Four Communication Principles for a Vibrant Virtual Learning Experience

Headshot in the right corner of a blue background
Patti Sanchez
September 30, 2020

At some point in March 2020, after the lockdowns started (and we realized this was the new normal), I scrapped the rational and predictable product plan I had made just months earlier. We only had days to decide how to deliver our corporate and public communication workshops in a virtual format. Traditionally, people had attended in-person, at our headquarters, or on their company’s campus. These in-person workshops made up the bulk of our training business revenue, but it was clear that in-person training wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future.

We knew we had to flip to virtual training. But how?
For our internal team, it would be a Herculean task. It required that curriculum developers, facilitators, PMs, and producers quickly assess learners’ needs in the new normal, get familiar with some new technology tools, and start to work in different ways. But more importantly, we had to make sure that our new virtual workshops were as vibrant and engaging as our in-person training.

Luckily, we’re a communication company. In the midst of the rush and chaos, we found that we naturally turned to our own empathy-based communication methodology to light the way. By imagining what our learners would experience in a virtual setting and reconceiving our content through the lenses of story, design, and delivery, our team discovered where to focus, what to watch out for, and what to amplify, tweak, and sharpen.
Our audience-centered methodology led us to design our new live virtual workshops around four pillars of good virtual communication: engaging content, immersive design, polished delivery, and intuitive technology.
1. Engaging Content Must Move at a Faster Pace Online
As you’ve surely figured out by now, it’s only possible to sit in front of a screen and focus for so long. So, we started by modifying the structure of our courses to chunk content into shorter segments. By surveying people, reading the research, and running test workshops for friends and family, we found that a half-day length was ideal for highest engagement without compromising deep skill development. Now, all our courses are built on sessions that last 90-minutes or less, with breaks in between.
Because distractions multiply in a virtual environment, we incorporated more contrast into the lessons. We varied the formats of content (slides, talking heads, activities, etc.) and kept switching it up to keep learners engaged.
We also made sure that while we modified the content, we kept story in the fundamental structure. Story is a potent way to keep people engaged and make information more memorable. Whether you use stories as units of information to communicate key concepts, as a way to structure the information, or as a thread throughout your lesson they perk up the ears of your readers and cement important information into their memories.
2. Immersive Design Includes Designing the Experience
Reading and listening is hard enough, especially with email pinging viewers away, so any slides should amplify, not distract, from presenters.
To keep an audience focused on what you’re saying, it’s critical to use clean, simple graphics with high contrast and readability, and few if any animation or transitions.
But design in a virtual environment goes beyond the slide.
To keep attention and help learning stick, we designed in thoughtful moments of interaction that advanced the goals of the training (not interaction for interaction’s sake).
For example, we use annotations and other types of online interactions to keep learners engaged in a back-and-forth of giving and receiving feedback.

Interaction serves another important purpose beyond the lesson itself. Remote learning creates distance, so we try to use tech in ways that bridges gaps and brings people closer together.
That includes things like setting the expectation that video will be ON during the course of the workshop and using breakout rooms to foster small group discussions that help people feel more connected.
3. Polished Delivery Adds Dynamism in a Virtual Environment
Be sure to pick a facilitator who is a strong speaker and has the endurance of a marathon runner. That’s because commanding a virtual room is WAY HARDER than managing a physical one. The facilitator has to work more to keep energy high while maintaining control of the group dynamics.
Getting through multiple 90-minute sessions a day can drain energy fast, especially when you have to be extra “on” to keep participants involved as well as entertained. Dynamism is especially important when delivering in virtual settings. That means having a professional grasp on how to use vocal contrast, facial expressions, and hand movements to get your key points across – all within the confines of a tiny digital screen.
4. Intuitive Technology is Easy and Smooth to Navigate
Bumbling with the tech is the fastest way to lose people. So the tech platform you choose must be intuitive for everyone, with Goldilocks functionality (not too much, not too little). Since you’ll likely be using multiple platforms (your LMS and your training delivery tech), you’ll have to make sure they play nice together and don’t create a broken experience.
We have used several different collaborative meeting platforms to deliver our virtual workshops, including Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams and others – all of which have their pros and cons. But as a small business, we can only afford to standardize on one primary tool for our everyday communications, so we also use Zoom as our collaboration platform for the entire business.
As another plus, Zoom integrates with our modern LMS, Thought Industries, which is the learning platform we use to host our online courses and virtual workshops. The logistics of signing-in and taking a Duarte course has to be the most effortless part of what our learners do all day. As soon as learners sign-up they can go into the Thought Industries Platform to see their agenda, learner’s guide, and other reference material. In that same dashboard, they also have information about how to come prepared and access the virtual workshop.
But regardless of how intuitive your training delivery technology is, it still takes a village to put on a virtual workshop, or at least a dynamic duo of a Facilitator and a Producer. We’ve found this team approach to be the best way to provide a seamless process for our virtual workshops, because at Duarte we aim to make our training the most transformative and enjoyable learning experience you’ve ever had.
Considering these four communication pillars as you write, design and host your virtual training will improve learning, retention, and make your workshops way more fun. It’s been nearly eight months since we went fully virtual, and we’ve been rolling out updated and new courses all along. It was a sprint like no other – exhausting, exhilarating, and ultimately satisfying.
Along the way, I’ve realized that our careful and methodical training team is just as capable of being agile and scrappy. That’s what we need to serve our customers well, and it’ll be exactly what we need to navigate the next normal.
Amidst all the change, it was a relief to find that the same core principles that underpin our methodology and helped us build this business over the last 30 years, were the ones that were going to guide us through the next chapter.

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