Lessons from our training pivot: How virtual presentations build soft skills and connections

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Written by

Patti Sanchez

Remember when everyone thought the pandemic shut-down was going to last a couple of weeks? We figured we’d catch up on our favorite shows, bake some loaves of bread, go on a few walks, then life would be back to normal. But then weeks turned into months. And months turned into…well, you know.

For a lot of companies, going remote was a huge change. Shifting work to a fully virtual format challenged managers and teams to rethink how they do everything, including training and talent development. Us, too. Before COVID, Duarte’s training division ran hundreds of in-person workshops each year. If people couldn’t come to us—and if we couldn’t go to them—what were we supposed to do?

The only thing we could do: We pivoted.

We began by analyzing our options. What virtual communication tools were available to us? How easy were they for facilitators and learners to use? Then we began to brainstorm ways to create the most engaging virtual experience. What characteristics of our in-person workshops would translate successfully in a virtual environment? Better yet, how might we transform our content and activities to exploit the potential of an online medium?

Once we’d designed a learning experience we were happy with, it was time to deliver. So we gave our facilitators a crash course on how to present well virtually, teaching them how to command the virtual stage while keeping remote learners engaged. We quickly realized that managing both the classroom and the chat room would be tough even for our most agile instructors, so we brought on producers to keep sessions running smoothly from backstage.

Yet, the biggest challenge we faced was less about technical difficulties and more about human ones. The transformative impact of our training has always been felt most deeply during the conversations that learners and facilitators have when they’re face-to-face with each other. Those moments of connection have led to lasting change and even lifelong friendships. But how do you create memorable moments when you’re not in the same room? Can you truly bond with another human being through a screen?

Ultimately, we discovered that the heart of the Duarte Method happens to be at the heart of powerful virtual communication as well: Empathy. Empathy is all about knowing your audience. Why they’re here, what they fear, and what they hope to achieve. Because when you understand your audience’s needs, you can craft communication that resonates with them.

There is a guiding principle at Duarte that keeps us empathetic: “Never deliver a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.” We figured the same principle applied to virtual workshops. So with empathy as our driving force, we gave our workshops a virtual makeover that we believed could rival, or even eclipse, our in-person gatherings. I’m happy to say that attendee feedback shows we’ve succeeded at making training that’s not only effective, it’s delightful.

Initially, I figured these virtual workshops would be a stopgap to get us through the shutdown, and before too long our customers would be calling us back onsite. But as the pandemic raged on, I realized virtual communication wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the pandemic simply accelerated the worldwide digital transformation that was already underway. As a result, every business will be largely reliant on virtual communication for the foreseeable future, and that includes online presentations.

Presenting virtually isn’t just about sharing slides—it’s about adapting the way you communicate for a remote audience. Through our pivot to virtual training, we’ve learned just how distracting and alienating the online environment can be for everyone involved. You have to be able to use technology tools to listen to your audience, interact effectively with them, and build rapport even through the camera lens. It also means varying your communication style—including content, visuals, and delivery—to keep their attention focused on you and fully engaged with your message.

Anyone who has been required to give a virtual presentation, or to watch one, knows how dull and draining they can be. But here’s the reality: While virtual presentations can be hard to do well, they don’t have to be. Virtual presentations can be persuasive. They can be dynamic. They can be engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, even moving. You just need the right soft skills.

That’s why I’ve written Presenting Virtually, the first in a series of Duarte guidebooks designed to help professionals develop the soft skills they need to succeed in today’s remote work environment. My goal with the book was to offer a practical roadmap to help anyone plan, craft, and deliver presentations that connect with online audiences. May it help you find your voice in this virtual world.

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