Virtual vs Venue – What we’ve learnt from taking our training online

Late last year we decided to offer a series of virtual workshops, little knowing just how important they would become.

I’m sure that by now lots of you have either arranged or attended some virtual training, or you’re offering your own. We were lucky to have a head start, so I thought I’d share some learnings with you. As well as some of the unforeseen advantages of this very different way of workshop working.

Our ABC of virtual workshop lessons

Here they are, take them or leave them, or even better share some of your own.



What we learnt before lockdown

A production house helps

Get a production house behind you if you can. We use Static Airwaves to produce and manage all our on-air technical side. It just means as a trainer you can concentrate 100% on your training. Well worth the investment. We meet (virtually of course) with our tech team at least 15 minutes before each session starts.


Take time choosing the best platform

Take advice before deciding on the platform you’re going to use, and then exploit it to the full. We pair up delegates in Zoom breakout rooms for most of our exercises and they come back buzzing.


Map out your timings

Produce a running order for all your training team to follow. Your timings will inevitably shift one way or another, but you’ll know where you’re heading.


Put an expert on Chat

You’ll need a well-informed member of your team to field questions on Chat. They can answer housekeeping queries. Equally valuable, they can compile recurring or interesting questions and put them to the trainer at a suitable break in the session.


Practice makes perfect

Rehearse – rehearse – rehearse. We ran every session at least once before we went live, using good friends and past colleagues as delegates. Their frank feedback, coupled with the first-hand realities of virtual delivery, helped us immeasurably.


Use prompts

Put your key points on magic whiteboards on the wall in front of you. (Point out to your nearest and dearest that they won’t leave marks!)  It saves you looking down at your notes.


Keep your deck in view

I started out having my slides on an extra laptop, but it was distracting for me, and off-putting for delegates because I kept looking away. So now I print my slides four to a page, and then Blu-tack them to a whiteboard.


Allow extra time

Give delegates more time to do the exercises than you would at a venue. Things seem to take longer online, plus there’s always a short delay if you’re sending people into breakout rooms, and they need time to get settled in.


Don’t snoop

Don’t go into exercise breakout rooms unless you’re invited. It’s tempting, but our experience shows that the delegates work better without us in the room. My feeling is that they are more relaxed when they’re unobserved. By going into the rooms, we found we changed the dynamic – and not for the better. Trust them.


Re-fuel on feedback

Virtual workshops are exhausting for the trainer. When you’re in a venue you can create energy in the room, and then recharge your own batteries from the buzz you’ve created. It’s much harder to get energy back from a screen. The solution is to ask for feedback as you go along. That way you can make sure you’re meeting your delegates’ needs, and create a dialogue where everyone has a part to play.



What we learnt after lockdown

We started designing our virtual workshops last December in response to demand for a greener, more flexible training model. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine a worldwide pandemic would make them our sole training vehicle for the foreseeable! So here are the lessons we’ve learnt from training teams in lockdown.


Inject plenty of pizzazz

Make it an occasion and a date for delegates look forward to. Everyone’s stuck in front of their screens all day long, and you don’t want to be just another online engagement. Be creative. To work in lockdown your workshop has to be fun, different and memorable. We developed exciting exercises that made our point with maximum impact. Here’s one example:

  • We gave delegates 5 minutes to prepare and plan an armed robbery together.
  • The creativity was great – they came up with all sorts of ideas in that little time.
  • Using the same 5 minutes we asked them to think about preparing for any meeting they go into.


Less push, more pull

Now, more than ever, trainers need a lot more pull than push to keep delegates engaged. Create lots of exercises. Plan one for every 15-20 minutes. Any longer between exercises and your delegates will lose concentration. As the Listening Institute’s co-founder, former advertising copywriter, Katie Bleach, is always reminding me, ‘Show, don’t tell’.


Put your most important stuff first

Make sure you put your most important learning early in your workshop or series of workshops. Concentration can be elusive in lockdown and if you teach vital skills in early, then your delegates will get plenty of opportunity for practice and revision.


Build in multiple WOW factors

Include at least one WOW every hour. When you inject a regular revelation, you keep your delegates with you.


Offer a freebie revision hour

We re-purposed our one-day ‘Life or Death Listening’ course into three, weekly two-hour workshops, plus an optional ‘live’ hostage negotiation role play workshop. We offer all our clients a freebie revision hour the week after their course ends. That way everyone can revise what they’ve learnt for an extra 60 minutes.



Advantages we hadn’t anticipated

Learning is a lot stickier over several weeks

A positive by-product of parcelling out a day’s training into two-hour weekly sessions, is greater retention. We start each session with a quick revision re-cap. The evidence is overwhelming. Short bursts of learning, delivered and practised in ‘soundbites’, embed more easily.


Virtual breakout rooms work better than venue breakout areas

When we ask delegates to work together in pairs in a venue, they can usually observe and often overhear other pairs at work. By contrast, virtual breakout rooms offer a privacy and intimacy that promotes the practise of the skills we teach in a form no terrestrial venue can match.


Time to practice between sessions results in real gains

Concentration spans are shorter online. We’ve found the pace has to be slower, but interestingly, the learning is deeper. Delegates can go off and practise the skills each week and then bring their queries/observations to the trainer at the next session.


We can flex our corporate-fit training in response to ongoing feedback

We pride ourselves on our corporate-fit, co-designed courses. Over the years I’ve called on all my listening skills to understand each prospective clients’ training needs. Then I’ve gone away and crafted specific course content to meet those needs. Interestingly, online training allows for a more agile, less static design process. I can listen as I go along and flex the course content as different training needs emerge.


Client and delegate relationships are hugely strengthened

Relationships grow and develop as we come to know individual delegates better, and they, in turn, acclimatise to our training style.


To sum up, I know from experience that venue training has lots going for it. It’ll be great to have it back as part of the mix. But the virtual version has proved itself to be no poor relation, more of a vibrant, uniquely talented, and competitive, younger sibling. Here to stay.