On March 11th I delivered what was to be my last face-to-face workshop in Manchester before Coronavirus changed the landscape. Over the following fortnight my diary emptied, the schools followed within weeks and we all went into lockdown. Never more grateful for the sense of community and support that I get from my close professional network, I spent the better part of three minutes wondering what on earth I should do. Then I closed my eyes, held my nose and bought a year’s subscription for Zoom like everyone else and took a running jump into the uncharted waters of remote conferencing software and online workshop delivery.
I spent ten days developing a basic understanding of the software and converting the majority of my workshops to run on it and then, thanks to the patience and loyalty of my clients, began delivering the majority of what lockdown had cancelled. On Wednesday of this week I delivered my fifty-third and final workshop before the summer, and now have set aside some time to create what I now know are called asynchronous or evergreen versions of my workshops over the summer that might further extend the accessibility of my work. Having made more than my fair share of mistakes, I thought to share what I have learned in this post as a resource for anyone entertaining the idea of delivering some kind of workshop experience for a small group.
The assumptions that I make are that you would be delivering content alongside visual aids for groups of between 6 and 25 people on the Zoom platform and have a reliable Internet connection offering speeds in excess of 20 Mbps.
In a traditional training event, the mindset of those attending can usually be described as participant, passenger, prisoner or protestor and the facilitator must carefully navigate this range of responses to make the event effective. One of the unexpected advantages of remote working is that people who don’t want to be there will almost invariably find a way not to be, often through citing “computer troubles” or “internet difficulty” which can never be verified. This leaves the event without their influence, and creates a scenario in which a participant will persuade a passenger to engage simply by their presence. Even if naysayers do attend, all the usual micro behaviours and aggressions such as rolling eyes, muttering, giggling and private whispered conversations are denied space by the technology, as remote conferencing software is the territory of the active and leaves little room for the passive and the petulant.
There is also much you can do to engage your audience before the event. Any room can become a studio, all smartphones can record video and most computers have basic editing software installed, so it costs nothing but time to make a welcome video that gives your audience a sense of the style, content and structure that awaits them.
If you plan on using visual aids to complement your presentation, avoid putting content in the area marked by the black rounded rectangle in the slide image shown below, as those viewing your presentation on a smartphone or tablet will see the camera feed of the person speaking in that position (whether their camera is on or not), and will not be able to move it out of the way.
If possible when making your slides, favour Keynote over PowerPoint for no other reason than the former allows you to export your slideshow in HTML format, which the latter does not, and I will discuss later why you may find this a very helpful choice to have made.
In your joining instructions, let participants know that although they can join a Zoom meeting from their browser, they will have a better experience if they download the app, which works on all platforms. From a browser, some of the functionality of sharing screens and the ability to annotate them is missing, and the reliability of connection to the meeting often seems compromised.
Customise your waiting room so that participants know they have arrived at the correct meeting. Reassure them that they cannot be seen nor heard whilst in the waiting room, and bear in mind that although you are able to send them messages they cannot respond to you until they have entered the Zoom room.
It will be an enormous help if you are using two monitors on your computer, so you can view your participants on the main screen and keep sight of your visual aids on the second, but do not use the dual monitor function on Zoom so that you can retain as much control as possible over your working environment. The cheapest solution I found was an old iPad bought on eBay for £15 controlled through the Duet app, which costs less than £10. Remember too that your background matters; not, as it seems for people interviewed on television, that it should show how many clever books you have, but that it be as uncluttered as possible so as not to distract attention. An ironed bedsheet, some gaffer tape and a bundle of bamboo sticks from B&Q are all you need to create a clean background, and if you are willing to spend a bit of money for a green cloth, then you can create a very professional look for your audience.
Experience suggests that people are far more precise with their timekeeping on remote workshops than they are in face-to-face ones, and typically will start arriving from about one or two minutes before the advertised start time until three or four minutes after. Therefore, if you are delivering a session on your own, give some thought to asking your participants to arrive five minutes early, as otherwise the beginning of your workshop will be clumsy with your focus split between starting your performance and admitting participants to the room. You can design your opening slide as a welcome message offering information, entertainment and music, and share the slide in the room before you admit participants, so that it is the first thing they see and hear. They will then enter the room just like a live audience, safe in the knowledge that they have a few minutes in which to get familiar with the surroundings before the start, and both you and they will feel much more relaxed as a result.
Zoom uses floating windows that display the camera feeds, participant list, chat conversations and breakout room controls, so set the room up as you want it to be. It will give you a greater sense of confidence to see all of them at once, and this is where you will find it helpful to use Keynote and its handy function that allows you to export a slideshow into HTML format. The problem* with both PowerPoint and Keynote is that they assume you are delivering a traditional presentation and give you a clean screen onto which your slides are displayed in full size. This has the unintended side-effect of rearranging your screen and often hiding all other programmes, leaving you absolutely blind. By exporting your slides in HTML format, Keynote effectively converts your presentation into a locally based mini-website which includes all your slides, animations and transitions. This you can then view from a browser window on your second screen, and by setting Zoom to share the relevant portion only (shown as a resizable green border in the image below), you can give your audience an immersive experience whilst retaining all the oversight you need. I have found that browsers vary in their reliability, and that Google Chrome works the best. To do this, export your slides from Keynote to the destination of your choice, where you will then find a subfolder with the same name as your presentation, and a file called ‘index.html’ which, when opened, will display the first slide in your presentation.
Tip: If you hover your mouse over the very left edge of the window as shown below, all your slides will pop up in miniature and you will be able to navigate directly to any other part of your presentation instantly.
When you are running your workshop, you’ll find that Zoom has many features which allow you to vary the learning space and make the experience as engaging as possible for your audience. Whiteboards, annotations, the chatbox and breakout rooms are all excellent ways of facilitating contributions to the session and engagement amongst participants. All work exactly as you would expect and you will reach a level of competence very quickly. Before long you will discover and create all manner of shortcuts and cheats that suit your particular way of working. For example, I have a particular delivery style with which means I use a great deal of visual aids. I’ll use images, graphics, videos and text in a variety of ways, but I’ll also want to use a whiteboard from time to time. Rather than swapping between my slides and the whiteboard, which takes time and interrupts the flow of a workshop, I’ll insert a white slide at the relevant points of the slide deck and ask participants to add their comments on that instead. As a computer’s screen capture feature works just as well as Zoom’s “save whiteboard” function, there is no downside.
Time seems different on remote conferencing software and much has been written about the fatigue that can set in quite quickly. My rudimentary research suggests that the vast majority of online training courses feature a full screen data-rich slide deck, occasional whiteboard use and often a monotonous voice reciting a prepared script, and this could well have much to do with it. Going against conventional wisdom by creating short chapters for your workshop which might include plenary sessions, breakout rooms, reviews, conversations, videos and visually interesting slides can help mitigate this. Aim to keep your sessions shorter than 90 minutes or make sure that you take frequent breaks. You might consider running a workshop over two days, and morning sessions are definitely more productive than afternoon ones. Friday afternoons should be avoided like the plague, and it also helps your energy as a presenter if you can find a way in which to deliver your workshop while standing up.
Look after yourself – especially if you deliver sessions on your own. Find ways to exploit the technology so that you can have a break, perhaps while the participants continue working. For example, when briefing a group on a particular task, why not record a narration, video or animation of it beforehand and put it in your slide deck? If you do, you’ve just bought yourself a few minutes during which you can organise your thoughts for the next section or just catch your breath while the change in delivery style helps keep your audience engaged.
Delivering a session with a colleague gives you an advantage over and above the fact two heads are better than one. You can assign roles; one to deliver content and the other to manage the logistics of the room, such as admitting participants, setting up and managing breakout rooms and saving content from group discussions. Zoom has a clever feature called “co-host” which allows you to share full control of the workshop with another which makes this possible. Unfortunately it has one significant Achilles’ Heel that Zoom has not yet addressed, which is that the co-host cannot administer breakout rooms. As this is arguably the most important function that a presenter needs help with, a solution is to make use of another feature of Zoom, which is the ability to pass the host role to another in its entirety and relinquish control. The best co-delivered workshops might be those where presenters treat participants to a training experience where one host delivers the content and the other is working behind the scenes to make all the transitions between main room and breakout rooms seamless, gathering output and managing the occasional problems that can occur with Zoom. With careful planning and rehearsals, presenters can pass the host function between themselves at strategic points, so that participants benefit from a variety of delivery styles and expertise.
From time to time people can be booted out of a workshop for no apparent reason, and it is not uncommon for participants to have to repeatedly log in to the same workshop. During one my earliest workshops a participant coined the phrase that the most useful quality needed for a successful remote workshop was “a high tolerance for frustration”. As we discovered, it is an irritation best openly acknowledged, as any other response is likely to be less resourceful. It logically follows that it is equally possible to be thrown out of your own session, which has happened to me on a number of occasions, and there are two things to note should this occur. Firstly, if you are the host, Zoom will automatically assign control of the workshop to someone else, which they may well find surprising, but it will be returned to you as soon as you log back in to the room. Secondly, if your participants are in breakout rooms when you disappear from your own workshop, no one will notice your absence, which may require courage not to interpret as feedback.
Challenge yourself to be visible on your camera throughout and invite your participants to do the same. Then, go the extra mile by looking into the lens of your camera rather than at their faces on your screen and, at the risk of feeling a bit silly, remember to smile from time to time. There is nothing so forbidding as the view of a presenter with a furrowed brow feverishly navigating software controls while delivering content to their mouse pointer. It’s much worse than the face of doom; it is the face of Zoom.
After three months, I find myself a convert to this new way of working. Of course there is much that it prevents me from doing and I will always prefer to be in a room with people if I can, but for me the disadvantages are far outweighed by the following considerations:
- Audiences must make a conscious decision to take part and are noticeably more positive as a result.
- A remote setting provides the space, safety and mechanism for those with a more introverted preference to contribute in such a way as to have their input heard with an equal level of impact and presence.
- Participants who attend live courses against their will can often seek each other out and join forces to provide facilitators with a difficult mood in a room. As one of their sources of power is to create a vacuum and undermine tacitly, the online setting seems to remove their ability to gain enough – or indeed any traction to help them do this.
- With a whole course visible, individuals can see those who choose to remain hidden, those who allow themselves to be seen and, interestingly, at which points they choose to reveal themselves. Often a course will start with only a few participants visible and end with almost all on camera, which can create a palpable and important impact.
- Presenters in a live setting who rely on microphones to amplify their voices can often appear under-energised or disinterested, and yet on a remote workshop the same technology allows even the quietest speaker to have an equal vocal presence. In addition to this, non-native speakers who can traditionally struggle for reasons of accent, fluency or confidence, are noticeably more clear and intelligible.
- Dealing with the frustrations of technical issues, whilst problematic and time-consuming, is also a fantastic opportunity to gain an insight into and learn about the technical aspects of remote working, which surely is a skill we all need to develop.
- I now have the opportunity to sell my work around the world in a much more competitive way and, when combined with new asynchronous material, this represents a chance to come out of the Coronavirus Pandemic with a new, leaner and far more flexible delivery mechanism for my work.
And, finally, the silver lining on the cloud is that it is now possible to make simultaneous direct eye contact with every single person in an audience; something which cannot be done in any other presenting space. Of course, whether or not they look back at you is another matter, but if they don’t it won’t be the fault of the technology.
*Edit: It seems that Apple have spotted this problem, and their latest Keynote update includes a new feature called “Play Slideshow in Window” which solves it. I am sure it is only a matter of time before PowerPoint offers the same feature.