How to design engaging virtual events
Zoomed out? That is probably because the people designing and facilitating your Zoom meetings or ‘workshops’ are not making their virtual events engaging. That feeling of disengagement does not mean that the content isn’t interesting.Sometimes there is too much good content, or too many experts, dominant voices or ‘talking heads’. I love to learn, but as an extrovert and multi-tasker I often tune-out if I am asked to sit passively and listen for too long. Click To Tweet
I learn by doing, reflecting, sharing, and talking through my thoughts. I need space and time to reflect and contribute, and so do many introverts.
So how do you make your video conference engaging?
By considering the participants’ experience and designing for it. You need to enable different types of learning, to ensure the event is captivating for participants with different needs and interests. If nothing else, when planning your event think about how you are balancing your content and process. Include activities that enable participants to engage in a range of ways.
This blog post is part of our Virtual Engagement series and follows on from Making virtual events engaging, our MS Teams for virtual engagement post, lessons from the Civic tech event and years of experience designing and facilitating workshops. We cover some of the many ways to enable participation during virtual events:
- Questions and answer sessions.
- Panel discussions.
- Inviting participants to choose their own breakout using the World Café method
- Inviting participants to host their own break discussions during a virtual open space event, or unconference.
- Reporting back to the room after a breakout.
- Effective networking.
All of these vital processes need facilitation, but how do you do it well?
Enabling questions and answers during your virtual event
To take questions during your virtual event you can invite participants to submit in a variety of ways:
- By typing text into the Chat or Conversation panes. You can then select questions to read out to participants or call on the querent to ask it themselves.
- Raising their hand. This can be done virtually using the ‘raise hand’ function or by raising their hand on video until you call on them to unmute and share their question.
- Using Question and Answer features, for example, the Webinar functions on Zoom.
- Having participants join a breakout session to discuss content, then collectively compose a question to ask (as a group) when the meeting reconvenes, or,
- By posting their question to an online engagement tool that can be used virtually, in real time.
Facilitating panel discussions during your virtual event
There are two ways to facilitate a panel discussion during a virtual event. You can ask your panellists to:
- Speak for a given amount of time, like 5 minutes each or,
- Ask panellists to answer one question, then move to the next panellist and repeat the question.
Zoom offers two options to run panels:
- Meetings. This shows all the participants on screen. You must use the Share screen function to show slides.
- Webinars. This just shows the speakers and/or their slides on screen. This view works best for panels because it only displays the four or five people speaking. Zoom Webinar also provides additional Question and Answer, and polling functions.
If you are facilitating a virtual panel, make sure you brief your panellists thoroughly about how you will manage the session process. Include how long you expect them to talk when it is their turn to speak, and when answering questions. It is also very important to explain what you would like participants to get out of this session; clearly state the purpose from your audience perspective.
Inviting participants to choose their own breakouts during your virtual event
A World Café is a choose-your-own-adventure style workshop, where participants are invited to choose a virtual breakout room that interests them most. You can do this in Zoom, MS Teams, Jitsi and Meet, but the technical set up and process is different on every platform. The main thing is that participants know what their options are, and how to get there and back.
In Zoom if you want participants to choose their own breakout group you can:
- Ask them for their preferences beforehand then allocate them to groups.
- Give them co-host access. This is risky because they can unmute themselves at any time and accidentally end the call or breakout groups prematurely.
- Create multiple zoom links; a different call for each ‘breakout’.
If you go with option 3 in Zoom you need to consider:
- Communicating how they get there. How and where will you share the links? If you add these into the chat pane, participants will need to cut and paste them if they want to go to more than one breakout and return to the ‘main room’/original Zoom session.
- Reminding them to change rooms or return. How will you remind participants that they can go to other groups or ask them to return to the original Zoom call (main room)? You cannot add a timer, or bring participants back when rooms are set up like this because they are different Zoom calls, not Zoom ‘breakouts’.
In MS Teams, Jitsi and Meet you need to set up different calls for every breakout, so you will need a place to host the list of breakout options (links to the calls) for participants.
If your event is long and there are a lot of different breakouts, consider sharing an agenda with participants by email prior to the event. You could also post it on a microsite or event application so it is accessible during the event for participants to stay oriented and/or choose their own adventures. You can do this within MS Teams if everyone on your call is part of the same team.
Inviting participants to host Open Space breakouts during your virtual event
In an Open Space event, participants host their own breakouts or participate in breakouts hosted by others.
You can create Open Space in any event by leaving parts of your agenda unfilled and inviting participants to suggest sessions. These sessions can be used to reflect on and discuss topics raised during scheduled sessions or filled by participants who can host focused discussions on topics that interest them.
In an Unconference, the entire event is made up of Open Space sessions. The agenda for an Unconference is scheduled as sessions are suggested by participants who are willing and ready to host them.
Participants are invited to propose agenda items at the start of the event, and these sessions are scheduled live with the support of a facilitator and room coordinator. You can also invite suggestions for sessions prior to the event, then schedule them with the participants.
If you want to allow Open Space in your virtual event you will need to:
- Include Open Space in your agenda.
- Work out how to include breakout groups in your call, and how participants will find them when choosing their own adventure. You should think about how to do this before your call.
- Let participants know that they will be invited to host sessions during the call before the event, and make sure they know what is involved in doing so – technically and as a discussion facilitator.
- Have a breakout coordinator for each group who supports session hosts with the technology and lets participants know when and how they can move to another breakout or return to the main room.
Facilitating report-back sessions when participants reconvene after a breakout
This is an important part of any event because participants only have the opportunity to attend a few of the breakout rooms, so inevitably miss out on discussion in other breakouts. Report-backs help demonstrate that there are different perspectives present about the same issue. It is also a great way to show that you are listening, and that the information shared during smaller group discussions is being collected collated to input into the program.
If you want to include a report-back in your event, you will need to allow at least two minutes per breakout to ensure there is enough time to deliver a report of substance. Depending on the number of break-outs, this can be time-consuming and there is a risk of participants getting bored; in my experience this can happen if more than five breakout groups need to report back.
The good news is that there are more ways to do this in a virtual event. Below are just some of the many ways you might enable engaging report-backs in your virtual event:
- Invite facilitators to share what they heard or recorded during the session.
- Ask facilitators to nominate someone in their group to report back.
- Invite a reflection, or quick summary of key points, from two participants in the group.
- Ask breakout facilitators and coordinators to use digital whiteboards to take notes (or virtual stickynote tools during group discussions) then use them when reporting back.
Digital whiteboard or stickynote walls can be really effective when reporting back. Here are some tips on how to use them:
- Display or share them as images straight after group discussions. This provides a visual reference for facilitators or participants when they report back.
- Create a ‘poster wall’ using the stickynote and whiteboard outputs from breakout groups, then share it in the break for participants to see what was discussed in all the rooms.
- Collate and share them with participants after the event.
Miro and Mural are popular stickynote tools, but remember they can only be used by participants who are online during your virtual event. Participants calling in to virtual conferences using phone lines will not be able to see or participate in these exercises.
Enabling networking in a virtual event
It can feel pretty alienating and frustrating when you participate in a virtual event where you cannot talk to other participants or communicate directly with particular people who you really want to meet. There are a few ways to design an event that enables virtual networking.
- Participants can chat with each other privately by text using the chat function but note this is not the case with Zoom webinars.
- You can randomly pair up participants in breakout groups. I have found that groups of three work well if you have less than 5 minutes allocated and you want participants to network casually without an icebreaker. For larger groups, allow more time and suggest a process.
- You can matchmake participants and allocate them to breakouts together.
- Prior to the event, ask participants who they would like to meet and pair them up in breakouts.
- Using the chat function, participants can also communicate privately with the event coordinator who can then allocate them to the same breakout in real time.
MS Teams also has a chat function on their calls which they call Conversation. Unfortunately, participants cannot speak to each other privately using this function. If participants are in the same team they can always chat, or call each other separately, while the ‘main room’ is open.
At the EngageTech Forum (28 July 2020), we will be encouraging participants to seek out and network with each other one-on-one during the event. To enable this, we:
- Have allowed space within the agenda for one-on-one networking.
- Will ask participants for consent to share their profiles and preferred contact method with other participants on our event page. This allows participants to connect with each other privately during this scheduled session.
2020 ANZ EngageTech Forum
EngageTech is a full day interactive event, so participants will be invited to an optional tech orientation session at the start of the Forum; to ensure they understand all the different ways they can interact and connect with each other.
If you are designing interactive processes into your event, and you have never facilitated a virtual event before, we recommend working with experienced virtual facilitators and coordinators, for both your main event and breakout sessions. Please get in touch if you would like some support, we would love to help! Book a time to talk through your event with Amelia today (Calendly).
Come along to the EngageTech Forum to see some of these techniques in action.
We have designed the entire event using our favourite methods, that enable all the participation options shared today. To experience these great tips and tools, and learn more, register for the Forum here.