Going Virtual Without Giving Up the In-person Magic

By Michael Hudson
April 22, 2020
Illustration of people on a video conference

Like the rest of the world, we at Hudson didn’t see this coming. During our January strategy meetings, our goals for the year were as ambitious and optimistic as always. Our mission at Hudson is to transform leaders into better people and more effective change agents. In January, strategy for pursuing this mission revolved around pulling growth levers to bring the impact of our services to a wider audience. Business as usual, at Hudson.

On March 11th, everything changed. I walked into a meeting to discuss what we were going to do about our upcoming Coach Certification onsite scheduled for March 25th in New York. This program involved bringing 30 people together in the capstone experience of their 8-month coach certification journey.

“I think we have to do it virtually,” I heard someone say. The only option, to deliver our promise to our customer, and to continue functioning as an organization, was to go virtual. After nearly 35 years of delivering our program in face-to-face format, we now needed to turn our assumptions upside down, in 2 weeks. On March 11th, this much became clear. 

What was unclear was how it would be possible to recreate an experiential, somatic, intimate learning experience via videoconference where participants could feel fully connected to one another. Our program is extremely interactive. We create a highly participative learning environment where our students engage deeply with one another and with our coach-faculty. It is an organic experience that changes depending on who is present, and what learning opportunities arise. It emphasizes interpersonal connection and relationships, and uses this as a medium for learning about coaching, which is itself a highly relational practice. All in all, we have prioritized the human element in everything we have created, and it seemed obvious that this could not be recreated in a virtual setting. Or so we thought!

It's been a month of rapid innovation and learning about how to teach, model and experientially practice coaching approaches and skills in a virtual format. We've discovered that we've had to adapt but we didn't have to compromise. We were able to hold onto the things that make this experience so special.

Here are a few snapshots of what we have learned.

Big caveat: at Hudson, regardless of whether we are in-person or virtual, we are not teaching a course, we are provoking learning. This means that our in-person curriculum is highly interactive and engaging, not slide/visual dependent. If you are teaching a traditional course, your approach may look different.

Don’t change what you don’t have to change

Conventional wisdom says that it is not practical to try to do something in virtual format in the same way you would do it in-person. While this is often true, in facilitator-led environments on Zoom, we have learned that it is wise to not blow up your approach before trying it out. We have been pleasantly surprised by the level of connection and intimacy that is possible via Zoom, and as a result, some activities have translated quite well. This is not to say that everything will translate—it won’t. But our advice: try it first, before thinking about a redesign for virtual format.

When gathering in-person, dancing is a big part of Hudson culture. What can I say? We believe that dancing is a form of play that helps groups form and celebrate. Initially, we thought we would have to cut dancing from our virtual agenda. We spoke to our friend Damian Goldvarg, who is experienced in virtual coach training, and discovered that he successfully incorporates dancing in virtual format! We tried it, and we love it. Honestly, it was a beautiful way to connect, let go, and have fun together.

Optimize as needed

There are some practical ways to optimize that can keep you from compromising on important aspects of the experience. 

Keep it small enough, so that organic conversation is possible

We have learned that a class size of ~30 people works quite well. When beginning in virtual format, we expected to rely heavily on the chat box to receive and field questions from the class. In our experience, however, it is possible and preferable to organically take questions from the group (as long as you are about 30 people or less). Avoiding the chat box when possible allows students to engage with each other, not the technology, and conversation feels more human.

Tip: make sure that your students are using headsets, as this approach will involve several people being off mute, and headsets are great for isolating the speaker from background noise.

Keep presentations short

As a general rule, we have taken the lessons of experiential learning seriously. When holding programs in-person, our coach- faculty rarely present for longer than 15-20 mins. Participants learn best with small segments of learning modules followed by application and practice.  We used this same philosophy in our virtual approach.  Longer than that, and the audience gets distracted or disengaged, and the risk of this happening is elevated when teaching virtually.

Use small group breakouts liberally

To break things up, find opportunities to drop your class into small groups of 4-8 people to discuss and apply concepts you are teaching. Where appropriate, we have found that we can send a coach-faculty member to these breakouts, so that they can continue to instruct on new concepts during the breakout sessions.

Variety is key to keeping people engaged!

Tip: as long as your students have decent headsets, try leaving everyone off mute during small group sessions of 4-8 people. Although this runs counter to some popular guidance, we find that it allows for much more natural conversation and most of the time background noise is not an issue in smaller numbers.

Get creative to fill in the blanks

There is no playbook for how to teach your course virtually. We have met with dozens of virtual learning experts from around the globe, and received a lot of useful tips. But ultimately, we have found the greatest success when we have looked at the learning objectives for each session, and allowed ourselves to be creative in adapting them to the new format.

Think about how you can use distance from the camera for experiential learning. We have a module where we have students roll back in their chairs to simulate distance from the speaker.

Consider having some participants turn their video off to create more focus on specific people. When we are doing coaching labs—practice coaching sessions in small groups—we have those who are observing turn their cameras off, and it creates a feeling that just the coach and client are in the room together. In some ways this is an improvement on the in-person experience!

Get a lot of feedback

Anybody who knows Hudson knows that we looooooove feedback. This is no different. It is not enough to retool your curriculum and polish some nice looking slides. We have learned an immense amount from running countless “dress rehearsals,” where we present content, and then give feedback.

Everything has to be on the table. Micro feedback around sound quality, background, lighting, and tone of voice will make a big difference in the overall experience. Bigger feedback around delivery style, how frequently to involve the audience, and how much to use slides will make your program engaging and fun. Prime your team to be prepared to provide and receive a lot of feedback! Although certain approaches are similar in virtual format, it is easy to forget the basics of facilitation when sitting in front of a screen.

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We are certainly not the only ones doing this—but as a business with a deep belief that experiential learning and human connection is critical to the adult learning process, we hope our perspective will be of use to others along the way. If you are interested in diving deeper into various aspects of virtual learning, I recommend this database of resources from over 400 institutions of higher learning, this guide on thinking creatively about zoom, and this podcast from a16z on how they took their crypto startup school virtual in a week.

In just over a month, we have learned an incredible amount, and transformed our work in many ways. We are optimistic about what this means for the future of coach training—new doors are open to us and we will continue forging ahead to find new ways to train masterful coaches, no matter what curveballs the world throws at us next. As we teach in coaching—adversity often stimulates valuable learning and growth. This has certainly been the case for Hudson over the last month. Onward and upward.

About Author
Picture of Michael Hudson
Michael Hudson

Michael serves as COO and Head of Professional Programs at the Hudson Institute of Coaching. Prior to Hudson, he spent 10 years living in the developing world, working in social entrepreneurship. Michael is passionate about generating impact in the world, and he believes coaching is a powerful medium for developing leaders and creating a more purpose-driven world.