Taking Virtual Training to the Next Level (A Conversation with Cindy Huggett)

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Cindy Huggett in person at a networking dinner during last summer’s ATD International Conference and Expo. If you’re unfamiliar with Cindy’s work, she’s literally written the book(s) on virtual training. Her books include:

During our conversation, we not only spoke about some fundamental things we can all be doing to tighten up our virtual training delivery (I know it’s been 19 months and we feel like pros at this by now, but there are definitely some habits we can still clean up), and we also spoke about some things that more advanced presenters have done to take their virtual training to the next level.

Introducing Cindy Huggett

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast of all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And I am very excited for today’s topic and even more excited for today’s guest. Today’s topic is on virtual training delivery and I am joined by Author, Speaker, Consultant, and Namesake for Cindy Huggett ConsultingCindy Huggett herself. Hi Cindy, how are you?

Cindy Huggett: Hey, Brian. I’m great. Thank you for having me on the podcast.

Brian Washburn: I’m super excited for this. Before we get into the questions, I do need to say that Train Like You Listen is brought to you by our sponsor, Soapbox, which is the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. If you need some help in putting together a training program, what you do is you’ll go to www.soapboxify.com. You’ll sign up for an account, you’ll put in a little bit of information like: how many people are attending your session? How long is your session going to be? Will it be in-person or virtual? What are your learning objectives? And then within minutes you’ll get a lesson plan that includes activities and sequence and flow of a variety of things that you can do with your training participants. So there’s over 200 activities in the library. For more information, go to www.soapboxify.com.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: All right, let’s get into the questions here. So Cindy, we are here to talk about virtual training delivery. You’ve literally written the book– not just the book – the books, plural on the topic. And, like we always like to do with our guests, we like to have our guests introduce themselves with a six-word biography. And so for today’s topic, I would introduce myself on this topic of virtual training delivery by saying, “My first webinar was in 2006.” So that dates myself a little bit. How about you, Cindy? How would you introduce yourself using exactly six words?

Cindy Huggett: Well, Brian, I’m going to go with, “I’m passionate about engaging online learning.” Everything I do can be summed up in that statement.

Brian Washburn: Well, clearly, because it is what you’ve built a business around, you’ve written books on it. I want to get into this conversation because we are 19 months removed from when the world shut down – we all had to go to Zoom for work and for training. I’m wondering, either in the sessions that you do, the classes that you teach, or just the things that you’re observing, where do you think that people continue to struggle the most when it comes to virtual training delivery?

Where Do People Struggle the Most With Virtual Training Delivery?

Cindy Huggett: It’s such a great question and a great place to start because, one, I asked this question every year I do research on what’s going on. And the responses have been pretty consistent – even before 19 months ago, around technology and engagement: “My participants aren’t paying attention.” And, you know, virtual learning, virtual training, isn’t new – it’s been around for 20 years. But what happened in the early stages, early months of 2020 when the world started shutting down is that organizations who were already doing it were forced to move everything online. And then those organizations that weren’t doing it, were forced to move everything online. So it was this tsunami of everything’s online. And not just learning, but meetings and happy hours and the way we connected and the way we communicated. Everything went online. 

Training Participants Have Virtual Fatigue

And I think we’re seeing some whiplash from that right now, the backlash of, “But I don’t want to be online all the time.” And as learning professionals, as facilitators, we’re dealing with this fatigue. 

But as I was thinking about this question, you know, we knew we were going to chat about what’s going on and the struggles – I think it’s making the assumption that it’s easy. And it is still not easy for everyone. When we think about really successful virtual training, it’s got a good, quality, engaging, interactive design. It’s got facilitators who are skilled at engaging an online audience, showing up on camera, being a discussion leader and not a presenter-only lecture person, but also really prepared participants.

Successful Training Has Facilitators Who Are Skilled at Engaging An Online Audience

And I think most organizations, most people, underestimate what it takes to get to a really engaging design, a really interactive facilitator, and a prepared participant. So we can talk about kind of what goes into that, if you want to peel back those layers.

Brian Washburn: Yeah! I’d love to start peeling back those layers. What are like maybe three or five things that people need to keep in mind when they’re getting ready to put together a virtual learning experience? I think that what you said and what really struck me, is that there’s an assumption that this is easy, right? We’ve been doing this for 19 months now or 20 years now. So of course it’s easy. But it’s not! And it’s not good a lot of times. And so what are three, five things people really need to keep in mind to make sure that people are prepared? To make sure things are engaging?

What Things Do People Need to Keep in Mind as They Prepare to Deliver Virtual Training?

Design

Cindy Huggett: Yeah. Well, let’s take one in each category – starting with design. And most organizations, because of the quickness of the shift to online, they just took those slide decks and slapped them online, right? It was– there was not a whole lot of time and thought put into a design. We just took in-person and moved it. Now, truthfully, that was happening before 19 months ago in organizations who didn’t value design. So number one– especially now that we are starting to decide, “Okay, what’s going to stay online versus what’s going to move back to an in-person or hybrid-type of class?” That when we convert or when we move a program online, it’s not a one-one translation. Let’s look at what the learners need to do back on the job. Let’s really think about what activities make sense to do. What can we have them do on their own versus bringing them together? So stepping back and looking at a good quality design, number one. 

Facilitators

Number two: facilitators. Part of the reason why some facilitators don’t feel that it’s easy is that they’re out there on their own without support from say a producer or a co-facilitator. Maybe they’re not quite comfortable with the platform and it’s because, one, they haven’t had time or, two, these platforms keep changing and updating – which is a great thing. At the same time, if yesterday you shared slides this way and today that program has been updated, and you do it a different way. And the lack of communication from IT facilitators – it gets in the way. 

Training Facilitators Feel Ill-Equipped

So our facilitators, across the board when I talk to them, are feeling ill-equipped. Either they don’t have the time to prepare, they don’t have the support, or the organization is forcing them to use a platform that really wasn’t designed for training. It might be great for video collaboration or might be great for some other purpose. But for a true virtual classroom – , it’s a struggle. So that area, that whole area– and it was a whole lot that I just said there, Brian, but I’ll put that in the same category. 

Prepared Participants

Lastly: the participants. We’re asking them to be engaged, to be on camera, to be online, or to interact with their peers. And many of them are working from home. They’re sharing internet bandwidth with other family members who are also working from home or doing school from home. In our global locations, our global audiences, they might be dealing with power issues or other things that– they don’t have equipment. They don’t have a webcam that can be positioned in a place where we see them well. Or just a number of other priorities we put on them. And so what are we doing to really prepare our participants? Number three. I think that’s a huge part that we overlook. They’re all intertwined. They’re not separate – design, facilitation, and prepared participants, but they all need to be looked at.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And it sounds like it starts with maybe the design, right? So making sure that you have some sort of activities in the beginning that get people prepared for what types of features they’re going to be using throughout. Making sure that you’re not just slapping slides up there and going through your slides – things like that. 

Now– and obviously there’s a lot written about this. We don’t have time to go into all of it, but there’s a lot more. So if people are curious about this, we can talk a little bit more about where they can find some ideas for activities and things like that as we go along here. 

For people who feel like they have it, right? They’ve been doing this for a while. They’re comfortable with the technology. They feel like things are going pretty well. Beyond the basics, what are a few things that you’d challenge some of the more advanced presenters to do or to keep in mind?

Beyond The Basics: What Can More Advanced Presenters Keep in Mind With Virtual Training?

Cindy Huggett: I love that you said, “beyond the basics” – it is my number one most popular workshop right now. Because my clients are saying, “All right, we’re not new at this anymore. Give us an advanced virtual facilitator program.” And I call it “Beyond the Basics: The Art of Online Facilitation.” 

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Cindy Huggett: Here’s the thing though, when you define what “advanced” really means – in anything, not just virtual training, but an advanced anyone – it’s somebody who does the basics really, really, really, really well under different circumstances on a consistent basis. And so many training teams and facilitators that I meet with that say, “I need advanced,” or “I’m ready to go to the next level,” to be honest, still need some help with the basics. And myself included. You know I’ve been doing this so long and I’m still learning new things or getting feedback that helps me be a better facilitator. But I think it’s that willingness to recognize that if you want to be advanced, it is about mastering the basics under all those different circumstances. 

Facilitators Are Afraid of Silence

So that said, a couple of areas that I see even seasoned, really experienced virtual facilitators do. Number one is they’re still afraid of silence. That if they’re going to ask a question of an audience and there’s silence because it takes people a moment to come off mute or to type in chat or to respond to the poll or to write on the whiteboard, they start filling that silence with the ongoing dialogue. 

Facilitators Are Afraid of Silence

So a quick way to tell or to look and see if this is something you struggle with is when you’re facilitating, and let’s say you ask your audience, “Respond in chat.” You have some great question and they’re typing in chat. What are you doing while they’re typing? And it takes a moment. You know, they’re typing, you don’t see it on screen. It’s like text message – you see the dot, dot, dot sometimes. If you’re still talking then you’re not comfortable with silence. And if you’re reading, even worse. If you are the one reading out your participant comments, you’re not comfortable with silence. Because the participants can share what they typed, they can summarize. They can– and that’s a general rule – I’m sure we could find some exceptions, but for the most part, number one. 

Facilitators Should Be Comfortable With Webcams

Brian, number two: webcams. Webcams. I know there’s lots of talk about, “Should we be on camera? Should we not?” As a facilitator, getting really comfortable on camera is an important skill. And being able to have eye contact with the camera lens and then using your gaze intentionally where you look – if you need to look away – to help participants. 

Now do you need to be on camera 100% of the time? No. But there’s also the art of: when do I have it on versus when do I turn it off? So little things like that that might not seem like a big deal. When we’re looking at the finesse of a really skilled virtual facilitator, those are two quick examples of things we look at.

Brian Washburn: And I’m just kind of curious what your philosophy is about participants having webcams on?

Should Participants Have Their Webcams On?

Cindy Huggett: You know, I get asked that question all the time. And I think overall, in general, participants are more comfortable being on camera now than they were 19 months ago, than they were three or four years ago. And a funny story when I wrote Virtual Training Basics, the very first one back in 2009, I said, “Don’t turn on the camera.” Like no one needs to have the camera– well we didn’t really have cameras and bandwidth like we do now. So, Second Edition of that book came out like 2018 – very first thing I changed, “Turn the cameras on,” right? Things have shifted and continued to shift over time.

I invite participants to begin with their cameras on

So the argument for not having cameras on is number one: video fatigue. They’re on camera too much. Number two: if they’re working from home, is it a violation of privacy? Is there something going on that they don’t want us to see what’s going on? And then number three is: do they really need to be on? Are they adding value to the learning? So here’s my take – that was a long lead up to my answer. In all of my workshops, I invite participants to begin with their cameras on. And that is no surprise when they join because all of the preparation that they’ve been doing, all of the activities they’ve been doing, they know, right? It’s not a surprise that, “Hey, for this session we’re going to begin with the cameras on.” It’s an invitation – it’s never forced. 

Starting Virtual Training Programs in Gallery View for Immediate Social Connection

But the way I start my programs, depending on the platform– most platforms, if you’re going to have an opening slide, it takes up most of the screen. So I don’t start my programs with a slide deck. I start my programs in a gallery view or in some sort of video first. And almost every popular platform out there, you can do that right now. So we’re coming in and it’s an immediate social connection – 10, 12, 15 people on camera, gallery view. And within the first 5, 10 minutes or so they’re in breakout groups, smaller groups. Now after that, we start turning the camera off. 

So Brian, do I have some who don’t turn the camera on for whatever reason? Yes. But most of them have told me ahead of time, like, “Hey, I’ve got this special situation. I’m joining from, you know, this country or this place, or I have this situation. So I’m not going to be able to.” But that’s rare. I find that if the invitation, the stage is set, that people want to see each other for those short periods of time.

Brian Washburn: And I think that all makes sense. And I love the idea of starting without the slide deck on, right? So that you have the gallery view. It’s like people walking into a room and you can say, “Hi.”

Cindy Huggett: Right.

Brian Washburn: And it’s almost like a natural icebreaker, at that point.

Cindy Huggett: It is.

Brian Washburn: Now I– one last question just briefly. I’m kind of curious. What is like the coolest or the most fun thing you’ve ever done with a virtual program?

Virtual Training Doesn’t Have to Mean Just Sitting in Front of the Computer

Cindy Huggett: Brian, I have to think about this. I’ve been to– I’ve done thousands and thousands and thousands. So here’s what comes to mind and it’s just breaking the mold that we often assume in virtual training you have to sit in front of the computer. And I don’t. And I don’t always have my participants sit in front of a computer. It is not unusual for us to get to a point in a program where I say, “Okay, everyone. You know, we’re talking about such and such. Go find three examples of this in your office or in your home. Take your mobile phone with you, snap some photos. I’ll have you share back.” Or, “Okay, everyone. We’re going to press the pause button. Here’s your partner–” somebody else in the program – “Go call them, go have a conversation with them by phone – a walking conversation. Come– we’ll meet back here in 15, 20, 25 minutes or so.” Sometimes, Brian, that just takes the form of when we stand up, “I’m going to turn some music on and for the next three minutes, we’ve got a dance break. We’ve got a stand up and stretch and move your body type of break.” So probably– and some of your listeners are going to think, “Well, that’s not very creative.” But from the mindset of we think virtual training is sitting in front of a computer staring at the screen all day. No, it’s not. Let’s break outside that mold.

Brian Washburn: I love that idea that you don’t have to be tethered. I think that is a radical idea. You don’t have to be tethered to your computer if you’re in a virtual session. 

Get to Know Cindy Huggett

Brian Washburn: Now before we leave, I’d love to do just a real quick speed round with you so that listeners get to know you just a little bit better. Are you ready for a few speed round questions?

Cindy Huggett: Sure.

Brian Washburn: All right. The first question that I have is: do you like to take elearning or in-person classes better?

Cindy Huggett: Both. It depends on the topic. Probably in-person because I love the interaction.

Brian Washburn: How about participating in a webinar versus listening to a podcast?

Cindy Huggett: Definitely participate.

Brian Washburn: How about read a book versus watch a movie?

Cindy Huggett: Read a book. Because I can go sit in a coffee shop or sit on the beach with my tea and then get absorbed in the book. No electronics.

Brian Washburn: When it comes to visual aids: PowerPoint or flipchart?

Cindy Huggett: Oh, most definitely PowerPoint. Electronic tool that is a lot better than my drawing.

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES) How about Poll Everywhere or using voting dots?

Cindy Huggett: Can I go with Menti as a Poll Everywhere type of substitute?

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Cindy Huggett: Again, the ability to do word clouds and so many other unique features. Poll Everywhere is a great platform, but Menti right now is one of my favorites.

Brian Washburn: Now, is it called Menti or is it Mentimeter? Or what’s the full name of it?

Cindy Huggett: Oh good question. Mentimeter is the admin piece, what you share with participants is Menti.

Brian Washburn: Ah. Gotcha. Maybe we’ll put that in the show notes, too. What is the best piece of advice that anyone has ever given to you?

Cindy Huggett: Never stop learning. My older brother always wanted to know: what did you learn today? And it’s stuck with me.

Brian Washburn: Is there anything that people in the learning field should be either reading or listening to these days?

Cindy Huggett: I think things outside of the learning and development industry. Read marketing, communication, advertising, TV, film, those types of– how do we get in front of our audience with video? How do we get in front of them with communication and competing messages? We have a lot to learn from those industries.

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. And before we go, do you have any shameless plugs for us?

Cindy Huggett: I am currently booking workshops into 2022. And if you’re wondering how do I get my facilitators to the next level? How do I design my programs to be more engaging? How do I upskill producers? Use these platforms? Reach out: www.cindyhuggett.com.

Brian Washburn: Perfect. Cindy Huggett of Cindy Huggett Consulting. Thank you so much for giving us some time today. I think that this is fascinating. Just from the basics and being able to master the basics, to some more advanced things, to the idea we don’t need to be tethered to our computer. I think this is such a really, really helpful conversation for anyone who’s doing virtual programming these days. Cindy, thank you so much. 

And for everybody else who’s listening, thank you so much for listening. If you would like to sign up, go ahead and subscribe on Apple, iHeartRadio, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts. If you do need some help with your virtual training Cindy mentioned, go ahead and reach out to her. And then if you do need some help with training in general, we’re happy to help you with Endurance Learning. So please visit us www.endurancelearning.com

Until next time, happy training everyone.

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