Which is better, when we have the choice again? Here are some points to help you decide, from our experience of taking interactive group writing training online since March 2020.
As I write, face to face interactive writing training in most places must wait until it’s safe, practical, economic and legal to bring trainer and participants together. That gives us a choice:
- Wait for live interactive group training – we don’t know how much longer.
- Go online.
- Find another way to develop writing skills.
Advantage online: flexible format
It can be hard to get busy people to leave their desks for more than an hour or so. The half-day workshop has been a good compromise for many. In half a day, you can teach three or four of the most powerful techniques of good writing – enough to transform most people’s writing style – and touch on many others.
But now, it’s practical to split this into three or four shorter workshops, each focusing on one writing habit, with time between workshops to practise that habit. That’s an excellent approach and regularly suggested in ClarifyNow workshops. But travel time and costs make it impractical to deliver most face to face training in that format.
Deuce: visual aids
Much the same visual aids are available in the room and online: a slideshow of examples, a flipchart page or whiteboard to record the emerging principles, a page of exercises the participants can note up. In the room, the exercises are more likely to be printed out – but that doesn’t suit all participants. Given the chance, many prefer to work on a soft copy on their laptop.
However, in the room, participants can switch their attention instantly between each of these, the trainer and each other. Online, all must compete for time and for screen space. The need for a single channel forces us to go slower or sacrifice some of the communication.
Against this, the online format offers new flexibility: screen sharing (not limited to the presenter) makes it easy to demonstrate editing functions in Word or any programme. Document sharing allows participants to co-operate in joint editing. Participants can answer online questionnaires and see the results displayed instantly. But it still pays to keep it simple, within the limits of participants’ home IT equipment and skills.
Advantage face-to-face: rich communication
There’s no doubt that interactive training moves quicker and better in the room. Channels of communication are multiplied: body language is visible and non-verbal communication is unmuted. How cumbersome is the chat box, phone message or email, compared to the brief aside between colleagues? In the room, discussion is quicker and a person need only speak up to be heard, unmuted by background noise or a word from someone else.
Practical steps to improve interaction online:
- Smaller groups. 6 is ideal for training that could work well for up to 12 in a room.
- Use video. Everyone keeps their camera on throughout.
- Don’t mute. (Muting microphones when not speaking is still considerate if there’s background noise.)
- Ease up. Allow roughly 25% extra time to deliver the same content. Or sacrifice some content.
- Keep doing what works: As in face to face training, ask open questions, encourage the quiet ones to participate, and praise every answer.
Deuce: practical exercises
In principle, anything you can do in the room, you can do on screen. Participants can enter online breakout rooms, write on an online whiteboard, complete an online poll, write in chat boxes, raise their hands electronically.
Some regular participants in online meetings have not yet mastered all these controls, although that may still change. Practical steps to improve online exercises:
- Be creative and focused. A favourite exercise takes too long to explain online, or involves moving around the training room? Cut it down, split it up, focus on the main training message. Use online tools to meet a training need, not as a novelty.
- Be ruthless. Adapt or replace exercises that work well in the room. Are they still worth the time online?
- Test everything. Test every new idea and function on family and friends. Don’t guess what it will be like to participate – find out.
- Make it easy. Why should a participant raise a hand through 2 mouse clicks or an online poll, if they can raise their own hand in front of the camera? Why need they look in the chat box for information you could put up on the main screen? Every extra click is a chance to lose or confuse a participant.
Advantage face to face: privacy and recording
What happens in a training room is rarely confidential but it’s usually private. It takes courage to speak up and offer an answer that might be wrong, in front of colleagues. But everyone is in the same position and takes the same risk.
Online training offers a complete record in sound and video. Just tell the participants and press the button. Now, every mistake or weakness is exposed to unknown viewers outside the room – perhaps only in the same organisation, perhaps further afield. What are the chances now of hearing “Please explain that again, I didn’t understand”?
Against that, you need to set the value of the recording. What do you plan to do with it? Who will watch the video later, if they were too busy to book or attend the workshop? If you booked interactive training, what is the value of a video of people interacting, with no chance for the viewer to join in?
Practical steps to improve privacy and confidence online:
- Be explicit. Tell participants exactly how confidential (or not) the meeting is. If it’s recorded, say what you will do with the recording.
- Use the meeting settings. If the training is to be private, support that with whatever privacy settings the meeting software offers.
Deuce: travel and networking
We all know it. Take training online and you save travel time and cost, while losing the harder-to-measure value of bringing colleagues together to build relationships and share information.
The decision whether and when to bring colleagues together shouldn’t be dictated by a training need. Let’s hope that, before too long, a writing workshop will be a useful and enjoyable activity to promote team bonding and improve communication. In the meantime, you have the choice.
Another way: update templates
Templates have always been a little-used alternative to training. Training budgets and managers are common; template budgets and managers are not. But the invisible risks, buried in current templates, may outweigh the perceived risk of change.
Another way: feedback and management
In theory, feedback and management alone could fix juniors’ writing problems. In practice, managers lack the time and may not focus on the few changes that make the most difference. Training can supply that time and focus.
(Sadly, training cannot replace feedback and management. Most sensible workers don’t waste time changing habits if their manager seemed happy before. Managers who aren’t happy think that sending the junior on a course will fix the problem. It won’t, unless they know what the junior has been taught to do, ask to see it, and notice when it happens.)
Another way: buy StyleWriter or a book
If you learn best by reading, buy Clarity for Lawyers or (if you’re not a legal writer) the Oxford Guide to Plain English. If you learn best by doing, try StyleWriter, a Word add-in for PCs. If you are already committed to to clarifying your own writing, then you can learn all you need from these.
Books and software will have little impact on anyone who already believes their writing is clear enough. Interactive training can disrupt that belief and give writers enough of the readers’ experience to convince them to apply a few simple techniques that work.
This article is about the value of the alternatives available. You know your budget. Training decisions shouldn’t be about money – but we’ve thought of an offer to help out, anyway.
ClarifyNow prices frozen for 2021
ClarifyNow has taken its training online, for smaller groups, at no extra cost to its clients. And we’re now taking bookings, at 2020 prices, for autumn and winter 2021. (Cancellation is free of charge until a few weeks before the workshop.)