Virtual classrooms are like aeroplanes…

Mark Gilroy guest blogger for Lightbulb Moment

Webinars airlines blog

The practice of facilitating in a virtual environment is unique in so many ways. When planning a piece of virtual learning, one of the key challenges is that it can appear incredibly abstract. If you’ve never designed a piece of e-learning, webinar content or other virtual learning solutions, it can be helpful to pick a meaningful analogy to make things more concrete.

In this post we’ll be using the analogy of an airline when considering the planning, design and delivery of virtual learning.

So, if you’d like to take your seats and place your luggage into the overhead compartment, we’ll get started…


Before boarding a plane, airlines take several steps to let you know that you’re in the right place to begin, long before you arrive at the airport. Clear, concise messages are sent out to remind all passengers about the important dates, times and location to minimise confusion. When passengers arrive on the day, there’s either an automated system or an ‘in person’ check-in to welcome you to your flight.

In the same way, it’s critical for virtual learning hosts to think about this stage of the learning process:

  • Most virtual facilitation tools have automated emails that are sent out when your participants register. Are these being sent in a timely fashion to give your participants appropriate notice?
  • Check the tone and impact of these emails – do they reflect the intended experience of your session? Are they clear and easy to understand?
  • As people arrive in your virtual ‘room’, consider verbally checking-in people by name as they arrive. If there’s anything you want them to prepare or think about before you get started – usher them in the right direction.
  • Signpost clearly when things are about to start. Some facilitators like to use a musical cue to distinguish between check-in and take-off (see below).

Pre-flight checklist

As passengers arrive on a plane, the airline team are busy working through numerous checklists to make sure that they all have a safe and smooth flight. Lists are an important part of airline protocol to ensure that processes are slick, nothing essential  gets missed, and things happen in the correct order. These are often checked by multiple people to ensure accuracy.

Similarly, with webinars and other types of virtual learning environments, it can be helpful to prepare a pre-flight checklist to work through on the day of the event, to guard against the unexpected. Be cautious of facilitating long sessions by yourself, and consider recruiting a crew to support you, including a co-pilot and technical support, to help keep everything ticking along. Potential checklist items might include:

  • Ensure any computer updates are downloaded and applied several hours before take-off.
  • Have a backup computer powered-up and ready to switch to in case anything happens mid-flight.
  • Run a test to check that your microphone/headset is working. All necessary polls/breakout rooms set-up and ready to go.

Safety announcements

As a plane is about to take-off, the hosts guide the passengers through a set of safety announcements. Where the exits are, how to fasten your seatbelt, how to blow that  funny little whistle, and so on. For frequent flyers, these are often a dull and unsurprising part of the journey, but for a first-time flyer, this is essential information.

Virtual training rooms can be a confusing and frustrating place for the uninitiated. Even for the seasoned virtual learner, different platforms can have slightly different rules and features, so ensure that some time is spent before take-off answering the following questions:

  • How do you want your passengers to interact?
  • What can people expect to see/hear during the course of this session?
  • How can people offer feedback during/after the event?
  • What are the ‘controls’ that participants can use, and how do they work?


The doors are closed, the plane has taxied to the runway, and the flight is ready to begin. Suddenly the engines fire-up and you’re in the skies. Most of the time, this is such a smooth process that passengers rarely even notice the series of complex steps that allow this to take place.

The official start of a webinar can be a make or break situation for both the hosts and the passengers. How are you going to make it as smooth as possible to let your passengers know they’ve made the right decision to fly with you?

  • If you’re the type of facilitator who prefers a flexible, unscripted approach, consider scripting the first two to three minutes of your session. This has two positive effects: it’ll leave you feeling confident as a presenter in knowing what’s about to come next without having to wonder what to say/ask, and also will give your participants confidence that you are in control.
  • Consider recording a ‘dummy run’ and listening back to the first section of your virtual learning event. Notice, and capture, the things that work well which can be repeated in the real thing. Equally, notice the things that don’t work, so that you can try and avoid them next time round.
  • I remember after hearing myself back for the first time presenting virtually, I was struck by how the noticeable and numerous my use of words such as “um”, “right”, and “OK” were. In an audio-only broadcast these conversational ‘fillers’ really stood-out and I still work hard to try and minimise them, without sounding too robotic.
  • Occasionally, things will not go to plan on take-off. Passengers may be late, your presentation slides might appear in the wrong order, or (worse case scenario) your internet connection might cut out. Practice and plan for the eventualities that you can control, so that you can avoid panic in the heat of the moment.

In-flight entertainment

The flight has taken-off smoothly, your passengers are in their seats and engaged by everything they’ve seen and heard so far. Now, it’s time to keep them there. For short flights, a timely snack or drink help to keep everyone refreshed. For long-haul journeys, a varied selection of films, TV boxsets, and music is available, to enable passengers to entertain themselves and avoid boredom.

We’ve all sat in on webinars that are ‘broadcast only’. It’s a dull experience that invites distraction. Virtual learning is unique in that it usually takes place via a medium (your laptop, desktop, or mobile device) that is already screaming distractions at you in the shape of new emails, notifications and vibrations.

  • You may find that there is a balance to be achieved between your content and inviting learners to input their own. This will very much depend on the context of your virtual learning session, but I would suggest it’s highly unlikely that your content should take-up 100% of the airspace. Hint: if you think it should, do yourself a favour and record a video/screencast – you’ll be saving everyone a lot of time!
  • At the other end of the scale, running a live poll or Q&A session every two minutes can slow things down and create a list of questions that might never be answered in the time you have together.
  • Consider variety in your in-flight entertainment. Become familiar with the tools at your disposal so that you can select them when necessary: live chat, polling, breakout groups, whiteboards, and video feeds are just some of the popular ones. Is there anything physical and/or tactile that you can have people working on to avoid boredom with a screen?
  • Attend other people’s sessions to keep your toolkit fresh. It’s just as important to practice being a passenger as it is being the pilot.


The journey has nearly finished – it’s been a safe flight, passengers are feeling nourished with snacks and drinks, and appropriately entertained. Now, for the finale. Statistically, the most likely time for something unexpected to happen: landing the plane at your destination.

The end of a webinar is a great opportunity to re-engage and revisit the highlights of the session. A space to recap, ask questions, and share reflections before everyone goes their separate ways. An equally useful time to thank people for joining you, and to consider using some of their ‘loyalty points’ towards a future event.

  • What is the last thing you want people to be thinking/feeling/doing as their final impression of this piece of virtual learning?
  • Are any calls to action made clear?
  • Do you want to encourage people to fly with you again? Is there an opportunity to showcase a benefit of upcoming events that people may be interested in?
  • Consider scripting the final few minutes of your event so that you can ensure all bases are covered.

There we have it – a handful of parallels between running an airline and being a successful virtual facilitation ‘pilot’. There are many other areas that I haven’t included here: refuelling (managing your energy when presenting), navigation (letting passengers know where you’re headed, and how far they’ve travelled so far), baggage (ensuring the ‘journey’ isn’t weighed down with too much non-essential content). Mark GilroyPerhaps you can think of others – please do feel free to post them in the comments below.

About our guest blogger

Mark Gilroy is Managing Director of TMS Development International Ltd, a leading global provider of psychometric development tools designed to create, nurture and sustain high performing teams. Mark has a background in psychology and has been working in the L&D arena as an executive coach and team development facilitator for over a decade.

Delivery virtual classroom training – baby steps to confident strides

“Would you be interested in delivering virtuals?”

I shuddered.

I wanted to do something different and here was a relatively new client offering something. Virtuals? I was concerned about me vs technology and thought it might be boring, talking to a void, changing slides every couple of minutes.

Then it dawned on me. It could be fun. I can do this from home. We live in the Scottish Highlands. I enjoy the travelling and love face-to-face delivery and here was an opportunity to augment it with some home working. “OK, I’ll give it a go.”

Getting prepared for the virtual classroom

Three tutorials to get me up to speed. Remember your first driving lesson? All those things to do at once, just to get the car to move, never mind driving it safely. That is how it felt. I had two great tutors, who gave me confidence before I felt it. Then it was time for practice on my own and with trusted partners. It felt like spinning plates and juggling wearing boxing gloves!

The day came for my assessment. I figured if I wrote everything down that I had to do with the technology in sequence, that would be a start. Then remembered that I have a webcam and they can see my face when I fumble with the controls.

Oh, and delivering some training at the same time, with the added extras of speaking even more clearly and calmly, sounding assured enough to inspire confidence in participants. Finally, remembering to find out how they are going to use the learning at the end of the session.

Building on the skills

I passed the assessment. Since then I have had plenty of practice. Just like driving, the many individual acts have become habitual, with a large slice of consciousness.

What I have learned is that getting to grips with the technology increases your confidence and helps you transfer that confidence to the delegates, some of whom may be wary of virtual learning. Learning to make the odd unnoticed mistake and deal with it seamlessly has helped me.

Knowing that if anything technical goes wrong, there is almost always a solution at your fingertips. For the webcam, I make sure your light is good for the delegate view. Keep a crib guide close to hand.

And make sure you breathe, relax and enjoy it! People keep asking me about running virtuals, often with the wariness I had two years ago. It is fun, challenging in different ways and a great way to make learning more accessible.


About our guest blogger

Paul Tran is Director of PT Performance Solutions Ltd. He designs and delivers face-to-face and virtual training in communication, change and management and personal development.

Based in the Scottish Highlands, Paul works throughout the UK & Ireland. Client feedback describes Paul’s training as interactive, informative, engaging and practical. Paul is a qualified coach, Master Practitioner of NLP and Licensed Facilitator of SDI.


Rev Up for Virtual Delivery

When I was first asked if I wanted to deliver virtually, I thought about how we prepare for face-to-face work; excellent materials, check your technology, have pens, flipcharts, post-its, props all ready, get a good ambience in the room. And, of course, preparing yourself and getting into the right state to deliver.

On the virtual stage

On a virtual session, the trainer is a larger focal point, as the learners can’t see anyone except you, if you have a webcam. Your only props are your slides, so it’s best to make them clear and simple. Then move onto your voice, which can turn your delivery from good to great.

Virtual sessions tend to be shorter than face-to-face sessions, so it’s important to have a higher level of intensity within you, while always exuding a level of control to accommodate every individual on the session.

It’s a completely different cognitive load to working face-to-face. This means a spot-on energy level from the start, to initially captivate and assure the group, then retain their attention throughout the session. The moment you ‘meet’ learners, you need a mix of energy, gravitas, empathy, assurance and subject knowledge. And you can’t see them.
So, what helps you to rev up your energy levels for a virtual?

Voice modulation

First, it is important to know your subject matter. Practise out aloud, record yourself until you’re happy. Be aware of your facial expressions, particularly when learners say something unexpected or you encounter technical issues. Have everything you need within touching distance; make sure you have adequate light so you look good on the webcam.

Think about the points where you will need to raise/lower your pitch, or speed up/slow down. Notice the links between sections, so you can boost your vocal energy to recap the closing section and introduce the next one.

Remember that when you ask learners to do something technically tricky, such as moving them into separate ‘rooms’, think about how you are going to guide them with a mix of clarity, empathy and simplicity to enthuse and assure them. These factors help convince you that you’re ready to move onto your voice.

Get up and go

Before I start, I tend to either meditate and/or power pose for two minutes. I’ll repeat a tongue twister out loud, such as, ‘I want a proper cup of coffee in a proper, copper coffee pot’ to get my voice tuned up and make sure I’m articulating every syllable of every word. I’ll repeat my opening sentence a few times to make sure the session starts well. Then I’ll visualise the happy faces that I won’t be able to see.

In virtual work, enthusiasm and vocal skills work best with an equally high level of control. That takes energy and concentration.

I was once told that virtual delivery is like being a DJ. I’d add that it’s a bit like flying a plane. You exude calmness and control in the knowledge that if anything unlikely to happen actually happens, you have the confidence to deal with it seamlessly.

I’ve never flown a plane, but I have been told that it’s quite a thrill and it’s only when you’ve landed that you realise how much mental energy you’ve used. That’s how I feel after a virtual – so rev yourself up, strap in and stay in control!

About our guest blogger

Paul Tran is Director of PT Performance Solutions Ltd. He designs and delivers face-to-face and virtual training in communication, change and management and personal development.

Based in the Scottish Highlands, Paul works throughout the UK & Ireland. Client feedback describes Paul’s training as interactive, informative, engaging and practical. Paul is a qualified coach, Master Practitioner of NLP and Licensed Facilitator of SDI.


Four classic mistakes made when creating virtual versions from face-to-face learning

Mark Gilroy guest blogger for Lightbulb Moment

In volatile and uncertain economic climates, it’s essential for businesses to leverage the latest technologies to adapt to client demands. For TMSDI, an international provider of psychometric profiling tools, a key component in staying VUCA-proof has been the introduction of webinars and virtual classrooms to cater for train-the-trainer accreditation sessions. Although our traditional “on the ground” workshops have remained popular, in recent years we have found a strong demand for learning in a virtual classroom. Whether it’s for dispersed teams, clients who have limited travel budgets, or the time-poor learner, webinars have helped our business stay agile.

That’s not to say that we haven’t made any mistakes. Here are some that we’ve encountered, and some ideas for how to avoid them:

1) Preparing the same type of slides as you’d use in a face-to-face session

I’ll be honest- I’m not a huge fan of PowerPoint. In a face-to-face sessions I frequently work with flipcharts, physical props, and movement to help convey important concepts. Any slide decks that I do use are often very limited, and ideally there as a last resort to complement what is being discussed/shared.

Webinars demand a different approach. Assuming you are not using video/webcams, your participants will have just your voice to go on, so any visuals you have should be there to complement your audio content, capture attention, and inspire learning. In a virtual environment, the number of distractions is multiplied exponentially – it’s your job to use visuals as part of your toolkit to help maintain attention.

After much experimentation, we discovered a sweet spot: that 1 new slide should appear every 1-2 minutes. More-frequently and your audience will start to experiencing a strobing effect, less-frequently and attention begins to wander. And forget about the snazzy animations – in most virtual learning environments they will judder to a halt by the time your participants eventually see them due to limited bandwidth. Keep any slide builds simple, and go heavy on images, light on text. Haikudeck is a great place to start for webinar-friendly inspiration.

2) Forgetting to manage the energy in the room

Many trainers/facilitators share a preference for Extroversion.**

Depending on the psychometric tool and/or school of psychology that you subscribe to, this means that these types of facilitators have a high need for people contact, talking through their thoughts/ideas, and receiving energy/praise from others. Moreover, the energy that an Extrovert gives out should ideally be returned back to them in a continuous loop.

This can be a challenge when delivering in a virtual environment. For those who have a need for people contact, the lack of non-verbal, in-the-moment feedback is something that can feel a little like flying a plane in fog. Taking time to charge-up your personal energy before and after delivery will help, as will acknowledging that a more-extroverted presenter may feel more drained than usual compared to a piece of face-to-face delivery.

The same goes for participants. They also need to know you’re with them even if they can’t see you. How will you include their thoughts, questions, and contributions in the classroom to ensure no-one feels left out? Which brings us neatly to the other tools of the virtual learning trade…

**Disclaimer: This is, naturally, a sweeping generalisation, based purely on my own experiences of working with a wide variety of trainers/facilitators. Importantly, this is not to say that Extroverted facilitators are necessarily better than those with an Introvert preference (I would go as far as saying some of the best facilitators I’ve worked with are more-Introvert). But…this is all still worth bearing in mind when managing your energy as a presenter.


3) Ignoring the features of a virtual classroom because you wouldn’t/couldn’t use them face-to-face

Most webinar platforms include tools that you often wouldn’t get an opportunity to use when face to face. They can add a lot to a session to assist in gauging your learners’ engagement, adjusting your pace, and creating virtual communities:

Polls are a great way to punctuate virtual learning- as part of a ‘what brings you here today’ intro, a mini-quiz to test knowledge, or a round-up activity to check-in on pace. Most webinar platforms enable live polls to be set-up either on-the-fly or before the webinar begins. The results can be displayed in real time and also as part of tailored follow-up to support learners long after the session finishes.

Collaborative whiteboards can be a great way of capturing questions/comments/ideas, ready for playback in the session, or afterwards. Some platforms (e.g. Webex) allow for breakout sessions and multiple whiteboards, meaning that you can split groups off to work together, then bring them back in plenary to share the output of their discussions. Plus, they can all be recorded automatically to save anyone having to type them up.

In an “on the ground” learning session, it can be disruptive to have people chatting throughout. In a virtual environment, live chat is an effective tool to help learners build connections, check their understanding, and capture questions in real time for the facilitator to tackle at an opportune moment.

4) Assuming technical difficulties won’t happen

There’s a delicate balancing act to tread here. It can be a big drain on resources to go ‘looking for Murphy’ and analyse every possible technical issue that could occur. On the other hand, neglecting to anticipate the most likely issues can mean, at best, your webinar starts much later than planned, or at worst – you have to cancel and reschedule.

Some of the most common issues we have found are:

Internet connection issues

We resolved this in two ways:

1) From our side – to avoid any interruptions or issues with bandwidth, we installed a dedicated broadband line just for webinars. This may seem a step too far, but it’s important to have a Plan B in the eventuality that your internet connection goes down.

2) From the participants’ side – making sure that they are aware that a minimum connection speed will be necessary, and that joining using a mobile data connection or free coffee shop wi-fi is unlikely to cut it.

Audio issues

Most virtual learning solutions have a built-in audio check, to test that the computer/device speakers are compatible with the learning platform you’re using. Label them and make sure your learners know that they’re there when they arrive.

If you’re running a virtual learning session, encourage people to join far ahead of time so that any issues with audio can be ironed out in time for starting. For high value training sessions, we also offer a one-to-one test a week or so beforehand to help make sure the experience is as it should be. Five minutes spent here could save a whole heap of worry on ‘show day’.

If you can, make sure you have a colleague on standby to direct your participants to for tech support so that your presenter can focus on their presenting.

Finally – if in doubt, use a headset. No-one likes the never-ending echo effect in a webinar where others are talking.

The ‘what does that button do’ problem.

A savvy webinar presenter needs to be a master of their panel of controls in order to deliver swan-like, whilst all manner of notifications, alerts and messages are appearing around them.

There’s an easy solution here. Practice, practice and practice again.

Practice ‘driving’ a webinar, pushing all the buttons – just to see what they do – in a safe environment, so that you can be super-confident of your tools and how to use them when the time comes. Of equal importance: practice being a passenger so that you can a sense of what your participants are hearing/seeing/experiencing as you guide them through their learning journey.

Mark GilroyPlease get in touch or leave a comment below to share some of your experiences delivering learning solutions in the virtual classroom.

About our guest blogger

Mark Gilroy is Managing Director of TMS Development International Ltd, a leading global provider of psychometric development tools designed to create, nurture and sustain high performing teams. Mark has a background in psychology and has been working in the L&D arena as an executive coach and team development facilitator for over a decade.