Making virtual events engaging
Wow, trying times… busy times… and now we have to go digital. We have all been talking about the need to innovate, to build digital capability and continue our learning and there has never been a better time to make that happen.
I feel lucky to have been an early adopter of digital engagement, online engagement and virtual facilitation so I thought I would share my favourite tips for those of you wanting to make your meetings and workshops more engaging and inclusive. Please share them to help your colleagues, families and communities build their skills so that they can maintain their relationships.
By now, you probably know what tools your organisation has access to for video and teleconferencing, but have you looked at, or used, their engagement functionalities?
Engagement is an interaction between two or more people. It involves communication and the exchange of information. Engagement generates relationships and affects trust. It is the foundation for collaboration.
Hosting an engaging virtual meeting or virtual workshop requires more than good content and a question and answer session – that is a briefing. In a briefing, you are the host and the people attending are your audience, not participants. An engaging event has room for participation. It is as much about the process, engaging formats, and having space in the agenda for interaction as it is about the content that you have to share.
- Define your objectives and make sure participants understand the role in helping to achieve them. Why are you bringing these people together? What do you need to get out of your time with them, and what do they want? Are you sure that your key stakeholders agree with the objectives of the session and are happy with the role you are playing in the event? Do you want participants to engage with each other?
- Always send an agenda with clearly defined roles and objectives per session. This one is simply meeting etiquette, but it surprises me how many people forget it. If you can not send an agenda when scheduling a meeting, make sure you include the purpose of the meeting in the invitation. Consider the invitation from the participants perspective. Make sure you are clear about how you are offering them value and when you follow up the invitation with more detail. The purpose, format of the meeting and decisions to be made should also be communicated to all participants (not just organisers) ahead of time. Let participants know whether the session will be recorded ahead of time, and be clear about the storage and use of data collected.
Invite your stakeholders to provide input into the agenda, or feedback on your draft if you want them to buy into your process. You can also ask participants to tell you what they hope to get out of the meeting when they register / respond to your invitation.
- Use technologies that are accessible, easy to use and reliable. This sounds like a given, but things often go wrong. Send instructions and ask participants to download and test technologies in their context too. Do audio and visual tests, allow time for issues, and provide alternative methods to participate e.g. participants can phone into most video conferencing platforms.
- Invite or nominate participants to host agenda items. Call them beforehand and ask them to share an update, story, or tip at specified points in the agenda.
- Invite engagement and design formats that enable participation. Balance content and process. Encourage interaction with different formats and exercises. If it is two-way engagement, participants will only interact with you, the host, if you want three-way engagement, allow some time for participants to communicate with each other. Both audio and text can be used for Q&A and participants can raise their hands (literally and sometimes virtually). Panel discussions can also work when facilitated, and I love sharing my screen and using collaboration technologies in real time with others. Some of these tools even let you text in ideas.
Be clear about the purpose of every activity, then select the engagement tech to enable it. You may need to integrate a few products. I will write some more about that soon but in the meantime below are a few engagement purposes you might choose from:
- Crowdsource ideas and collect input.
- Field questions and responses.
- Discuss and prioritise ideas or actions.
- Demonstrate the transparency of process, and how decisions are made.
- Make decisions with other stakeholders participating in the event.
- Share and build resources.
- Co-create documents and agendas.
– Build and facilitate online teams, communities and networks.
- Make it personal. Turn on your video on wherever possible. Tell people where you are, and who else is in the room. Consider your backdrop and how you will look on camera – small patterns are distracting, position the camera at eye level.
- Allow time for connection. Most video and teleconference tools now have waiting rooms. Invite participants to join you ahead of the call to meet, and introduce them to others, consider hosting virtual networking or open space sessions at the end of your event.
- Use a facilitator or coordinator if your event has more than 20 participants or has breakout groups. I will explain breakouts groups and these roles below.
- Break large groups into smaller groups. Breakouts are small group discussion held during a larger conference or video call. There are two types of breakout groups:
- A group calling in from a single location- participants come together in a single (physical) location then use one computer to ‘phone in’. This computer / user is allocated to a breakout which breaks out from the larger group.
- Distributed groups – where everyone in the breakout group is in a different location.
- Be clear about how you want to continue engagement. Follow up the event with a thank you email that includes an action statement clearly defining what you will do next and when and how you would like participants to engage with you again.
This is a way of breaking a large group into smaller groups to connect, discuss and workshop things. Zoom provides free access to breakout groups, but the process of breaking into groups then rejoining the larger group needs to be managed.
If you do use a breakout group, it is essential to consider how the smaller groups will report back to the whole group, and how you will bring information shared into the next session in your agenda.
Breakouts require the use of both a facilitator and coordinator. This facilitator should have experienced using the technology and in the design of participation into event formats.
You will also need facilitators and coordinators for each breakout group. These people can be members of the breakout group as long as the exercises, roles and purpose for them are clear to everyone involved.
The meeting host:
- Sets up the meeting and invites participants.
- Shares the agenda with names of people responsible for hosting or adding to items to be discussed.
- Provides call instructions and links (including back up options to call in) to everyone in the meeting invitation.
- Chairs the meeting.
- Can facilitate meetings for groups up to 10 people at a time (without breakouts) with a coordinators support.
- Needs the support of a facilitator and coordinator for meetings of more than 20 people, extended events, or when using breakout groups.
- TIPS for HOSTS- if running exercises during your call make sure your instructions are clear. Nominate a coordinator and make sure you have a facilitator for groups over 20 people if you want to field questions via audio and offer breakouts.
- Is necessary for group calls over 20 people if you want engagement and inclusion.
- Designs and leads exercises, discussions and Q&A sessions.
- Needs a coordinator so that they can focus on people on the call and verbal discussion.
- Briefs and manages breakout facilitators and coordinators.
- Manages all logistics and processes – technical, room set up, who to mute and when to unmute them, management of the chat.
- Manages (general) chat or hand raises on video calls.
- Let’s the facilitator know that there is a comment or question from people ‘outside the room’.
- Manages the technical aspects of the call and transitions to and from breakout groups.
- Supports participants with issues like audio/reverb.
- Are sometimes called moderators.
- Leads breakout exercises with breakout groups.
- Facilitates verbal discussions, ask questions and oversees the process of recording of information shared.
- Manages reporting back – during the call and afterwards.
- Leads and records verbal discussions.
The breakout coordinator
- Supports the facilitator and participants with basic technical issues and processes like rejoining the call and audio issues.
- Watches the chat for questions and comments from the group.
- Takes notes / records discussion.
Every Wednesday I will be offering free 1hour consultations to people looking for advice about technology for engagement and collaboration, virtual facilitation and online engagement. If you book my time, please come prepared with a draft agenda, clear objectives for your engagement, and some thoughts about your stakeholders and they will want to get out of the virtual event or engagement. I will do my best to help you if I can. You can book time with me using Calendly.
I will also be sharing more tips and thoughts on this blog in the coming days and weeks. Please let me know if they are helpful, if there are topics you would like me to prioritise and if you have any other questions that you think I can help you answer.
Take care and do just what you can.