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Cross continental communications training

In the third week of May 2020, over the course of 1.5 days, Susanna and Sophie delivered virtual presentation training – from their homes – to nine Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) research teams, based across Eastern and Southern Africa.

Following virtual presentation training with WRENmedia, the CultiAF teams presented 5-minute talks on their projects to the programme donors

Ahead of a 2-hour webinar on 26 May to highlight the impacts of COVID-19 on CultiAF project activities, WRENmedia worked with presenters from the nine research teams to practise and refine their key messages to be delivered in a 5-minute presentation. The webinar was an opportunity for the presenters to explain to senior staff of the two CultiAF donors – the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Resarch (ACIAR) – the innovative ways in which the projects were pivoting their research to respond to the challenges faced by their local communities as a result of the global pandemic.

Having always previously held communication training sessions in-person, this remote approach was a new experience for the WREN team. However, it provided an exciting opportunity to see how we could deliver effective, online communications support.

“Thanks to the preparation from WRENmedia... This is producing amazing results.” – Renaud DePlaen, CultiAF programme leader for IDRC.

As a result of the training, the webinar ran like clockwork; clear and impactful presentations were delivered and more time than usual was available for questions to obtain clarifications. Many of the IDRC/ACIAR staff were not familiar with the projects, which was a critical factor in making sure the teams provided a clear overview of their work during COVID-19.

“It was impressive! Everyone got their game on and we could feel the passion for the work coming through, it was just great.” – Mercy Rurii, Programme Management Officer, IDRC.

Despite the positive response from CultiAF staff, they admitted to nervous tension as the webinar began, particularly as they had witnessed some obvious wobbles during the training sessions. “It was amazing to see, I had my stomach in knots to start and then, after Grace presented [the first speaker], I just relaxed,” enthused Mercy. Edidah Ampaire, Senior Programme Officer added, “Wow, this was unbelievably super! I could not ask for more. Thank you very much for all the time you invested in the training.”

Face-to-face vs virtual

Would we recommend this virtual approach to training to other clients? Definitely – the benefits of the training support were evident not just to the CultiAF team and other IDRC/ACIAR staff but also to the research teams.

“Practice makes perfect. After rehearsing, our research findings were presented naturally and in a skilful, swift, and steady manner, leaving the audience amazingly connected to our work.” – Chrysantus Tanga of the Insect feed for poultry, fish, and pig production in Kenya and Uganda CultiAF project.

Holding the training with the teams in short sessions seemed to suit the presenters well. They were engaged from the start and very responsive to the feedback.

“The pre-webinar training with WRENmedia was very beneficial as I learnt how to communicate technical information in simple English so that it is easily understood.” – Jackson Efitre of the Harnessing the dietary nutrients of underused fish-based products CultiAF project in Uganda.

Our approach to the training was not so different to that of a physical training session. The presenters were asked to send their presentations prior to the training for initial feedback. Each team was then given a 30-minute zoom slot for the virtual training to provide sufficient time to discuss feedback from Sophie and Susanna, the CultiAF staff, and the other research team members. With enough time for a second presentation run through, we could see if the presenter had been able to incorporate some of the pointers. Each of the zoom calls was also recorded to allow teams to review and make additional improvements in the days running up to the webinar, along with a consolidation of feedback and tips provided by the WREN team.

Potential problems and surprising successes

Tight timings and use of the online zoom platform by the teams were prior concerns ahead of the training and webinar. But, despite the challenge of presenting virtually and speaking to a laptop screen, we were pleased to see how well the presenters did in conveying their enthusiasm for their projects, particularly during the webinar. During the training, some needed encouragement to talk more slowly, confidently and in a conversational style. For others, we had to emphasise the importance of drawing out the key messages and telling a relevant story in an engaging way, particularly in how they are adapting to the COVID-19 situation rather than providing a full update of the project’s achievements.

“The key aspect I learnt from the training was to be able to summarise key messages from the project and present them in a very limited time slot, while keeping a natural flow between different topics.” – Mário Chilundo of the User-driven approaches for smallholder irrigation in Mozambique CultiAF project.

On the day of the webinar, it was a real pleasure to see the significant improvement in the presentations from the first practise session and we felt very proud of the teams for all their hard work and efforts to deliver what was required.

It was also a salient lesson for some of just how much thought and preparation needs to go into honing an impactful presentation, and one we hope that the research teams will not forget in a hurry!

Susanna Cartmell

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