Ramping Up Your Virtual Zoom Studio
Tips, tricks and serious hacks for an unforgettable virtual group class.
Editor’s note: In March 2020, Tricia Murphy Madden, an elite fitness instructor who has taught fitness workshops worldwide—and the 2020 IDEA Fitness Leader of the Year—delivered her first livestream broadcast of a group exercise class. In the ensuing months, she adapted her approaches to suit the new virtual reality of her classes, drawing on her nearly 29 years in the industry and her experience as co-creator of Barre Above® and education director for Savvier Fitness. Her goal: to create what she calls the “Disney experience” for all class participants, whether they are at home, in the studio or alternating between the two.
On August 22, 2020, she shared her learnings in the 2020 IDEA® World Virtual session titled “How to Lead Unforgettable In-Person and Virtual Workouts.” Transcribed and edited from that session, the following is her best advice—so far—for getting tech-savvy and creating an amazing virtual experience, from start to finish.
For the full recorded session, complete with her PowerPoint, a section on improving your virtual class marketing approaches, and a Q&A segment, go to pro.ideafit.com/pro/how-to-lead-unforgettable-in-person.
It was early March 2020 when Seattle, where I live, shut down very quickly due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We immediately knew we’d have to move into the virtual world within a matter of days.
For my first class, I didn’t know what microphone I should use, and I barely knew how to share music, but I flipped on the camera and taught all 12 of my students how to turn on their speakers, where to put their cameras so I could see everyone and how to follow my cues. About 5 minutes into class, I’m thinking, “Wow, I’ve really got this. I really nailed it.” Then I saw people on-screen waving their arms at me.
An 82-year-old client (who didn’t realize her camera was on) was doing my barre class completely naked! The funny thing was that, when this amazing human noticed what she was doing, she started laughing. She left the room, put on clothes, came back, and started working out again as if nothing had happened. That was the spirit we had, even then.
Over the months that followed, we’ve been able to sustain our community, share something special (laughter and tears), and even attract new members. It has been a journey. And I’m grateful to be able to share what I’ve learned about how to lead incredible virtual experiences using Zoom.
It’s Time to Upgrade Your Tech Tools and Know-How
Technology is the hardest part of teaching virtual classes. It is what makes us crazy. But we have to know how to use it well. Back in March, it was okay to be asking, “Can you hear me?” and “Can you see me?” Today, people have high expectations, so we need to up our game. Here are some tips from my experiences over the past many months.
Choose your camera wisely. The first question is whether you will use the camera on your computer, tablet or smartphone or have a separate, standalone camera. While built-in cameras can work, it’s often easier to make quick adjustments (like lowering the device when you move to floor exercises) if you use a separate camera. If you choose to have a camera operator assisting, a standalone video camera will deliver optimal visual results.
Hack: Enlist a free camera person. If you are filming from home, it can be your partner, your spouse or a roommate—or put your kids to work! At the gym, ask your front-desk manager or choose a college student to be your filming intern.
Look into virtual music resources. I always have music going, starting when I admit people into the class. To make sure your songs are licensed and legal, it’s easiest to subscribe to a workout music site, which starts at about $12.95 per month. Many of these sites have begun to offer options specifically for virtual classes, including Yes! Music™’s Live Stream Now, Muscle Mix Now™ and Power Music NOW.
Hack: If you want to hear your music during class, plug a set of old-school speakers into the headphone jack of whatever device is sharing it. (My first set was just $19!)
Get a mic you can move with. Don’t be afraid to try the equipment you already own. A conference room mic (which may have come with your computer) works well for teaching classes; you can just set it on the floor nearby. Also consider investing in a headset. Some models have hooks that go over both ears to keep the headset in place.
Hack: In virtual classes, I prefer not to use a countdown timer, which can compete with cues and music. Instead, I have a swimming clock running in the background, where it is easy to see on screen. Each group will have a strong preference on this, but 90% of the time, hearing a countdown via a computer speaker is agonizing. The trainers at the Fhitting Room in NYC launched LIVE Stream (Fhitting Room LIVE!) within days of the shutdown, and each trainer consistently has countdowns viewable but not audible (fhittingroom.com).
Add a mixer into the mix. A mixer is a piece of equipment that allows you to plug in multiple audio devices so you can adjust your voice and your music independently. It greatly improves sound quality, so it is a must if you’re teaching a format for which music and voice need to have balanced output. I recommend a USB-compatible mixer because you can use it with any type of computer, whether you have a PC or a Mac product.
Hack: If you teach in a very small space and can project your voice, you won’t need a mixer. Instead, share music directly from your device and select “Enable original sound” in Zoom Settings for an optimal sound experience.
Hack: If your phone or tablet has a good camera, log into your virtual workout via both your laptop and the second camera-focused device. Mute the second camera and spotlight it (in Zoom) prior to starting class. Utilize the laptop for sharing sound and running the workout.
Hack: If you plan to offer hybrid workouts (with students attending in person and via livestream), you must purchase a USB mixer for optimal sound both in-studio and from home.
After Signups: Set the Stage for Success
There’s nothing worse for participants than showing up for a class or training session and having a mediocre experience because of technology. You can avoid some tech troubles by sending an email with simple instructions before class. (See “Sample Welcome and Tech Tips Email,” below.) In addition to the email, be sure to tick off the following boxes:
Plan a program with tech in mind. When teaching online, it’s important to create a storyline and workout plan (please don’t try to wing it!). Then go through your notes and think about the tech for each piece of the story—for example, when will you change camera angles, and what equipment will everyone need for the workout?
Hack: For practice, video-record a session so you can see where you did well and what you can improve. (We all have room to improve!) If you are a manager, this is a great way to have members of your team evaluate their own teaching skills in a virtual environment. Ideally, your facility would pay for instructors to participate in other virtual experiences to see what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.
Look the part. Even if teaching from home, you must look professional. Make sure your clothing and footwear are appropriate for the workout you are leading.
Choose clothing colors that contrast with your background, and use color blocking to help people see different parts of your body. For example, wear calf-length leggings and a different-colored top.
Hack: If you can afford it, wear a T-shirt or lightweight jacket printed with your gym’s logo on the front. Ask instructors to wear the same when they teach a virtual class.
Do an equipment run-through prior to your first class. If you are leading classes from home, plan far enough ahead that you can get whatever equipment you’ll need from your facility. If you’ll need weights, choose ones that are appropriate for you. I’ve seen instructors say, “Grab your heavy weight,” then use a 5-pound weight to do biceps curls. If that’s the only weight you have, then say, “Hey, listen, the only weight I have is 5 pounds, but I’d like you to grab something a little heavier if you can manage it.”
Hack: To purchase equipment, look at Facebook Marketplace, Next Door or any other resell app in your neck of the woods. You would be surprised at how easy it is to find used equipment right now.
Up Your “Pregame” Meet-and-Greet
My dear friend Mindy Mylrea, who invented the Gliding™ discs that so many of us use in programs from barre to boot camp, has taught many, many workshops. One thing I’ve learned from her is that the moment the microphone is on, you are in “presenter mode.” You are the positive experience your participants came for, and you want to carry that through the whole class. Here are a few things I do to kick things off right.
Use the Zoom waiting room. You don’t want to be doing tech checks while class members are watching. You want the first thing they see to be you, standing in front of that camera. Then you want to introduce yourself, mention your gym’s name and say, “Hello! I’m so glad you’re all here!” So instead of admitting individuals as soon as they log on, leave everyone in the waiting room and hit “Admit all” when you are completely ready.
Hack: Select a song that captures the theme of the workout, and have it playing when they “enter.”
Hack: Find someone in your community who loves your classes but maybe can’t afford them. Ask if this person would give you tech assistance prior to class, in trade. A great deal for both of you!
Begin with all mics unmuted. The beginning of class is a great time to create connections that maybe weren’t even there when you taught in person. Let everyone say hello and chat with each other a little bit. While they chat, take attendance! Make sure every participant is checked in on your digital roster. Also ask if there are any limitations you should know about (injury, pregnancy, equipment issues, a small space) so you can offer modifications. Once you are ready to begin, hit “Mute all” and begin class.
Hack: Teach members to use Zoom’s in-meeting chat to share info privately with you. Coach them to choose the setting that has Zoom share responses with “host only.”
Ask a conversation-starting question (avoid yes/no dead ends). At the start of the pandemic, I’d ask participants to type a word in the chat that described how they felt in the moment. That allowed me to customize the experience and transition relevant messaging into the workout. I’d also use this information when I wrapped up a session.
Hack: For an easy (and neutral) conversation starter, ask people about something you can see in their video, like “What’s your dog’s name?” or “Are you working out in your shed?” Keep conversation light and positive; for topics to avoid, see the Web Extra “Your Words Matter: Know What Not to Say” below.
Give them a road map. Let members know your storyline—share what you have planned for the workout. Tell them what you’re going to do in each segment, how long it will last and how hard they should work. Do this, and you will get the best out of people.
Hack: Also use this time to talk about camera angles. Tell participants, “During standing moves, show yourself from the waist up or higher. During pushups, situps, etc., move your camera to the floor (or slightly above) to show the whole body.”
See also: The Rise of Virtual Classes
During the Workout: Use Those Cues!
Your verbal cuing for movement is more important than ever in a virtual environment. Remember, some people in your class may be watching you on a phone, so it might be challenging for them to see what you’re doing. That means you must move with integrity and be precise. It also means you must verbally communicate every part of an exercise. Here are some of my favorite virtual cuing tips:
Create a cuing hierarchy. A cuing hierarchy is a step-by-step breakdown of what information you include in a cue. Lauren George, an instructor based out of Starkville, Mississippi, has a system for any format she teaches. Here is a sample hierarchy for cuing movement:
- Set up: Give the exercise name, any equipment needed and whether the camera setup needs to change (more on this below).
- Modify and clarify: Offer options based on limitations people shared with you in the chat.
- Educate: Example 1: “Did you feel that, as we stood up, we activated more muscle by pressing through the heels?”
- Example 2: “Did you know that your glutes are composed of three different muscles?”
- Example 3: “You should feel this [insert body part].”
- Motivate: Example 1: “You are just 3 minutes away from finishing this class. Can you commit to your best effort, knowing it’s almost over?”
- Example 2: “I saw those pushups, and you are looking stronger than ever!”
- Example 3: “Great job, everyone!”
By having a cuing hierarchy to follow, you’ll never feel like you have nothing to say. That will help you eliminate “filler conversation,” in which you repeat yourself or talk about things just for the sake of talking.
Cue for new camera angles. Any time you drastically change your body position, you need to let participants know what they have to do with their cameras. For example, “We are about to go to the ground for abdominal work, so I’d like you to adjust your camera angle.” (You want to be able to see them, and you want them to be able to see you without neck strain.)
Hack: Use these changes as a “breather.” This is a great time to take a sip of water, too. Try not to rush it. These pauses are normal for in-person classes, and they’re valuable in virtual experiences, as well.
Demonstrate, then coach. Whatever exercise you are teaching, demonstrate the first round as you explain what you are doing, following your cuing hierarchy. During round two, walk up to the camera, switch to gallery view and coach individual people on how they can improve their form. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to fix pushups virtually when I couldn’t fix them in person.)
Get everyone going in the same direction. In a virtual class, people are not mirroring you, so cuing right and left can be confusing.
Hack: To fix that, get two big pieces of paper and write an R on one and an L on the other, then plaster them behind you (on camera), with the R on your left and the L on your right.
What’s the most important cue of all? My favorite cue is a gigantic smile. That is the most important thing you can give your clients. Your clients need to see you enjoy the format, the people and what it will do for the body and mind.
I’m constantly smiling. In fact, through COVID-19, my family started taking my barre classes, and my stepdad, who is my new regular, said, “Why are you always smiling?” And I said, “It’s just how I feel. I actually really love what I do.”
See also: Upgrade Your Virtual Communication
Before You Sign Off: Finish Strong
How you end your session (and follow up after it) is just as important as everything discussed so far. Creating a positive ritual to end class can remind your participants how good they feel—and inspire them to come back. My approach includes these steps:
Revisit the “Share a Word” exercise. To establish a two-way connection, think back to the words they shared at the start of class, then share a story about a time when you felt that way as an instructor. Also thank people for how you feel now, because of your time with them.
Hack: Also ask participants to drop a word in the chat that describes how they feel after their workout. (This word is likely to be more positive than the one they shared at the start!). It’s a very subtle way to have students broadcast how much they liked the class. Public commitment is one of the best ways to get people to come back.
Take a group photo—selfie-style. Ask class members if they are game to turn their cameras on for a group photo. (You can use these photos to market your next class.) Hold your camera above you and angle it downward to take a selfie of you and your class. Be sure you capture yourself and the computer screen (in gallery view).
Hack: If a class is not comfortable with a group photo, take a side-view picture that shows you talking to the screen (without showing names and faces). Invite individual members to take their own selfies and share them on their social media, tagging you and your facility.
Sell your next class—or someone else’s. Invite everyone to an upcoming class—yours or someone else’s. It’s really hard to bring in new consumers, but there’s so much business in the virtual world. I encourage everybody to share, communicate, co-brand and co-market. Also send a follow-up email to thank everyone for attending and to share the upcoming class schedule.
Hack: Create advocates out of your truest fans. If a current member gets a new person to sign up for a virtual class, reward the member. We give a free pair of barre socks, which only costs us three bucks. You could also offer a free class or other perk.
Virtual Classes Matter—and They’re Worth the Work!
People need to take care of their health, now more than ever. Virtual classes enable people to keep moving and improving, whether they’re unable or unwilling to return in person—or because they’ve embraced this new way of working out. You can also have customers visiting you from everywhere, not just your regulars, so you can reach many more people than if you taught only face-to-face.
I know that what you’re doing in the virtual community is really tough. And you may never personally meet many of the people you are helping. But remember this fun fact: You have changed their lives in the middle of this huge crisis. Keep doing what you’re doing—people need your leadership now more than ever!
Tricia’s Picks: Best Mixers and Mics
Here are the brands and models I recommended to attendees of my IDEA® World Virtual session:
Behringer Premium Q1202USB 12-Input 2-Bus Mixer: ~$220
Behringer XENYX Q802USB Premium 8-Input 2-Bus Mixer: ~$119
CMTECK USB Desktop Computer CM001 Microphone (10-foot radius): ~$30
Movo MC1000 Conference USB Microphone (20-foot radius): ~$59
FIFINE USB Wireless Microphone System: ~$57
Samson XPD2 Headset USB Digital Wireless System: ~$120
Your Words Matter: Know What Not to Say
It’s hard when you’re talking to a screen, especially if everyone has their cameras turned off. There’s a tendency to feel like you have to talk all the time. To keep your message positive, use class members’ names throughout the class, stick to your cuing hierarchy—and try to avoid the following:
- Anti-motivational cues. A big pet peeve of mine: Telling a group class “don’t quit.” Imagine, mentally, if you’re killing it with pushups and someone says that! You’re like, “I didn’t quit. Did you quit?”
- Tick words. Tick words are things you say all the time. I swear I say “team” every other minute during class. Watch yourself on video a few times to identify these.
- Food and alcohol. Sobriety during this pandemic can be excruciating for many. And even if you have gained the “COVID 15” or eaten a big meal, don’t say that. Avoid these topics altogether.
- Self-criticism. Be confident in who you are. Believe that what you are doing matters. Never criticize yourself, even when things go wrong. You want your class members to feel okay if they make a mistake, so model that for them by being kind to yourself.
Tricia’s “Welcome” Email
To help participants feel well-prepared and well-informed before each class, I send everyone an email about 24 hours after they register. Its purpose is to
- confirm their registration (list the class session, date, time);
- remind them what time zone I am in;
- state what my fee includes (example: one person per household per class);
- tell them what equipment they will need (if any);
- offer a basic description of the class (level, format, etc.);
- share the link to Zoom video tutorials (support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/206618765-Zoom-video-tutorials); and
- provide basic Zoom instructions, including what the waiting room is; how to turn audio and video on/off; how to switch between gallery and speaker mode; where to find the chat box; and how to get back on if they get kicked out.
Sample Welcome and Tech Tips Email
Thank you for registering for (blank class) on (date) at (time).
This Zoom workout will begin at 5PM PST (6PM MST, 7PM CST, 8PM EST). Please make note of the time zone to assure you do not miss a moment. For this format you will need the following pieces of equipment: (insert items).
Once you log in for the workout you will immediately be placed in a “waiting room.” When the instructor is ready to begin, she will let all participants in at the same time.
A few requests:
- Please make sure to put in the chat (located in your control banner) any modification requests you might have.
- Please mute yourself unless speaking to the instructor.
- Dare yourself to turn on the camera for optimal coaching. It does not matter what you look like, we would love to give you an exceptional workout.
- If you would like to pin a particular person in class, you can do this by clicking on the three dots in the upper right corner of their box. Otherwise our host will Spotlight the Instructor/Coach video for the group. You can always view the workout in Gallery for some group inspiration.
- If you lose connection for any reason, please re-log in with the same link you did the first time.
- Please note registration is intended for one participant per household.
We look forward to seeing you! If you have any questions, please reach out directly: (insert host email).
Finally, quick tip! Make sure the screen you are viewing the workout on is at eye level for standing workouts and at waist-or-lower height for workouts that are primarily on the floor.
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