“Those virtual sessions were a lifeline to me,” Ana said, a catch in her voice, as one by one the course participants reflected on our time together.

Ana, a technical leader for a major humanitarian organization, had been leading a critical emergency response in her country throughout the months she had been participating in our blended learning course. As the highest-ranking technical officer in her country following a devastating earthquake, she needed to make life-and-death decisions every day—choices that affected hundreds of thousands of people. Throughout those months, she also took time for our course—completing e-learning coursework and videos and participating every other week in virtual sessions that brought together technical leaders like herself, from countries all over the world, to strategize about their shared challenges.

And now, she was sitting together in a circle at the end of the face-to-face component, reflecting on what taking time out for this course had meant to her.

It may seem hard to imagine how virtual sessions could elicit such an emotional response from a participant—hard to imagine that someone in Ana’s situation would agree to join a course in the first place during such a challenging, intense time in her work-life. But, this is a response we have found over and over again, from participants in situations just as challenging as Ana’s and engaged in the world’s stickiest problems—combating the Ebola crisis, responding to famine, providing aid during conflict—or sometimes, in different courses, simply learning how to lead a team, or supervise for the first time, or develop a strategic plan.

Facilitating real connections with colleagues

What would make a participant describe a virtual session as a “lifeline?” Perhaps it was because through these sessions, Ana was able to connect in real time with colleagues in roles similar to hers, from across the world, to talk about real issues and strategize about challenges without having to leave her post. Perhaps it was because through these sessions, Ana was exposed to resource persons she might never have met, who offered guidance from their deep expertise, without lecturing.

Or perhaps it was because when Ana entered our virtual space, she found a platform that invited all voices to be heard, that ensured participation from everyone, that allowed for engaging activities that opened discussions about the challenges she was facing every day.

So now, as we see the whole world pivoting toward the use of virtual tools to allow them to continue their work and to continue with school, I find myself reflecting on when EnCompass was making that transition about a decade ago. We were initially reluctant to step into the virtual space—having suffered through the mind-numbing, PowerPoint-pushing, “show up and throw up” experience most people think of as a webinar or virtual Instructor-Led Training (vILT). At EnCompass, we prided ourselves on our transformational face-to-face workshops, grounded deeply in the experiential learning cycle and in highly participatory experiences. We could not imagine stepping into a space that might limit us to “pushing out” learning.

The virtual space can feel dizzying, but it’s filled with opportunity.

As many of you are experiencing right now, we stepped into the dizzying world of these platforms—first learning how they worked, then working hard to figure out how to move beyond the anxiety and the repetitions of “Can you hear me? Oh no—I think we lost the speaker …” to creating rich opportunities for collaboration, learning, and sharing.

It was a challenge at first, as I am sure these last few weeks have been for many of you, but EnCompass has developed a practice that allows us to breathe fresh life into these virtual spaces—elevating the “webinar” into truly engaging, transformational experiences, the kind that help someone like Ana see the opportunity as a lifeline. During these trying times, we’d like to offer you a glimpse into what it takes to elevate your own virtual engagements from that boring, point-and-click webinar to a memorable opportunity that unites people across time and space at this moment when doing that has become more important than ever.

Don’t “teach” in a virtual session.

If there is anything you would like to “teach” the group, any meaty slides you wish you could share, opt instead to develop a short video, a brief e-tool, or even a clear and accessible written document that participants take in before they enter the virtual space.

This pre-work should include any concepts, principles, policies, rules, facts, statistics—anything that adults can learn on their own, before they come into the virtual classroom. When we come together in the virtual space, we should use the time to make meaning of the pre-work, to reflect on it and invite participants to apply it to their own lives and work, to collaborate, to share challenges and develop strategies.

Develop a design, not just a slide deck.

You should approach your virtual session or series with the same design rigor you use for developing a face-to-face session. In fact, your expectations for participation should be higher in a virtual session than in a face-to-face experience, as you are battling the strong desire to multi-task and the lack of focus that besets us all these days, whether we are facing a pandemic or not.

Spend some time getting to know the virtual platform and the many interactivities that are possible in that platform. Some have chat pods, polls, whiteboards, feedback tools, and even breakout rooms for small group work and practice activities. Be as creative as you can in choosing the right interactivities to meet your objectives. And remember that your full design should include three or four components—a facilitator/producer guide, a slide deck, the virtual room build, and sometimes, a participant guide.

A facilitator/producer guide lays out the design in a table—with an image of each slide, a column showing timing, a column indicating what the facilitator will say or do, and a column showing what the producer will say or do. This essential document gets the facilitation team and the producers (those who build the virtual room and provide technical support in sessions) “on the same page,” even when they are delivering the session from different parts of the world. The guide is also a great backup, should a producer or facilitator get disconnected temporarily, because the still-connected team member can continue without any break in the activity.

Deliver every session with a producer/technical support.

At EnCompass, we have trained numerous staff and consultants as producers for our virtual sessions. These producers provide technical support to every session—conducting audio checks, troubleshooting connection issues, opening and closing pods, switching layouts, managing closed captioning—all of the magic in the back-end so facilitators and participants can engage seamlessly without thinking about being online.

Your voice is your most important tool.

When you deliver any virtual session, you must remember the power of your voice. It really is your most important tool. At EnCompass, we often invite online speakers to “channel their inner broadcasters.” This means letting participants hear the appropriate emotion, rhythm, energy in your voice to fully communicate what you are trying to share. We also invite you to smile—participants can hear it!—and to lean in to any powerful, intense emotions, too, when warranted. Think about the many troubling issues Ana was facing; emotional authenticity goes a long way in a session that is addressing important challenges.

It is not just about this session.

Try to think beyond any stress, techno-phobia, and the nuts and bolts of the session to what you are actually trying to achieve. Spend some time preparing yourself before the session begins. Imagine what you want participants to walk away with—not only the “key takeaways,” but also what motivation, emotion, or energy you want to leave them with. Visualize how the session will go, and, importantly, how it will contribute to what participants need to do and who they need to be in the world.