Balancing Safety and Surprise in Virtual Training

People must feel safe, psychologically and physically, in order to learn. But sprinkling in a little surprise can go a long way toward engagement in virtual training.

We know psychological safety is imperative for learning. Humans can’t take in fresh ideas and comfortably try them out if they are in fear of being embarrassed, unprepared, or uncomfortable. You’ve probably seen training feedback forms that were mostly about hard chairs, hot rooms, cold coffee, and the late lunch time (12:30pm! Who can endure?!) People must feel safe, psychologically and physically, in order to learn.

On the flip side, when the environment is so safe it becomes predictable, people struggle to stay engaged and learn. Keeping this in mind, instructional designers and trainers can strike a balance between creating safety and sprinkling in enough surprise to keep participants’ brains engaged. Here are some ideas. Click here for a quick video.

On the Side of Safety

  • Use virtual nametags. Have participants (or a producer) embed their names in their video block. You may include a relevant, low-risk detail such as location or job title.
  • Do introductions. Give clear instructions, then invite them to share verbally or in the chat if they prefer.
  • Avoid calling on people; let them choose to speak out. You may ask to hear from “three people who have not yet shared.”
  • Make silence comfortable. When you ask for responses, acknowledge that you will always gladly wait an extra beat for those who need it, remind them that no one has to share, then wait. If someone shares, great. If not, great. Thank them and continue without any negativity.
  • Allow participants to “pass” (with your full support) if they do not want to share.
  • Offer the option to turn cameras off during processing times.
  • Get permission before quoting a participant or asking them to share with the group.
  • Pull what is helpful, interesting, or astute from each response. I once watched a trainer ask a question, shoot down the answers of the first two respondents, then wonder why no one else wanted to risk public failure by guessing what she was thinking. Not fun!
  • Start with low-risk activities before moving to public, high-risk activities, i.e., the “1-2-4-All” technique—have individuals think/envision/write about something (1), then pair them up in breakout rooms to discuss (2), then join two pairs to discuss (4), then have a few people share with everyone in the big room (all).
  • Give participants freedom to control their virtual learning experience (see my article “Freedom and Choice Virtual Training” in the September 2022 edition of Training magazine).

For a Bit of Surprise

Certainly, you can surprise participants with a big reveal, major activity or game, or significant change. However, there are dozens of opportunities throughout each training to sprinkle surprises that keep learners’ brains engaged.

  • Vary your voice. Don’t rely just on what you say. Use how you say it to indicate what’s important by varying your tone, volume, or pace. If you are not naturally expressive, record yourself (voice only) as you explain something or tell a story, then listen to hear if you are using your voice like a tool or instrument to indicate what is important and to keep participants engaged.
  • Call and response. As you train, leave beats of time for participants’ brains to add some data, i.e., mentally fill in a blank, repeat back what you said, mute themselves and paraphrase it in their own words, close their eyes and picture something, finish the sentence or thought, tell a neighbor, etc.
  • Use music. Music delights most people, is unexpected in a training, and activates more of our brains. Play music at the start of training, after a break, end of an exercise, or in an impromptu manner. Sometimes when training, I sing: “A whole new world…,” “Welcome back…,” “The final countdown…,” or something spontaneous. I may be making a content point or simply using surprise to keep participants engaged.
  • Use imagery and visual language to activate more of the brain and create memorable lessons. Stories and vivid descriptions are powerful, and you also can ask participants to “Picture this…” or “Close your eyes and imagine…”
  • Be expressive. Use facial expressions to keep participants thinking, guessing, feeling, watching, learning, even laughing. Again, if you are not naturally expressive in this way, record a video of yourself sharing a bit of content, then watch it back without the sound. Is it engaging or boring? Keep practicing.
  • Move! Adjust from sitting to standing or vis versa, talk with your hands, or illustrate something using your body movement. And get participants moving—stand, sit, thumbs up/down/midway, lean in, raise a hand, share on a scale of “fist to five,” find a sticky note, etc.

The key is to strike a balance between creating an environment where participants feel safe because they trust you and know enough about what to expect to be comfortable AND sprinkling in enough surprise that their brains stay alert and promote participation and learning. I hope this is helpful. Have fun!

As always, it is an honor to be part of your good work. Let me know how I can support you. Join us for our applied, intensive VIRTUAL TRAINER Course in fall 2023.