Are you anxious about convening groups virtually that are accustomed to meeting in person? Wondering how to encourage participation or allow for meaningful discussion while connecting online? In this post, we’ll explore key elements of—and a few tools to support—effective and engaging virtual gatherings.
Since this is such a big topic, we’ll take a deeper dive into some of these strategies in future posts.
While this may seem obvious, too often we confuse what will happen at an event—what we will do—with its purpose. When this happens, we miss an important opportunity to shape the activities and structure of an event to ensure that our goals for the gathering are manifested. We start with logistics (the ‘what’) instead of our intended outcome (our ‘why’). Answering the following questions can help us articulate the ‘why’ of an event:
- how will we measure event success?
- do we expect or desire any changes in attendees by the event’s closing? …or any changes in ourselves or our team?
- what’s at risk if we cancel this convening, or fail to deliver it as we currently envision it?
Planning + preparation
Pick the right platform
These days, Zoom is the clear darling and favored tool of most groups hosting online meetings, and for some other types of events as well. My take on the popularity of the platform—even before its meteoric rise with the advent of COVID-19—is the simplicity of its user interface. People tend to adopt technology faster when it’s easy.
Before choosing a tool, you need to be clear about the type of event you’re hosting and what functionality is ‘must have’ vs. ‘nice to have.’ Take some time to think through each of these questions to help you evaluate your options:
- Are you hosting an internal or external audience?
- How many participants do you need to accommodate?
- What is the duration of the event?
- Will you need to share documents, images, video, or audio?
- Should participants be able to see the presenter and/or each other?
- Do you need to control what participants see or do? (e.g., should they be able to see the participant list, mute/unmute themselves, etc.)
- Is it important to be able to allow for small group conversations?
- How tech-savvy—or tech averse!—is your team?
- How tech-savvy are your participants? Do you know? Can you find out?
- How much time do you have to learn a new tool?
- Will you be able to dedicate at least one team member (even if they are a volunteer) to help manage participants?
- What’s your available budget?
If you’re on a tight timeline with limited experience, team support, or budget—GO WITH WHAT YOU KNOW or what is easiest to learn.
Below you’ll find a few alternatives to Zoom broken into two broad categories. Always remember to inquire about nonprofit discounts, and to take advantage of free trials to test drive any ‘new-to-you’ platforms. Keep in mind that there are dozens more options to choose from, and that even a large or complex event can be coordinated through a simple tool like Zoom—if it’s well planned and orchestrated:
Meetings, Webinars, and Trainings
If you have time and interest to take a deeper dive into the range of available options, this landscape audit of available virtual event platforms and apps is a tremendously helpful resource compiled by the digital agency Threespot.
Test (+ back-up) your tech
Whether it’s your first time hosting a virtual convening or your hundredth, practice sessions are essential—especially if you’ll be co-leading an event or involving others in tech support, presenter, or moderator roles. Think of this as your dress rehearsal, meaning that everyone with a key role should participate and they should do so using the same device, files, headphones, internet connection, and any other peripherals that they will use during the live event.
Related to this is planning for, and testing, your back-up systems. This will look different for every team but could include:
- ensuring everyone on your team has each other’s cell phone numbers to use for back-channel communications
- having a back-up computer to switch to should your main device suddenly fail
- preparing another team member to take over if the team lead loses their internet connection
- ensuring that speakers and presenters know how to call-in by phone should they be unable to connect via their computer
- having slides or other visuals ready on other team members’ devices in case the speaker has to connect by phone
- pre-loading slide decks, video files, or other critical materials in a cloud-based folder so participants can download them directly to their device (via a link you’ve prepared in advance) if bandwidth issues prevent the materials from displaying properly via your livestream platform or screen-sharing tool
- pre-recording keynote presentations as a back-up should your guest speaker encounter connectivity issues
Finally, as someone who regularly hosted large training webinars back in 2014 when GoToWebinar was in wider use, it took me a few years to make the transition to Zoom. As a presenter and trainer, I found the GoToWebinar administrative interface better structured to allow me to manage the various tech elements on my own (when I had to), even with just one screen or device. If you plan to use Zoom to present slides or share other files with your audience and won’t have any team support, I highly recommend having two screens or two devices to log-in from.
Craft a well-paced agenda
While many of the same best practices for in-person meeting design can be applied to virtual events, here are two basic rules of thumb to abide by:
- NEVER assume that a previously successful in-person meeting or event agenda can simply be transferred into a virtual format as is—some modifications will be necessary.
- Most virtual convenings should be limited to two hours or less. In cases where more time is an absolute necessity (e.g., in-depth training workshops, strategic planning, conferences, etc.), carefully consider how breaking your previous half-day, full-day, or multi-day schedule into smaller segments spread over a longer period of time may allow participants to digest content, generate ideas, test or apply what they are learning, and/or be more fully engaged during shorter focused sessions.
Even within a two-hour session, it’s important to be intentional in varying the methods of content delivery and participant engagement. For example:
- Be thoughtful in designing an opening that invites a commitment from participants to dedicate their full attention for the duration of the event
- To the extent possible, strive to keep each agenda item or activity within 10- to 30-minute time blocks
- Coach (or require) speakers to punctuate their presentations with a few interactive elements or moments such as: inviting questions or examples, soliciting audience reactions, using a live polling tool, encouraging movement, contributing to collective notes, etc.
- Enlist more than one team member for co-hosting, facilitation, or presenting duties; tag-teaming in this way benefits both your audience and your hosts
- Use a mix of simple analog / hands-on activities and digital tools to retain participant attention, focus, and involvement
- Whenever appropriate, utilize virtual breakout rooms to allow for smaller group conversations (3-5 attendees)—this is especially useful when a goal is to build relationships among attendees and/or to maximize discussion and contributions when hosting a large gathering
- Close your session with some mix of thanking the audience for their attention and participation, celebrating any progress or decisions made, acknowledging those who contributed to the event’s success, inviting feedback, and/or sharing what will happen next
Shape participant expectations
For all of these preparations to have the impact we intend, we also need to make an effort to ensure that our attendees show-up on-time and ready. What that readiness entails will depend largely on the scope and scale of your gathering, but will generally require at least three things:
- Purpose: what will happen and why is their participation necessary? Even a one-hour internal team meeting should have an agenda that helps to address these questions (even if it comprises just two or three bullet points)
- Preparation: what background or contextual information should attendees familiarize themselves with or be aware of to make the most of the experience?
- Logistics + tech: if you send multiple meeting reminders or calendar invites, be sure the instructions to join the event are included in each one. And if you’ll have someone dedicated to troubleshooting attendee tech issues during the gathering, include instructions regarding how to reach that person for assistance. For platforms that require pre-installation of software and/or creating a user account, send clear instructions and encourage guests to complete and test these steps in advance.
Engagement tips + tools
And now for the fun stuff! This is a preliminary list that I plan to revisit, expand, and reorganize into a downloadable PDF in the coming weeks (if you’d like to receive a copy straight to your inbox when it’s ready, subscribe here).
Explore available technology
- With so many of us working from home along with spouses, roommates, children, pets, parents and more, you may find that your work environment is noisier than you’re accustomed to. But did you know… there’s an app for that? You can mute problematic background noise with Krisp
- And what’s a conference room (even a virtual one) without some chart paper and post-its adorning the walls? Fortunately, there are a growing number of visual collaboration tools with features that mimic whiteboards and sticky notes, allow for the creation of flowcharts and wireframes, and capture live graphic recording. A few examples include: Mural, Google Jamboard, Miro, Stormboard, IPEVO Annotator, Whimsical, Limnu, Sketchboard, and AWW
- Live polling provides a quick way to take the pulse of your audience or effortlessly collect their input or ideas. Tools to that can help include: Slido, Mentimeter, and MeetingSift
- When you’re utilizing a slide deck you can also go low-tech and simply insert a few slides throughout your presentation that create a pause to pose a question that attendees can answer with a physical show of hands (if utilizing web cams), the community chat (when enabled), or by unmuting themselves to share (where feasible).
- Invite + visually aggregate input before, during, or after your event with tools like Consider.it
- And if you’re short on time or budget, there’s a lot you can do to engage a group in real time collaboration with Google slides, docs, and sheets
Many of these tools have additional functionality beyond the category I’ve assigned them to here—in fact some originated to address a specific need and then grew to incorporate additional features. It’s very likely that you can find one tool to manage most of your desired digital engagement needs.
Don’t forget tech-free or ‘hands-on’ strategies
When we’re operating in an online environment it’s easy to get singularly focused on digital tools, but there are a ton of great tech-free strategies you can employ. Here are a few of my current favorites which represent a mix of ideas to use for connecting, refocusing, or energizing your audience:
- Create (+ distribute) physical flash cards: for calls where attendees will have web cameras activated, this super simple idea can be a fun way to address common web meeting gaffs (e.g., you’re muted!; background noise!) or encourage attendee reactions (e.g., thumbs up, I have a question) using a visual image they can print in advance and hold up to their camera. Yes, tools like Zoom have some of these reaction features built-in—this approach augments that functionality and may prove easier for some of your less tech-savvy participants
- Share your view: this works best with smaller groups (or perhaps limited to a few key guests or presenters) and is as simple as it sounds: taking a moment to use a webcam to share the view out of a window or to pan their current space
- 1-minute dance or move-your body break: scheduled breaks are typically built-in to in-person meetings… are you remembering to include them in your virtual convenings? Challenge yourself to make them fun—turn on some music and encourage attendees to move their bodies
- Random object in your space: instruct attendees to find a close-by object that: reflects their current mood, expresses a strength they bring to the gathering, or tells a story about them (then give folks a chance to show their object and share their explanation)
- Five deep breaths: provide a gentle pause for attendees to refocus and recenter
- A photo that speaks to you: as with the flash card idea, this works best with advance prompts to participants, in this case: asking them to find a photo and have it handy to share during the call—either by holding it up to their webcam or adding it to a shared document
- Worksheets or reflection templates: email these to your participants in advance so they have them printed and ready to use during the live event
Want even more ideas or inspiration? Do an internet search using any of the following search terms: virtual icebreakers, virtual meeting energizers, virtual team building.
Follow-up / next steps
In most cases, the work isn’t done until you have also taken time to:
- Prepare and distribute thank yous
- Share a meeting summary (or event highlights) + action steps
- Ask for, and analyze, attendee feedback
- Conduct a team debrief
- Document lessons learned
Finally, as an additional resource check out the tips for memorable + meaningful convenings gleaned from Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering—all of which apply to both online and in-person events.
Did you find this post helpful? Do you have a question that wasn’t addressed, or another tip to share? Please be sure to comment below!
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