The Virtual Trainer (Part 1)

Transferring face-to-face classroom energy strategies to the virtual environment.

I conducted my first virtual training program in 1986 via satellite. It was for the United States Chamber of Commerce. It was three hours long on the topic of “Creative Presentation Techniques,” and it was delivered to 10,000 people in 700 locations. By all measures, it was a great success. One key reason it was a success was that I developed and implemented a strategy that allowed me to recreate in a virtual environment what I was able to do in the face-to-face environment so successfully.

If I can apply my Results-Based Creative Learning Strategies that are so effective face-to-face to that size group, we can certainly make it work with the typical Webinar of 10, 15, or even 50 people.

This two-part article will serve as an introduction to all that is needed to be a powerful and positive virtual trainer. Let’s break down what we need to do into preparation (Part 1 here) and delivery (Part 2 in the November/December issue).

Special and extra preparations are needed for both participants and the trainer when a Webinar is the delivery method for training. This is true because both participants and the trainer initially often are unfamiliar with the Webinar environment. In the classroom, you know how to raise your hand. In the classroom, we have visual cues that tell us as trainers that participants are tracking with us or they are not. Not so with the Webinar environment.


1. Become familiar with the tools available in your Webinar platform. Most commonly available Webinar platforms have at the very least text chat, polling, whiteboards, application sharing, and video. Many have voiceover IP (VoIP) so people can hear one another talk and also allow for breakout rooms. But knowing you have the tools and knowing how to use them are two entirely different things. If possible, attend as a participant a Webinar that uses your platform before you serve as a Webinar instructor.

2. Start small and build from there. Your first Webinar should be no longer than an hour, and you should limit the attendance to 12 to 15 people. Build your own skills before you roll out to longer Webinars or larger groups.

3. Create a flow for your Webinar and design the hour around 90/20/4. Your largest content chunk will be 20 minutes and you will involve everyone every four minutes. Why is this different from 90/20/8? Because in the classroom, we have visual cues; online we do not. We need to make sure that we interact with and engage people every four minutes because there are too many distractions that you have no control over.

4. Go over your handout, visuals, content, and flow with your producer. The producer is equipped to handle all the technical details that are needed to make the training flow smoothly. This includes things such as making sure all participants have headsets and microphones, making sure participants know how to download the handout, solving individual technical challenges during the Webinar, tracking questions being sent to you via text chat and pasting them to the main screen as you answer them, setting up the polls and breakout room, etc.

5. Include a dry run if you are developing content for delivery multiple times and for larger groups. This is a complete dress rehearsal with at least six people so you can check timing, delivery, moving into and out of breakout groups, etc., so technical concerns do not disrupt your virtual training when you roll it out.

6. Develop your flow plan and allocate time for questions and answers and action planning. For a one-hour session, I’m going to plan for five minutes of Q&A at the 40-minute mark. Participants reflect and type their questions in the chat box. The producer puts up a five-minute timer and feeds me the most relevant questions. At the end of five minutes, I move on. If there are leftover questions, I’ll send a follow-up e-mail with my answers or create a short podcast to provide an audio response.

7. Try to keep virtual breakouts to three people. In the classroom, we say the ideal group is five to seven people. But in the virtual world, we are losing cues. When I go to an audio-only breakout, I can readily tell the difference between two other voices and my own. The pauses waiting to see if someone wants to say something will be shorter than if five people were in the breakout. It is easier to ask and answer questions of one another, make decisions, create a whiteboard response, etc., with just three people.

8. Plan your opener and closer. In a Webinar, I’m going to start with a soft opener to engage people three to five minutes before the announced start time. At the start time, my producer can either introduce me or let the soft opener go for another minute. After the introduction, I have my opener. For an hour, it’s going to be one to two minutes. Often, it will include having people respond to a question via text chat. In a one-hour Webinar, I’m going to have people take two minutes to action plan just after the Q&A at 40 minutes. Then five minutes before the end, I’m going to give them one more minute to add one more idea. After this, I’ll have one question they text chat the answer to for my evaluation. I never say, “Before we close…” Instead, I say, “Before we continue…” and ask the question.

9. Use variety. Some people get used to polling, and it’s all they do. The same for text chat, etc. You can use the same technique several times; just make sure it is not several times in a row.

10. Plan for quick energizers to keep energy up and to get people refocused. Here are a few that I’ve found to be foolproof: • Fill in the blanks. Put a partial handout on the whiteboard, and in a box to the side, put the hints that complete the blanks. Participants draw a line from the hint in the box to the relevant blank.

  • Conduct a poll. Some 35 minutes in, I might put a poll like this on the whiteboard: The pace of this Webinar is:

a. Too fast

b. Too slow

c. Just about right

  • Look outside and report back. Participants get up from their computers, go to the nearest window, and come back and text chat something they see. This might be about weather, scenery, etc. This especially helps geographically divergent participants.
  • Stand up, especially in conjunction with action planning. Write down two action ideas on your handout; as soon as you have two, type “up” and stand up for 30 seconds.
  • Have 30-second text chat discussions to provide quick answers to a question. This could be something along the lines of: What is your biggest challenge, mistake, problem, need, etc.? In the next issue, I’ll provide seven tips for delivery. Until then—add value and make a difference.

Bob Pike, CSP, CPLP FELLOW, CPAE Speakers Hall of Fame, is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook” and his newest book, “The Expert’s Guide to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to Training.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.