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6 Ways to Convert Virtual Lurkers into Active Participants

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Ask a seasoned trainer what’s their least favorite venue and there’s a 90% chance they’ll say: virtual. It doesn’t matter whether the virtual is occurring in a sophisticated meeting platform with chat, whiteboards, and desktop sharing, or whether the venue is a good, old-fashioned teleconference — virtual training has a reputation of being second rate.

The major complaint is in a virtual environment it’s impossible to read the room, and it takes a Herculean effort to keep virtual participants engaged. It often feels that the majority of attendees are simply lurking at best, reading or responding to email, at worst.

Being a virtual trainer is not for the faint of heart. It is incredibly demanding and energy draining. If you want to get the kind of engagement that you enjoy in a face-to-face environment expect to work twice as hard to create a space that lurkers will feel comfortable enough to become an active participant.

As challenging as that task may be, here are six tips to end the lurking!

1. Stand Up

Having a high energy and engaged virtual training starts with the trainer. Most trainers spend their days on their feet – working the room, moving around, creating an energy and space to enhance learning. Yet, get those same trainers on a virtual call and you find them hunched over their computers. The energy is not the same and the virtual group can sense it. Try standing on your next call. You’ll notice the difference immediately. Even though you can’t see your participants, you feel more like a trainer when you are standing tall. You can even stand when you are on a webinar when you are using a video camera. Just make sure you put your computer at a height that captures your entire face and not just the lower portion of it.

2. Implement The “Clock Technique”

This is one of the very first techniques I learned when I started doing virtual facilitation. It still works today. I don’t know if Nancy White created it, but she is the one who taught me how to use it. It works if you have 24 or fewer participants.

Clock Template created by Ray Guyot

Use “The clock” to help everyone feel connected to the other participants. Before the virtual session, draw your own clock. If there are 12 or fewer participants, create a clock like the one in the template. If you have more, you’ll need to add “half hours.” The clock doesn’t work if you have more than 24 participants.

As people join the call, ask them to draw their own clock and assign them their “time.” Share that you’ll explain how to use the clock when the class begins. The first person on the call will be one o’clock, the second – two o’clock.   Use this to kick off your intros explaining that everyone should fill in their clocks as the other participants introduce themselves. Share that they can use the clock to take notes on what others are saying.   The kinesthetic nature of writing the names and making notes helps fight that disembodied feeling many people have when on a teleconference. It also becomes a visual tool to help everyone match names/voices/opinions. As a trainer, the clock is a great tool to take notes about participation, and you can quickly see which participants may need some extra attention to become engaged.

3. Ask a question every three to five minutes

The third step in engaging participants is to understand that the techniques used in a F2F situation don’t necessarily translate in a virtual environment. When you can’t see you participants and they can’t see you, it’s important to plan an interaction every three to five minutes. If your webinar platform has a polling tool, you can have polling questions ready to ask. You can also do something that is counterintuitive for most trainers, ask a close-ended question.

Here’s how it works. Ask the question and then tell the participants to share their answers in the chat. If the question has a yes or no answer, instruct them to write “Y” for yes and “N” for no. If you have a multiple choice – limit it to three options and have them write the number they think is correct. You always want them to be able to answer with just one letter or number. After reviewing the answers, you can use it as a springboard for a group discussion. Say something like this: “I’d like to hear from someone who answered No as to why you chose that answer.”

4. Use Chat Box for Running Commentary and Questions

The chat box is one of the best ways to get people involved in the class. Encourage people to share their thoughts, experiences and expertise on the various topics while you are discussing them. Every once in a while pause and share some of the commentary that participants have written (this can substitute for your question every 3-5 minutes) Participants should also be encouraged to use the chat box to ask questions. This is one of the best ways to engage people, particularly when English is their second language. Many non- native English speakers are more confident when they are writing their answers. Using the chat box as a place for conversation and questions opens up a venue for people who might otherwise lurk.

5. Use Break Out Sessions

Over the years, participants have shared that having breakout sessions on virtual calls and workshops was one of their favorite parts of the training. Doing breakouts is relatively easy to do, it just takes some pre-planning. Before the training, assign all the participants to their breakout groups. Make the groups large enough to accommodate “no shows.” The groups can be as small as two and as large as six. Because you want each group to have enough time to share their findings, you want to limit the breakout groups to no more than five. If you have a PPT presentation, have a slide with the group assignments and the toll-free conference number. Tell the group to assign a timekeeper and inform them exactly what time they need to be back on the main call. If you do not have a visual, send out the group information in your welcome email. Use the breakouts the exact way you use them in a face-to-face session.

6. “Just Three Words”

Feedback is an essential part of training and while most trainings also include a formal evaluation form, asking for immediate feedback as the session is beginning and ending can provide trainers with valuable data to help them continue to improve the content and activities in the class. As an ice breaker ask participants to write Just Three Words in the chat box to share what they hope to learn or experience. The answers will give you a heads up on how many prisoners vs. explorers you have in the class. As a parting activity use Just Three Words to get a sense of what worked and didn’t work in the session. Whether you use it to kick off a session, to close a session or to do both, this activity leaves people feeling recognized and engaged.