15 need to know tips for online facilitators

March 2020, Esther van der Storm


Hey facilitators, trainers and coaches. Do you often work with groups? And are you looking for ways to do that online? Then this article is for you. Just like you, facilitating online was unknown territory to me when COVID-19 hit. I did not want to do it before. Why would I? Facilitating face-to-face workshops was way too much fun for me!


After our Dutch prime minister first gave his first press conference – announcing that all events with more than 100 people were cancelled – I first spent an hour in shock. And then I went googling, looking for ways to facilitate online.


Last week, I experimented with online brainstorming together with my STORMPUNT colleagues. We organized two online test brainstorms to gain experience doing these online. The valuable lessons that we learned to make an online workshop a success can be found in  this blog. I also wrote a blog post comparing the online brainstorm tools Miro and Mural.


All right, back to those facilitator skills. I now have facilitated a number of online sessions. What I learned is that facilitating a group from behind your computer screen, is not the same as doing it face-to-face with everyone in the same room. Below I share fifteen tips that you should know when you start facilitating sessions online:


1.  Prepare yourself really well. Create a session plan and make sure that all materials you may need are within hands reach. In short, be prepared. Especially when online facilitation is new to you, you really need to invest some time in it.


2.  Develop your digital skills. Make sure you know how the tools work. I work mostly with Zoom and Miro. I have experimented with both tools first, and did two ‘test runs’ with a colleague before doing the first paid session. That really taught me so much right away! Also an important one, practice looking straight into the webcam. It’s very weird when you’re guiding a session and you are not addressing the participants directly. Tip: place your Zoom window directly under the webcam.


3.  Make sure you share all required information in advance. Maybe a ‘duh, off course!’ tip, but let people know at what time the session starts and what tools you are going to use. Also useful to give instructions when participants need to create an account.


4.  Start your session with an exercise to break the ice. Getting to know each other is a great way to start a session, also online. With strangers, but I also do this with teams that have been working together for a long time. Example of an exercise you can do: ‘Show an object from your house that makes you happy and briefly explain why it does so’. This immediately creates a pleasant, informal atmosphere at the start of your online session.


5.  Set rules for online collaboration. It is important to discuss with participants how to interact online. Are people on mute by default? Do you let them react to each other or not? My experience after having run a few online sessions, is that with groups of up to 8 people you can leave everyone unmuted. Mute participants (or ask them to mute themselves) only when there is a lot of background noise. Agree to raise your hand on the video if you want to say something. Also important: agree that everyone listens carefully to each other. And intervene as a facilitator if you see that someone fails to take the floor.


6.  Give a mini-tutorial.Probably your participants do not yet know the tools you will be using. Therefore, start with a brief explanation of the tools and the features that you will use. Share your screen, so you can walk participants through the tool while you explain it to them. My experience is that out of pure enthusiasm (“Hey, I can paste post-its… and have them change color!”) people do not pay much attention to your story anymore if you do not tightly control the setting.


7.  Give clear instructions. Online it is even more important than normal that you give crystal clear instructions. After all, you have less options to check if the group really understood what you said. Regularly check if there people have questions, because the ‘soft’ cues that people normally give are easily missed when working online.


8.  You define the structure, not the team. One of the disadvantages of a tool like Miro is that every participant can change things on the board. During my first session that happened in full. For example, the post-its were not all of the same size, people started to resize posters I use on the boards, etcetera. Lock everything that needs to be locked and explain your participants that locked things are locked for a reason. That way you keep everything readable and working well.


9.  Add a break at least every hour. Online brainstorming is hard work, also for participants! All of us have to get used to the fact that we suddenly communicate so much online. Make sure you plan enough exercise moments and short breaks. During a break, I like to put on some music, that works very well. Alternatively, use an energizer, for example have people imitates each other’s movements?


10.  Be on alert for people dropping-out. Participating in a session at home, on a computer screen… distractions are lurking. It is easy for participants to quickly check that new message, or to react to a question from the children, or to… This is not (always) bad, but if you notice people zoning out, it is good to subtly involve them in the process again. Hey [name], what do you think is a nice idea to elaborate on now?


11.  Use timers. I regularly use time boxed methods. Examples are idea selection or working in subgroups to develop ideas. As a remote participant, it is nice to see how much time is left. As a facilitator in a program like Miro, you can choose to run a clock that is visible to all participants.


12.  Work in subgroups. In Zoom you can have participants work in small groups in break-out rooms. Participants find working in breakout rooms a lot of fun and pleasant to do; take it easy in pairs and work on something. Be aware that these break-out rooms may be a bit challenging for you as a facilitator because you cannot listen in secret to learn how things are going. Unsolicited or solicited invasion is possible though. Or you can send chat messages with instructions.


13.  Ensure a positive end to the session. Like creating the right atmosphere at the start, it is equally important to end it well. Finish on time. Do a simple exercise to close the session. For example, have people write down one word which symbolises the meeting for them. And stay in the video call for a while afterwards. Just like in a normal session, people sometimes like to be able to unwind together.


14.  Dare to make mistakes. There is always something that goes wrong in a session, or you cannot find a button. That is really no problem, participants understand that completely. So do not keep testing and trying tools yourself for too long before running real sessions on it. At some point you just have to go online. Just do it!


15.  Make it fun. Have a cup of tea, put some music in the background and make fun with the group. If there is a lot of laughter, you know that the energy is high!


Would you like to learn how to achieve the same or even better better results from an online session as you would from a face-to-face session? Sign up for one of our Online Training Courses to learn all our facilitator tips, tricks and creative methods.