Virtual Presence: Inspire and Engage in the Classroom and Beyond

Virtual conference meeting

Technology is changing the way businesses operate. More and more employees are working and collaborating from different locations across the globe. It’s common for many of us to attend virtual meetings or training sessions with multiple time zones, countries, or cultures represented. This reality presents an entirely new set of challenges for leaders and training facilitators alike. After all, just because the technology allows us to interact virtually, doesn’t guarantee it will be pleasant or effective.  In my work as a facilitator and presence coach, clients often report that virtual meetings are unproductive, collaboration and communication suffer, and virtual participants feel disconnected and unengaged.

Whether presenting online to hundreds via webinar, facilitating a small virtual classroom workshop, or phone conferencing with team members and direct reports, it’s essential to optimize your virtual presence to authentically connect with your participants and make them feel included, engaged and inspired. Here are a few tactics to try out at your next meeting or training:

Start with a check-in

Giving everyone a moment to speak at the beginning of a virtual meeting is a great way get the group focused, present and aligned. It’s also an opportunity to understand any external detractors that are competing for their attention. Is someone’s lack of participation due to a lack of interest or because they have themselves on mute to cover loud construction outside? You won’t know unless you ask.

Before jumping in to your agenda, have everyone quickly introduce themselves and weigh in on a simple question such as “how are you feeling about this project?” or “what might be keeping you from being present today?” For larger meetings where a verbal check in isn’t realistic, have people check in via chat.

Communicate expressively for clarity and engagement

We’ve all been in virtual meetings or webinars where the presenter drones on in a flat, monotone voice over a PowerPoint, speaks so quickly or quietly that you have to strain to hear or never pauses long enough to allow for questions. Simply slowing down, using a warm vocal tone and embracing pauses will allow others to truly listen and understand your presentation, especially when their first language might be different from your own.

Remember that your physical demeanor can seep into your vocal tone. For example, smiling while speaking will add a measure of friendliness to your voice, while standing up and walking around will add energy. Conversely, slumping in your chair compresses your diaphragm and adds undertones of stress.

Use video whenever possible

Using video immediately improves engagement and aids expressiveness on a variety of levels. Having the presenter on camera allows them to use facial expressions and body language to convey meaning. Having everyone on camera in a video conference or hangout discourages multi-tasking and gives the presenter visual cues and reactions to help them modify their approach.

For maximum impact while speaking, try looking directly into your webcam instead of at the other participants’ feeds on your monitor. This will give the impression that you are making eye contact.

If you’ve found these tips helpful, stop by my presentation at the Pearson CITE Online Learning Conference later this month. We’ll dive into a four part model for virtual presence and give more tips on how to improve your virtual engagement. Hope to see you there.


About the Author
Elsa Strong

Elsa Strong

Elsa Strong is a Learning Designer and Senior Consultant with the Ariel Group, a training and coaching company that combines best practices from actor training and adult learning to help professionals of all levels develop business presence, communication and relationship-building skills.

She integrates her wide variety of experience as a performer, manager and coach to understand and respond to clients’ unique needs with dynamic, engaging and effective solutions. Her design approach uses a methodology of experiential learning coupled with individual coaching to develop participants’ capacity for authentic leadership, compelling communication, relationship building, personal branding, team building and change management. Prior to her work with Ariel, Elsa served as a consultant and capacity building advisor in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Elsa holds a B.A. from Brown University and is currently pursuing her Masters in Organizational Management from George Washington University. She is also a contributor to the Langer Mindfulness Institute, and organization founded by Dr. Ellen Langer of Harvard University.