Leading Virtual Sessions: A First Timer’s Guide

Technical instruction in the era of remote working


In this time of COVID-19 quarantines I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a four hour virtual technical session for the very first time in my career. And boy it was tough! I would like to share some tips I’ve learned through watching others, as well as trying things out myself. My goal is to make virtual facilitation easier for anyone by sharing what I did to make my session more effective and engaging.

Before the Session

work station set up with open laptop, notebook, and white coffee mug

Prepare Ahead of Time

This is as simple as knowing what you will be talking about. In depth!

  • If you are doing a technical deep dive make sure to expect the unexpected and prepare for some tough questions about the topic. Read other articles, white papers, or expert opinions on the topic. Don’t limit yourself to just what you’re speaking on.
  • Know the flow of your materials. If there are animated slides which give information in multiple steps, your talk should be synchronized with that animation.
  • Train yourself to not talk about details in future slides before they are shown. Visual learners will be very confused! I learned this the hard way!
  • Avoid reading from the slides! The audience has better use of their time and can do that themselves.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with your software, hardware, and surroundings. Use multiple monitors if possible and a presenter guide if you have made one, it will help if you blank out while talking like happened to me a couple of times.
  • Know how to use your collaborative tools. Practice with window placements, chat options, and go with what works best for you.

Practice! Practice! And More Practice!

This cannot be overstated. I spent an entire weekend recording my own voice over and over again. This is so much more important in virtual sessions. For in person sessions, there is a personal presence and physical expression that is lost when you are virtual.

  • Video chatting tools do have lags. Talk slowly and give pauses, especially if you want to leave room for questions.
  • Try to be expressive with your voice as it sounds better. Trust me. Some people get this easier than others, but I wasn’t one of them. My voice sounded dry and boring at first.
  • Get other people to critique how you sound. Use your spouse, peers, kids, team mates, friends whoever you can find to help you get better!
  • If you cannot think of someone who can help, do it yourself. Try recording your voice to make sure it sounds appropriate, engaging and the tone is well modulated. You might be surprised how many suggestions you can give yourself!

Know Your Audience

My session had an audience that ranged from fairly technical developers to business analysts who just wanted more awareness of the concepts we are talking about. Do not assume any level of expertise or lack thereof until you are able to get a gauge during the session itself. Consider having varied levels of details so folks at different experience levels can understand the content. Be prepared with real world analogies or stories that relate to the topic as those can be better understood by folks who are new to it. Jeremy Bruner, a famous psychologist says that we are 22 times more likely to retain a concept when it’s associated with a real story or analogy, .

Know the Rules

If you are teaching or presenting as part of a conference or public event make sure you are aware of any guidelines or rules that have been set by the organisers. If there is any training that is needed before you host, be sure to do it.

During the Session

half empty wooden hourglass standing on grey rocks

Start on Time

Start the session on time, but announce that you are giving folks 5 extra minutes to join. Having 5 minute breathers between back to back meetings is very helpful to destress! It also helps people who are running late from getting behind because they missed important information in the beginning.

Let the Audience Know What to Expect

Make sure to set expectations appropriately. Let the audience know exactly how you will be using their time for the duration of the session. For example, an agenda with a high level overview helps people know what is coming next. It also informs them when they will have breaks and for how long.

As an example, you can use the following format:

After we are done today the goal is to have learnt about X, Y and Z.

  • Topic X - 15 minutes followed by 30 minute break out sessions.
  • Topic Y - 15 minutes followed by 30 minute hands on exercises.
  • Break 10 minutes.
  • Guest Speaker - Name, 15 minutes.
  • Topic Z - 15 minutes Demo followed by 15 minute Q & A.

Do Introductions

Introduce yourself. If the audience is large, have them introduce themselves in the chat room and let them know you are doing so in the interest of time. If there are any links to be shared keep the share slide open as people are joining and make sure newer attendees have access to anything that has been shared before they joined.

Explain the Norms

The standard ones:

  • Stay on mute while you are not talking.
  • Announce your departure for any reason in chat and announce when/if you join back.
  • State if interruptions are encouraged or not and in what format (verbal or in chat)
  • State if it is a collaborative session where you will call out on attendees to share their screens and collaborate on activities.
  • State if someone will monitor the chat messages for questions.

My favorite is definitely telling people explicitly that they can interrupt. I have realised that virtual sessions lack the visual cues that tell you, as a presenter, that people want to talk. In a classroom or auditorium you can see it, less so online. So let the audience know that they can interrupt you, but do let them know if there are time sensitivities and the preferred way (if any) for interrupting. Additionally, make sure you set a tone of psychological safety where folks feel like they can talk and express their opinion.

As my Colleague and Tech College Dean, Desmond Lamptey says "Demonstrate high energy and passion as often as you can - if you’re energetic, others will be too!" Desmond is a public speaking veteran who has hosted more than 30 virtual sessions; he definitely knows what he is talking about!

Address Attendees by Name

A lot of video conferencing platforms have ways of telling the presenter who is talking. Use this technology feature to your benefit and address people by name. It will make a world of difference in engagement.

You Don’t Have to Know It All

It’s okay to let the audience know you don’t know something. We all don’t know many things, and it’s okay to be genuine and honest about it. Ask the audience about something you don’t know, or don’t have a strong opinion about. If no one answers that’s okay as well, you can always park the question for follow up later.

Play Music During Breaks and Use Visual Queues

Video Conference fatigue is a real thing. Here are some things that can help.

  • Play music during breaks, but make sure you choose appropriate music. It will keep the mood up while people are tiring out during a  long virtual session. Please remember to abide by any applicable music licenses; you can search for a website that compiles royalty free music.
  • Use visual timers to let people know how much time is left on a breakout activity or a break. Google timer works really well. You can just keep it running on the screen, it helps people focus on getting back to the session on time!
  • Thumbs up, Away, Green Checks, and Polls all help keep the audience engaged. Make sure to display the results of polls anonymously. Use multiple polls throughout the session either to get a feel for how the audience is doing or to get live feedback about the session content itself

Be a Guide, Then a Teacher

This only applies in situations where you are teaching something and are quizzing the audience on their existing knowledge about the topic. Try to guide them to the answer rather than give it to them. If there is silence, probe them with hints.

Another quote from Desmond can be aptly placed here: “Maintain full control of the room - lead with Presence and Confidence."

Be Genuine, Authentic, and Have Fun

This is a very important tip. I was so stressed out before my first session, but just keeping cool and being yourself will help. Remember - as long as you are prepared you will do well. Make sure you keep your audience’s trust by being authentic and genuine in your intent and message.  Most of the time, your audience really wants you to do well - this means regardless of how and when you stumble you should realize everyone is rooting for you to succeed. Here's a good article on this thought: https://presencetraining.co.uk/audience-wants-succeed/.

Finish on Time

Be sensitive to the time. Plan to finish a few minutes early just in case. If you run a few minutes over, make sure attendees are okay with it first and let them know that it’s okay to leave if they have something important to attend. Remember to specify the ways you will get them the information on what they may have missed.

After the Session

dirt path with wooden fence leading into green forest

Relax

You did it! If you felt there was room for improvement work on it the next time you present. Don’t fret over something that didn't go well as it cannot be changed.

Follow Up

If there are parking lot items or materials that you have promised to send out please remember to do it.

Ask for Feedback

Use feedback to get better for the next time.

***

Hope these tips help you with facilitating your own virtual sessions, tech talks, deep dives or just a team meeting while we all work remotely! If this is part of a class you are facilitating or just a one-off opportunity, remember you will just keep getting better with training and practice. I’m doing my next session in a couple of weeks and am feeling so much more confident this time around. If I can do it, anyone can. Good luck and Happy video chatting!


Shailesh Kurdekar, Lead Engineer/Senior Manager, Software Engineering

Shailesh Kurdekar has been developing software professionally for about 20 years as a programmer, engineer and architect. He is currently a Software Engineer at Capital One where he works on engineering products and platforms in the Risk, Compliance and AML Domains. Prior to Capital One he worked at Oracle Corporation where he was part of teams involved in building and architecting multiple solutions for the Oracle Fusion Platform. He is passionate about engineering robust and scalable solutions for the cloud and likes to travel for leisure. Shailesh lives in Chantilly Virginia with his wife and children.


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