Less than 15 minutes into the daylong “Champions of Learning” virtual conference hosted last week by colleagues in the ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter, I was already completely engaged and fully attentive.
This was a group that understood the importance of creating a welcoming tone and ambience at the beginning of any event, regardless of whether it is onsite or online. This was a group that didn’t overlook the small stuff behind any large, successful gathering. And this was a group that was using its commitment to engagement and interaction to be sure that participants would have few, if any, temptations to step away from “the room” before the event had reached its conclusion.
We often hear (and repeat) the idea that “the devil is in the details.” I would suggest that our ATD South Florida Chapter colleagues subscribe to the idea that “the angels are in the details,” and do everything they can to flood our virtual rooms with angels that beckon us to their gatherings. Those angels (volunteers, every one of them), during the weeks and days leading up to the conference, provided an appropriately steady stream of encouraging email messages designed to prepare participants—our co-conspirators in the learning process—for an event that focused on the content rather than the (virtual) setting and the technology needed to make that gathering successful. We were told that there would be a beginning-of-the-day session that included a “platform overview” for anyone wanting to explore the technology we would be using to interact with presenters/session facilitators as well as with each other. We knew the opening session would also give us plenty of time to interact with each other to, as much as possible, create the same levels of positive engagement we experienced at onsite gatherings before the shelter-in-place guidelines we have been following for nearly a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic pushed us completely into online interactions.
The series of pre-event email messages also included separate notes about each of the sessions, including the specific links we would follow to attend any of four breakout workshops and other events scheduled throughout the day; this gave us a chance to add those events and links to our own personal online calendars so, on the day of the event, we wouldn’t have to hunt through our archived email messages to find those direct links. And then, in an act that was possible because of the limited number of sessions, our “angels” resent those links, via email, shortly before each session began so that we could move directly from our email inboxes into the events. Recognizing that this would be an impossible and burdensome approach for organizers of much larger gatherings, I also recognize that this was yet another example of conference organizers thinking proactively of what they could do to make the virtual-conference experience—or any other online learning opportunity operating at a similar scale—as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.
Opting for a morning workshop on “Awesome PowerPoint Tricks for Effective Presentations” (led by BrightCarbon Director Richard Goring) after the conclusion of the opening session/platform review, I was expecting to pick up a few tips on how to up my game in PowerPoint. To say that the nearly two-hour session exceeded expectations would be to unforgivably downplay the breadth and depth of what Goring offered all of us: an overwhelmingly positive and impressive overview of numerous tips and tricks that included demonstrations of what he was describing, and the all-important assurance that we would have plenty of opportunities to return to an archived recording of the session so we could more fully incorporate what he was describing into our own work, e.g., how to mask and highlight elements of an image to more effectively use that image on a slide; how to quickly align disparate elements and images on a slide with one command rather than a series of actions involving every separate element; and locating and using sites (including pexels.com, pixabay.com, and lifeofpix.com) that provide numerous free images we can incorporate into our work.
For many of us, the anticipated high point of the day was the combination of a celebration of local (South Florida) colleagues’ work as champions of learning—those who, by example, remind the rest of us of what our most innovative colleagues are doing to make learning more engaging and transformative—and a keynote address by Elaine Biech, who has inspired many of us through her numerous books and other work in talent development (aka teaching-training-learning). Again, the chapter angels turned a challenge—having to move what is normally an onsite celebration into the online conference environment—into a “champions of learning” success story by having each nominee for the 2021 Champion of Learning awards provide a short, from-the-heart video describing the project. The result was a celebration within the main celebration—our celebration of how engagingly our colleagues embraced the video-presentation format to describe the successful projects so that we were as inspired by the playfulness of the videos as we were by the actual content.
And then there was Elaine: Warm. Engaging. Inspirational, as always. And right on target with a presentation and interactions with conference participants that reminded us of how to “Develop Your Best Self and Tale Charge of Your Career.” When it comes to your career, she reminded us at one point, don’t be beige; be brilliant. And develop your best self. Which is pretty much where she left us by the end of that session, as we headed into an afternoon of additional learning and interaction centered on the champions of learning among us.
Following Anne Beninghof into her “Caffeinated Virtual Training: How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Learning” session, I again learned as much observing a presenter’s approach to presenting virtually as I did from the rich content offered. It was as if she were somehow reaching cross-country from Florida to where I was sitting (in San Francisco) and knew just when to switch things up—as she did, approximately an hour into the session, by telling all of us to get out of our chairs, move away from our computers for a moment, and simply move around to keep from falling into a complete state of torpor from having been sitting in that country-wide learning space for several hours. That, and her focus on making everyone in the room a co-conspirator in learning, produced another memorably playful session and led us to the final two sessions—one for closing remarks and door prizes, the other a virtual happy hour that left us right where we started several hours earlier that day. Reminded that virtual conferences, when well designed and well executed, are no hindrance to fostering a sense of community and engagement. Reminded that spending time with our colleagues in online environments is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity we cannot afford to miss—particularly in pandemic, social-distancing times. And reminded that, when we observe and promise to build upon the positive experiences we have with our colleagues in online learning environments, we and the learners we serve are the real winners.
–N.B.: This is the twenty-ninth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.