Virtual Facilitator Training Part 5: Competing With Email, Facebook, and Sudoku

sudoku1Admit it. You are tempted to multitask during webinars. You are thinking about doing this Sudoku right now, aren’t you? Heck, even I’m tempted to multitask–sometimes when I’m facilitating! So with that shocking revelation… how do you reduce learner multitasking when even the facilitator is tempted?

The sad truth is you can’t eliminate it. The very first thing you have to overcome as a virtual facilitator is loss of control. The best we can do is to provide a dynamic session that includes movement, ample opportunities for participants to contribute, and creating a sense that “someone is watching.”


There are two ways to include movement in your sessions. The first is to have frequently changing visuals. PowerPoint builds are a great way to do this. Movement on the screen gets the brain’s attention. Think of those moving flash ads you see on websites. It’s difficult not to look at them. Now, let me be clear that I don’t endorse movement just for the sake of movement. Flash ads annoy the heck out of me. However, relevant, meaningful change and motion every minute or two will keep the learner visually engaged and wondering what will come next. That movement can also come from use of annotation tools. I encourage learners to use the tools whenever they want to communicate with me or others at any time, on any surface. Let the learners help you provide this movement.

The second kind of movement I like to incorporate is actual physical movement by the learners. My absolute limit for a virtual session is 90 minutes. Even then, learners need a couple of breaks. It’s difficult to sit and look at a screen that long. I may ask learners to go look out a window and report on what they see. It could be a location/weather report or report back on an object or living thing they see. Regular use of text and drawing annotation tools also creates an opportunity to interact in a kinesthetic way. I also love the use of scavenger hunts. Send the learners out into the Interwebs to see what resources they can find in 3-5 minutes and ask them to paste the URLs in the chat channel.

Opportunities To Contribute

One of my favorite ways to present content is to actually elicit the content from the learners. An example is banning the bullet points. For instance, if you and I were in an environment right now where two-way communication were possible I would not have told you  the three ways to make a session more dynamic. I would have asked you, “What keeps your interest during a virtual learning session or webinar?” I would have accepted all of your responses, asked for more detail if I didn’t fully understand the example, and let you write them anywhere you wanted on the screen. If you happened to miss one of the categories I thought was important I would ask, “What about… ” to steer the conversation to make sure that point was covered. By doing this, I keep the learners engaged  by giving them ownership of the content. When all of the responses are recorded, I can then ask the learners to suggest natural categories for the content they provided. This lights up more brain centers because they are not just receiving the information. They are internalizing and analyzing  the information.

Creating the Sense That “Someone Is Watching”

When you have the control to keep class sizes under 20 participants, the attendee list is your best friend. Randomly calling on someone and asking, “What do you think about…,” or “How would you categorize…” lets attendees know that they could be called upon at any time.

Creating a grid template for questions is also a great way to get feedback from everyone and know if someone has tuned out. You can ask participants to type their name in a box and respond to the question. A quick glance between the grid and the attendee list can quickly tell you that someone is not keeping up. A non-threatening way to address this is to say something like “Tracy, I don’t see your response. Are you having any trouble with the text tool?” Do this early and you won’t have to do it much later on.


Also, it helps to realize that there might be a legitimate reason for stepping away. If status color boxes or icons are available, make it safe to step away for a moment. Ask participants to mark themselves red or use a specific symbol if they need to step away. That way you wont get dead air if you call on them. If you choose to do this you need to keep a close eye on the status and message the person if they seem to have checked out for too long. It might help to have a “producer” who can help with this.

In summary, I think the very best way to keep learner attention is to make the session about the learners. Refer back to Part 4 of this series focused on meeting participant needs. Good luck and please share your favorite methods in the comments!