Virtual Spaces: How To Teach & Engage With Virtual Communities

I’ve been self-employed for three years and after landing remote gigs in my first couple of months and enjoying the freedom and flexibility, I decided to “default to remote” with everything I worked on.

Two years ago I moved to Asia and “default to remote” went from a nice idea to the only option to continue to with my consulting business. In addition, it gave me useful constraints that forced me to think more deeply about how to build a lasting life and work by creating and working digitally.

Over that time, I’ve worked in many different ways with Zoom as the central tool I’ve used. This includes:

So what follows is a working list of some of what I’ve learned. I’m going to assume that you are using Zoom, though many of the principles and options are very similar in other tools such as Skype, Slack & Whereby. 

But first, welcome to what I see as the inevitable future of work — a future that is built on being remote and distributed and gives people more space to live and design their life.

None of this is easy, but I find that many people have a hard time “going back” once they’ve adapted to working online. Best of luck as you embrace this shift towards virtual collaboration and send me any additional tips you might have.

Nail The Basics – Four Tips Before You Dive In

#1 Get Used To Video Being On

I’ve worked with many people that refuse to use video even when most other people are using it. I get it, you don’t look your best or you don’t want to look at yourself on the screen.

However, having your video on focuses your attention and keeps you from surfing the web or checking your e-mail (a little bit at least!)

Research from UCLA has shown that while not as good as an in-person, video communication is better than audio and text communication for “affiliation cues” a predictor of bonding.

This study was done in 2013 when failed video calls were probably more the norm than the exception. I would not be surprised if video chat creeps closer and closer to in-person connection over the next decade.

Another finding from the same study was that “those who used video chat more frequently reported greater bonding with friends through video chat,” meaning that the more you get used to video communication, the better it will be.

#2 Practice troubleshooting

No matter how many video calls you’ve been on, at some point your speaker and microphone will decide to take the day off. The key in this situation is to have a couple backup options ready and to know where to look to fix the problem. 

When I launch a zoom meeting, I always go to the sound options and select my external microphone and external headphones. This is the setup I prefer as at minimizes background noise and delivers a high-quality sound to the other person.

Don’t forget to check your keyboard or sound options in the tray to see if you’ve muted your own microphone or speakers. Many people often forget the simplest option. 

Finally, if nothing works, consider the always handy restart to let the computer sort itself out.

#3 Consider Upgrading Your Equipment

Having a good video camera and microphone can dramatically improve the experience of a conversation for the other participants. Being able to clearly hear you and see you will help others stay engaged in the event. 

If your computer doesn’t have a nice video camera, you might want to consider buying a simple external camera. Here are my recommendations:

In terms of microphones, there are a lot of good options, including the standard Apple wired earpods. I personally use a more expensive microphone because I also use it for podcasting. Here are some recommendations from my own use and friends:

If you are using wired earphones: Here is a tip if you are using wired earphones — sometimes the microphone rubs against your clothes as you move. It’s a good idea to ask someone on the call how you sound to confirm you don’t have a constant “ruffling” sound when you talk.

#4 Better Eye Contact

Until engineers design computers with a camera at the center of the monitor, video conversations will continue with everyone looking slightly below their cameras.

Two quick hacks I’ve used to improve my eye contact with the camera is to hide my own self-view and to position the people towards the top of the screen (works best in a smaller conversation)

Putting my zoom app towards the top of my screen

Removing self view

No more distracting self!


10 Lessons I’ve Learned Facilitating Groups For Online Courses

These tips apply for groups of 5–20 people. For larger groups, you probably want to put more emphasis on staying on time and coming up with a process for screening questions and involving guests in the session but a lot of these principles still apply.

#1 You are closer to an entertainer than professor

We often try to map our offline experience into the online world and this is a mistake, especially for online learning. 

The online learning facilitator is more entertainer than professor. I agree with David Perell, who is building a promising school helping people learn to write, share and create online:

The line between learning and entertainment will blur. Learning demands emotion and energy. The best professors will be inspiring, entertaining, and personality-driven. They’ll establish emotional connections with students, at scale.

We need less professor who turns their back away from the crowd

and more street performer:

You are someone that cultivates curiosity, enabling people to be on the edge of their seat wondering “how does that happen?” and “what comes next?” rather than worrying about what you need to know for the test.

#2 Level up your energy level slightly beyond what is comfortable

As the facilitator, people are looking at you to set the tone for engagement and energy. While you don’t want to be screaming at the group, you do want to be 100% focused and bringing some energy to the call.

One practice I’ve found helpful in making me more aware of my energy level is to practice delivering a speech in front of a mirror and increasing my energy and volume well beyond what would be appropriate for a small audience. This helps desensitize you to energy increases that might be more acceptable, but useful when doing things like facilitating online Zoom sessions. 

Tip: Ask a member of the group before a session to observe your energy levels throughout the session and to provide feedback afterward on what you could do to improve.

#3 Outline a clear agenda & set expectations

At the beginning of each session, I give the group an outline of what they should expect and how long each session will take. 

It may not seem vital, but sticking to the times you propose (or asking the group for permission to be flexible on the time) is important for maintaining trust with the group.

Before the sessions, I write down the takeaway I want the students to have for each section. This is a simple intention and often the insights raised by the group are unexpected and even better than I could have designed.

Throughout the session, I take notes on the key points made in each session so I can help summarize towards the end of the session and use them in a recap e-mail I send afterward. 

I’ve found that 15–20 minutes is a good amount of time for a “block” right amount of time to introduce a section, have some space for discussion and then to wrap it up and move on to something else.

In addition to setting the agenda, is setting expectations and norms of the discussion. I typically offer the following guidelines:

  • Aim to stick to a maximum of 2–3 minutes for individual reflections and expect to be cut off if we need to stay on time with the agenda
  • If you have any concerns or issues, send them in a direct message
  • If you have something simple to add, don’t be afraid to message it to the whole group

#4 If you use slides, use engaging images and big text

I typically use slides and share my screen, but shy away from using the densely packed slides with 10 point font that I saw all the time in my past as a consultant.

I’ve written quite deeply about persuasion & presentation principles, including details like font and background colors, but for video calls I keep it pretty simple. I stick to simple messages, large font, and images that tend to make people smile, inject playfulness or make people think.

#5 Assign lectures, readings, reflections to do before the call

Don’t use a virtual session to deliver a lecture. If you have a lecture you want to deliver, record it ahead of time and having people review it before the session. 

This is the cadence I use for my online courses:

Before the session:

  • Watch & review lectures (typically 30–90 minutes of video content)
  • Read any pre-reading
  • Complete mini-exercises (if applicable)
  • Consider 2–3 reflection questions prior to the call

During the session:

  • Group working session on the exercises & assignments
  • Create space for shared reflections & takeaways from the readings & lectures

For optimal engagement, you want to have as many people as possible who are doing the pre-reading. If you are running a free or open event, the percentage of people who are “prepared” will be low, but think about ways to identify the people who can contribute most to the conversation.

One other option for Zoom calls is to co-watch something together. Zoom works quite well for sharing full screen videos, especially on Youtube. When you click share you have the option at the bottom to optimize it for full-screen video.

I try to limit clips and other media to 90 seconds or less. If you have something longer, ask them to watch it before the session.

#6 Show progress throughout the call

As I progress through the call I use the agenda slide and highlight where we are in terms of time and section of the overall call:

#7 Manage the conversation

Managing the overall flow of the conversation is more art than science and takes a while to get used to. The larger the group, the stricter you want to be in the time you give people to speak.

A couple things that work:

  • Speaking time suggestions: Give people a guideline length to think about their contributions (“keep your comments to 2-3 minutes, if possible)
  • Set expectations: If you tell people you will cut people off at the beginning of the call, it can be less harsh when you do it later.
  • Cold Calling: Everyone hated cold calling in school, but it works. Even if you only cold call once or twice, it will give people the incentive to pay attention. Use the first cold call of each session on someone you know who is prepared and ready to contribute.
    Remember: Don’t go out of your way trying to embarrass people who are not paying attention and give them the right to “pass.”
  • Sending A Message To The Group: Give the audience a heads up that you’ll be moving to the next section of the call (“in five minutes we will move to breakout rooms”)

Managing group calls on video is often a trade-off between giving people space to share and staying on track with the outlined agenda. If you feel something emerging also be ready to acknowledge that and pivot the focus of the conversation.

Another thing I like to do at the end of calls if people have not spoken is to say something like “hey, __________, I noticed you haven’t shared, do you have anything to add? feel free to pass of course.”

#8 Facilitate 1-on-1 interactions between the group during and outside of the call

If you are facilitating a session you may take for granted that you have an individual relationship with each of the participants. However if you really want to increase the engagement level for the whole group you need to facilitate 1-on-1 interactions between the group. 

When running online courses, the sessions always get better the more sessions we have because the participants get to know each other. 

While people may connect naturally outside of the call, one powerful tool is Zoom’s “breakout rooms” feature which I think will begin to take off as more people know about it.

This is a great way to enable 1-on-1 conversations and can also be used for smaller breakout discussions that don’t make sense in a large 10+ person group. They typically work best when you have a prompt question for people to answer and discuss.

#9 Get your hands dirty & use a virtual whiteboard

I use Zoom’s tools to collaborate with the group and have found a lot of success using a “virtual whiteboard” approach. I create simple frameworks which can be used to fill in responses from the group and use Zoom’s annotate options which are available when you are sharing your screen:

In my consulting skills course and consulting work, I use screen sharing while I actively make changes to the PowerPoint or material we are working on, which helps people feel engaged in the process. Often I’ll also give up control to the participants so they can share their own solutions or lead some of the problem solving.

#10 Recap at the end & follow-up

At the end of the call I always try to summarize what I heard on the call, spend 2–3 minutes to share the next steps and to leave space for questions, comments and open discussion. 

I often block off my calendar and make sure that I don’t have anything after the virtual calls. Often people want to hang out a bit longer or want to connect in a smaller group. I try to keep the virtual room open for those connections to happen.

Finally, I copy the meeting comments and summarize the contents of the call in a follow-up email within one day. I often include things like book recommendations and/or contact information if it is relevant.

It Is Still Early For The Future of Learning So Don’t Be Afraid To Step Up and Teach

I’m excited for the future of learning. 

As hundreds of thousands of students (and possibly more) across the world are shifting from in-classroom to virtual learning, there will undoubtedly be many innovations and experiments that go well beyond what I’ve offered here. 

While a lot of the technology exists for people to teach their friends or broader audiences, most people do not take advantage of such opportunities.

We assume we need a credential before we can do something.

You don’t need to open a University, you just need to find one person that’s curious about what you want to teach and share. I started teaching strategy consulting skills to my colleagues while I was still working and then to students at my alma mater. I taught hundreds of people before it evolved into something people were telling me to charge for.

In my Reinvent course, there is an “action challenge.” This is a one-week challenge where you try to take action on engaging with the world through the web. Some people take the opportunity to launch a podcast or start a website or blog. Others take the opportunity to teach.

One of my students of a past cohort wanted to learn more about cooking so he decided that he would host a “cooking show” on Faecbook Live in seven days. Because of the pressure he put on himself, he panicked and spent the next six days actually learning the recipes and secrets from his grandmother.

You can also think about just engaging with people 1-on-1. A good friend wanted to explore coaching and put up a post on facebook saying they were going to host complimentary coaching sessions with the intent of it being a “learning internship” to figure out what she wanted to do next. That learning internship grew into her main focus and business that has helped to sustain her life.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect. I’m still learning a lot with everything I do online, but what keeps me going is the people I meet and the connections that emerge.

Since people have been told to work at home because of the pandemic, I’ve seen many people throwing up a zoom link and inviting people to join them to discuss meditation, a book, a virtual happy hour or even just to hang out.

Whether you like it or not a lot of our future is going online. The quicker you are willing to start sharing what you’re excited about and giving people a space to come join, the faster you will find the like minded weirdos that will help give meaning to your life.

The guide and tips I’ve offered are in no way complete, but I hope they inspire people to take the chance to teach & share what brings them alive.

See you online!

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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