How do we connect virtually with the same dynamic presence that we do in real life?

The learning and development community is asking itself this question as the social constraints of the COVID-19 crisis give rise to a new era of online learning.

Crossing the digital threshold from screen to human connection can be transformational in helping people overcome the isolation of working and learning from home. However, the resounding sentiment from participants and practitioners is that the ‘in real life’ (IRL) connection does not quite translate in URL-based learning environments. As a facilitator of transformative learning through applied performance, I have found the human connection can be strengthened online through consciously crafting ‘ATOMIC’ presence.

Presence is a sense of weight or physicality in space. Those with strong presence are able to hold a room — they draw people in and are ‘felt’ by others, enhancing engagement, flow of energy, mirrored levels of presence and a sense of connection in groups. This is why leaders and facilitators with presence have such a transformative impact. To translate well in digital spaces, you need to consciously dial up your presence. You need to develop ‘ATOMIC’ presence: an ability to radiate energy that transcends the digital screen, creating a sense of being ‘there’ in a shared space together, and enabling you to deeply and meaningfully connect in real-time.

The following are six building blocks for ‘ATOMIC’ presence drawn from
applied theatre, behavioural science, transformative learning theory and ongoing experimentation in the online space:


Attunement establishes an authentic connection. Highly attuned people are curious, highly empathetic and responsive to different needs, emotions and changing situations.

Theory U by Otto Scharmer suggests three elements as a framework
for attunement: an open mind, suspending judgement so you see the world with fresh eyes and remain open to possibilities; an open heart, so you can try to see any situation through another person’s eyes; and an open will, letting go of the ego to sit with the discomfort of the unknown.

Visual and audio provide constant non-verbal clues for the facilitator to respond with authenticity, vitality and spontaneity. To read the room and tune into others in virtual spaces, let go of unhelpful mindsets, triggers or biases that may be preventing you from seeing and connecting.


  • Look into the eye of your camera as you speak, as if you are looking into the eyes of a friend or colleague.
  • Signal you are present and focused, and share your warmth with the individual or group
  • Glance at participants as you would in natural conversation, paying close attention to facial expressions, posture, intonation and breath.
  • Pose questions to draw out expressions interpreted from non-verbal clues.

While some fret over perceived online barriers, instead embrace technological possibility. Seek a deep understanding of the options available and choose the platform most suited to your core program needs. Our research identified Zoom for its flexible breakout room functionality — well-suited to small group work, an integral component to our learning design.

Once chosen – practice, practice, practice. Through dedicated rehearsal and familiarisation with both the possibilities and limitations of technology, you can better emulate the spontaneity and fluidity of dynamic face-to-face delivery. You are more likely to make full use of platform features, experiment ‘in the room’ and have work arounds for common technological disruptions, e.g. internet dropouts, glitching and error messages.


  • Technology serves the learning goal – simplicity is key.
  • Approach the design challenge of learning new technology with a mindset of experimentation.
  • Navigate any difficulties gracefully by being transparent – maintain momentum by moving into the next activity or engage learners in co-creating possible solutions.

Borrowing from the flipped classroom model of learning design, best-practice online learning takes the form of highly active, interactive and applied activities. Adapt collaborative, play-based facilitation activities and integrate tools like Google Slides, Google Docs, Google Jamboard and Miro which enable people to collaborate in real-time.

A flipped approach invites you to meaningfully connect pre- and post-work in the learning journey. Dedicate pre-work to explore foundational theory, case studies, questions for reflection or pre-session research challenges ahead of in-session application. Structure post-work to build on in-session learning through reflection and experimentation.


  • Keep single sessions to under two hours.
  • Create space and refresh focus with a mix of break out groups, individual reflection and whole group discussion.
  • Alternate engagement modes to maintain a sense of novelty, energy and focus.

ATOMIC presence requires absolute clarity of purpose and powerful session design. Action mapping allows you to understand the learning and behavioural change needed and plan the actions that will help catalyse this at an atomic level.

We use a four-step action mapping process to refine content and stay focused on the symbiotic relationship between content and participants within the digital experience.


  1. Identify the goal.
  2. Identify what people need to do to reach the goal.
  3. Design activities that help people achieve practice.
  4. Design to maximise the emotional dimension of digital engagement.

In the words of French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, ‘Energy begets energy. It is only by spending oneself that one becomes rich.’ Your investment of time and energy in all aspects of the virtual experience will be reflected by participants. This mutual investment opens up the possibility for transformation.

Energy is most potent during face-to-face interaction. Consider your ‘vibrational energy’: what are you communicating in the way you present yourself? How do your posture, mannerisms, facial expressions, voice, words, pace and breathing affect others?

Picture how you want to show up – dial your energy up or down to create an online space of positivity, enthusiasm and groundedness.


  • Engage wholeheartedly – with authenticity and vulnerability.
  • Believe in yourself and remember to have fun.
  • In case of anxiety, remember your breath. I like to use the 4-7-8 breathing technique – in for 4 counts, hold for 7 and out for 8.

Aesthetics inform how people perceive you as a communicator and, consequently, your digital presence. Humans often make snap judgements from the most minute stimuli. Creating a transformative virtual connection requires you to be a showrunner in production, cinematographer in creation and a television host in delivery.

Consider your frame. Set up in a brightly lit location, free from outside visual and auditory disturbance. Ensure the camera position captures your face and stand or sit confidently. Be conscious of your habitual gestures and body language, and tailor for time, place and event. Always use headphones and microphone for clarity of sound. Ensure what is behind you reflects who you are and what you want participants to see.


  • Test how you look in frame ahead of time.
  • Adjust camera for eye-level.
  • Choose an artwork to frame your background.
Further Reading & Resources

This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine, June 2020 Vol. 47 No. 2, published by the Australian Institute of Training & Development.

Need More Help?

Keen to find out more about how to create a transformative virtual connection?  Performance Frontiers are experts in helping guide leaders to become showrunners in production, cinematographers in creation and television hosts in delivery!  Speak to our Managing Director Gretel Bakker today about how we can partner with you to embrace our ATOMIC building blocks and super-charge your online experiences with all the life, power and transformative possibility of in-person learning.

While every effort has been made to provide valuable, useful information in this publication, this organisation and any related suppliers or associated companies accept no responsibility or any form of liability from reliance upon or use of its contents. Any suggestions should be considered carefully within your own particular circumstances, as they are intended as general information only.

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