutive exercises. If you do this then you can put people in the same breakout rooms as before. Otherwise, people get fatigued by constantly working with new group members.

Share a link to the written instructions so everyone can remind themselves what to do

8. Only explain rules in context

We have 10 rules for how we run remote workshops. We send out the first 4 to everyone beforehand and share the rest when we need to:

  1. Don’t expect to multi-task. This is an interactive workshop and will be hands-on from the start, so don’t rely on being able to do other work
  2. Be there on time, or up to 20 mins early when we open the room. Otherwise, you’ll likely miss the first exercise which will be in breakout rooms
  3. Sign-in with your work email address (so we can pre-assign groups)
  4. Have access to the Slack channel during the session (assuming we’re using Slack for our chat)
  5. Keep your video on at all times to show you’re present. If you need to do something else then please drop-off the call and re-join when you’re finished
  6. Post urgent/tech issues in Zoom chat; anything else, post in Slack
  7. For yes/no questions in plenary, wave your hand about for a yes
  8. Turn off your video when watching a role play in plenary (and hide non-video participants)
  9. Click ‘Ask for Help’ anytime you’re in a breakout room and need something
  10. If the trainer joins the breakout group, ignore him/her!

Starting your workshop with all the rules, and how it’s all going to work, is super-dull. And overwhelming. If you just bombard people with a whole bunch of information it’s almost impossible to absorb it. Just like safety briefings when you get on an aeroplane, which most people can’t remember.

Instead, share the rules bit-by-bit, in context as they’re relevant. Putting people into breakout rooms? That’s the time to give them the rules about breakout rooms. Doing a yes/no question to everyone? Only then should you tell them how you’d like them to respond. You get the idea.

9. Do a dry-run with your co-hosts

Plan for everything to go wrong… because invariably something will. So get yourself as prepared as possible by following our 5-step plan:

  1. Read through the how-to guides for Zoom. You’ll get how everything works and how to get yourself out of sticky situations (or better, avoid getting into any)
  2. Create an in-depth plan for your workshop, including the tools you’ll be using (breakout rooms, chat, polls, etc.)
  3. Write down detailed instructions to remind you at each stage: (a) exactly what you need to do; and (b) what you’ll need to tell participants
  4. A few days before, dial-in with your co-hosts using as many devices as possible. Do a dry-run of every activity and every action (practice doing everything a participant will do whilst not being a host/co-host)
  5. Login to the Zoom back-end and turn on or adjust features as required

Nothing kills the energy more than participants sitting in silence, watching your bewildered look as you try to work out what to do. Most importantly of all though, don’t turn yourself into a potato.

With good planning, you can avoid the familiar bewildered look of someone with a technical challenge

10. Get your physical setup right

There’s plenty published online about the best microphones, webcams and speakers. What’s less written about is the most important thing you’ll need when running remote workshops… a second screen.

You MUST have a second screen if you’re running workshops or any kind of remote meeting. You’ll use one screen to see the participants and the other for your notes, chat, participant list, instant messaging, slides etc.

Make sure you’re standing up too when delivering the workshop. You need to get the energy levels high in the room and this is hard if you’re seated. Ideally, move around for different sections too. Sometimes come forward, sometimes move back, go over to the left side occasionally and other times to the right.

Use boxes to elevate your screens so you can stand whilst delivering your workshop

In conclusion...

When not done well, face-to-face workshops can be dull and achieve hardly any learning outcomes. Virtual workshops have even more scope to be like this. Hopefully, our best practices can get you on the way to creating high-energy and memorable sessions.

And remember to get the basics right or all the fun and interaction is meaningless. Have clear learning outcomes, define the key topics you’ll need to explain and set it up so participants discover the answers by themselves.

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    A Dresden University study found that shorter learning sessions result in a 22% improvement in retention of information. A separate Journal of Applied Psychology study concluded that microlearning makes the transfer of learning 17% more efficient. Both results were reported in a Skills Hub report (PDF).