Last week, I finished teaching a 6-week graduate course in public speaking for the Harvard Kennedy School, The Arts of Communication. It’s a course for which I used to fly from DC to Boston every week. This year, however, Harvard moved its spring courses to Zoom and I had one week to adapt the course from in-person to virtual.


Logging in for our first day of class, peering at the gallery of unfamiliar faces over Zoom, my students and I were understandably apprehensive. Could we really take the intimacy of an in-person classroom and create community and trust online, especially when we had never met in person? One of my students was still on the fence and openly shared her fear that class would be a waste of time and an ineffective way to learn public speaking. I told her that, if she would make the commitment to participate fully in the class, then I would make the commitment to ensure she would learn from it. 


Our apprehension quickly melted away the moment we dove into our coursework. Every week, students would show up and talk about something they were grateful for. From my corporate training work at Global Public Speaking, I knew that the more adult students are talking, the more they are learning. So I spent hours adapting my in-person content to keep that interactivity in a virtual format, identifying specifically where I would use polls, the chatbox, and the “raise hand” feature so that we had interactivity every 10 minutes. We made liberal use of virtual breakout groups, where students could practice a skill, receive peer feedback, and then come back to the large group for debrief and discussion. That way, every single student spoke multiple times in each class. Our chatbox engaged a rich discussion as students answered my questions and debated one another on the merits of a speech structure or speaking style, diving into such topics as how to overcome an audience’s stereotypes, how to best to tell a personal story without sounding clichéd, and what themes resonate across sectors, industries, and cultures. My course assistant would summarize those discussions and we’d often call on a student to un-mute themselves and verbally add to the discussion. Each student gave three speeches per course, which for 30 students meant we heard 90 speeches over the course of 6 weeks.


At around the same time that class went virtual, I had planned to lead a 1-day public speaking training for Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL), and we made the decision to offer that class virtually as well. This was very different: my 6-week course was a two-hour class that met twice weekly with 30 students. This CPL course, however, would be a single 6-hour course that I would teach virtually to 120 students


I’ve learned that adapting in-person content to a virtual medium takes about the same amount of time as the class itself. Therefore, a 6-hour course took me about 6 hours to adapt the exercises and content. We broke the course down into four 75-minute modules with a 30-minute break in between each one for individual work. We decided to move the last module to one week later so students had time to apply what they learned and then come back and ask questions – something we couldn’t have done in person. 


Similar to my 6-week course, students engaged through the chatbox, wrote and delivered speeches in 50 concurrent digital breakout groups, and even volunteered to speak in front of the entire class and receive feedback. I didn’t use slides: I stood up and talked to the camera lens and used an old-fashioned flipchart behind me for the agenda. I wrote exercise instructions on a Google doc and put the link in the chatbox so students could refer to it during breakout groups. All students kept their videos on the entire time so we could see one another which increased accountability and made students more present.


Much to my surprise, the 1-day course was just as energizing as in-person. In contrast to an in-person training, I felt like we picked up energy throughout the day and was floored when, at the conclusion of that day, 30 students chose to stay an extra half an hour to ask questions. 


Energized by the ability to invest a significant amount of time online and see a positive impact, I returned to my 6-week course full of optimism and excitement. The students responded in kind and, together, we built a community every single week. 


Every year, my favorite part of the class is when students share their third and final speeches: they choose to highlight one of their personal values and tell a story about a time they learned that value. I purposefully save this exercise for last because, by the end of the semester, we have built up enough trust where students feel safe sharing stories with one another that they may never have spoken publicly before. I wondered how those stories would come across this time over Zoom.


I needn’t have worried. This year, as in the past, their stories blew me away. I cannot share examples without betraying their confidence, but I can share that their stories reflected themes such as courage, compassion, vulnerability, and hope. We saw incredible progress in each speaker: their structure, language, pacing, and power all significantly improved over the semester. They stood up, raised their laptops to eye level, and used their hands, face, and voice to add strength and purpose to their words, using all available communication tools to connect with their audience. 


Their confidence and passion poured through the camera lens and struck me right in the heart. Many of their speeches brought me and their classmates to tears. The feedback they gave one other in the chatbox was compassionate, respectful, and challenging. Not only was the feedback as substantive as it would have been in person, it was actually more so, because more students could weigh in on the chatbox as we could have accommodated in person. And we recorded the classes and saved the chat text so speakers could go back and learn from the feedback.  


During our last class, students were reticent to log off at the end. There was something about hitting “end meeting” that felt like it would end the safe space we had created in the classroom.  There was talk of creating a WhatsApp group or some other way to stay connected going forward. We weren’t ready to let go.


I don’t know what our community will look like going forward, but I know this: 30 strangers came together and created a sense of community and connection in a virtual classroom. They learned concrete skills and made measurable progress. They left the class with strategies and confidence to represent their ideas, their values, and their mission in a virtual or in-person setting. And they left with a network of people to call on when they need help. That, for me, is a resounding success.


I know many of us are feeling Zoom fatigue or whatever term you use for overuse of your video conferencing platforms. I ask you to keep in mind that these platforms are there to serve people, and as long as we keep people the focus, then we can use these platforms to have a positive impact. If you are willing to invest the time, learn the tools, and build the strategy, and if participants are willing to bring their whole self to a virtual environment, then we CAN create community, connection, and trust.