Behind the scenes of a virtual workshop

Updated: May 6, 2021

(...and practical tips)


Online workshops, virtual meetings, remote work. Is it really just your laptop, a zoom session and yourself in a quite corner of your home office? As virtual facilitator, I want to create dynamic, productive and immersive experiences for the participants. Here is how the working space and technical setup help me get you there. Welcome to a Virtilitation studio!


To be very clear from the beginning: Trained facilitators are capable of delivering a very solid virtual workshop experience with just as much as a laptop computer. But, can't we go much further than this? When virtual facilitation becomes a daily routine, would you not be happy to have more than just the most basic tools at your disposal. You might ask: Why limit ourselves? Because, virtual workshops can be so much more.


To create a space and technical setup which keeps welcoming me to work, every day, a space that makes it easy and comfortable to go 'live' in a matter of seconds, leaves me with an extremely generous and motivating feeling. And this feeling translates into my workshops: I genuinely enjoy working with people remotely. And I think, most of them can feel it. The studio, the equipment - just means to an end. But it helps creating something, to take virtual facilitation to the next level.


Here are the 5 most important elements of my setup, I would like to share with you, combined with some first hand experiences and tips:


High, adjustable table

Let's not start off with tech, but with a very simple fact related to how our human bodies work: I discovered that I perform my role as virtual facilitator best while standing. My body is upright, I have space to move and can easily enter a variety of postures. My mind and body remain fresh and dynamic, enabling me to give lively inputs or quickly react in almost any situation. For longer sessions, this means standing for 6-7 hours - but for me, it is worth the price. Participants love the high level of energy it generates and which usually bounces over to them. What is your experience with this?

Computers

I use two laptops: Firstly, a Win10 based one with a high-end configuration (4 core i7, 32 GB RAM, dedicated graphics card) as my main device to run all applications during live sessions. All my peripherals, such as monitor, camera, microphone, speaker, keyboard and mouse are connected to this device. It might also be a good choice to abstain from laptops as main device and rather choose a powerful desktop system. Secondly, a Macbook with a basic configuration (4 core i5, 8 GB RAM, integrated graphics) to display my workshop script or agenda and to serve as a backup system, in case of any technical issues with the main laptop. With this combination, I am able to run any kind of software and peripherals if everything works fine (which is usually the case) or to fall back to a basic, yet fully functional configuration in a bluescreen or crash scenario. In the worst case, it takes about 30 seconds to completely switch from one device to the other - and to continue where we left off.

'Clients forgive a mediocre video feed, but what they will not forgive is mediocre or bad audio.'

Sound

The audio input comes from a Rode NT2-A XLR-condenser microphone - a semi-professional device for studio voice recording. The fitting audio interface (to connect the mic to the computer via USB) is my good old Edirol UA25, with 2 XLR-inputs, phantom voltage and integrated limiter, which I purchased back in 2004 and recorded my first songs with ;). A Bose Soundlink mini serves as a speaker and takes up almost no desk space at all. When you use speakers instead of headphones, make sure to position your microphone well, so there won't be any annoying feedback noise. Zoom and MS Teams do a good job in noise cancelling and feedback noise suppression. So generally, this should not become to much of a problem. The advantage of using speakers and a 'desk' microphone is that you will not experience any fatigue as compared to wearing a head set. Even the best head sets will become noticeable or slightly uncomfortable on your body over time. Also, as integrated laptop microphones usually pick up audio from all directions, most desk mics will give you a clearer, more present voice and less risk of feedback noise. The Backup for my sound system are the integrated microphones and speakers in the Macbook (if everything else goes down the drain, they still get the job done).

One cannot overestimate the value of good sound quality for an immersive virtual experience. My sound peripherals alone are worth around 700 EUR. And I will continue to invest in them, as there still is a lot of room for improvement. Have you ever wondered, why radio stations or recording studios sometimes invest tens of thousands of Euros into their voice capture and enhancing equipment? But of course, one does not have to go that far: Even switching from an integrated laptop mic or a cheap head set to as little as a 50 EUR USB desk mic (no further hardware needed - just plug & play) will already allow you a significant boost in audio quality.

Light

Position yourself in front of a window or natural light source during the daytime and you will usually be OK. Your image will be reasonably bright and clear, even if your webcam is not the best. But what about low light situations? Usually, the regular room or office lights will struggle to provide enough luminosity for a webcam. As a result, the image will be grainy and a bit dark. Or the position of the light source might not fit yours or your camera's (silhouettes, shadows). The image will not be nearly as good as during bright daylight. With the help of classic soft boxes or flat LED studio lights you can easily - and significantly - improve your video feed. Even with the most basic webcam. I still had a pair of soft boxes lying around from previous photo and video shootings - so I gave them a new purpose... A ring light would be a good and easy alternative as well. Sometimes it makes more sense to invest into lighting than into a new camera.



Camera

My main camera is a Sony Alpha 5100. Compared to standard webcams (even high-end ones such as the Logitech Brio 4K), it offers much more control over the image quality, allows direct monitoring thanks to its flipped display and has, in combination with the standard lens that comes along with it, the capacity to create a slight cinematic background blur (bokeh effect). The camera and its lens performs significantly better in low-light scenarios than any other webcam I used before. You will need less light to achieve the same / a better image quality. But, if for any reason, the Alpha 5100 should not work, I can easily switch back to the integrated webcam in the main laptop and in the Macbook. Don't forget: If you want to use a camera (DSLR, camcorder, etc.) other than a webcam, you will usually need a capture card to translate the incoming HDMI-Signal from the camera into the computer's USB-port (the HDMI-ports on your computers are only capable of sending a signal out to a monitor, they cannot receive it).


Final thought

In the end, it is - and always will be - the facilitators mindset, skills, methods and techniques that make or break a workshop. Be it virtual or face-to-face. Tech does not and cannot replace these capabilities. What it can do, though, is to help transfer all of them onto the screens and into the rooms of remote workshop participants. To translate your vision as facilitator into a virtual language.


Working with Martin & /Virtilitation:

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