How To Get Your Online Group Talking

If you want to keep people engaged in your online workshops, meetings and other events, here’s a simple solution. Get them talking!

Most people find it pretty easy to focus when it’s their turn to talk, or when a chance to talk is coming up. It’s when they’re expected to listen for long periods that their attention drifts – perhaps because we think so much faster than anyone can speak, so there’s spare cognitive capacity.

When I design online workshops and events, I design in loads of opportunities for participants to talk to each other.

One innovation participants in my online events seem to love is to use Zoom breakout rooms to get people talking in small groups before the event officially starts. It replicates what happens at a friendly in-the-room event: as people gather, they chat to whoever’s near them.

Experience suggests that using this kind of ‘soft start’ helps participants to get comfortable in the online space, which helps them to stay engaged throughout the event. Perhaps as a result, they’re more likely to talk in the plenary session.

As a bonus, it offers a chance for them to check that they can be heard and seen, and minimises dull waiting time.

Of course, there’s more to maximising engagement in online events than the ‘soft start’. But it’s a great start 🙂

(For more tips, check out our e-book, Web Events That Connect.)

Soft Start: Here’s How I Do It

  • I greet each arriving participant by name, and check that they can be heard and seen
  • I repeat the explanation of what’s about to happen almost as many times as there are participants
  • My explanation ends with an invitation, “Are you ready to join the breakout <name> and <name>?
  • I put the very early birds into pairs. They’ll have heard the explanation clearly. Then, as it gets busier, I add more people to those pairs so that they are joining an established group and will hopefully follow what’s already happening
  • I keep the groups small – max four people
  • With larger events (50+) I only use the soft start before the start time. Once there’s a big rush of people, so people can’t be greeted by name, I stop. So not everyone gets to join a breakout, some people do just have to wait in the main room for others to return.

1 thought on “How To Get Your Online Group Talking”

  1. Hi Judy
    I ran a Zoom session yesterday evening for an event that I facilitate termly with headteachers. There was an element of reunion as people arrived on screen. Normally, back in the real world, individuals would enjoy coffee and cake and chat together, catching up on developments until the session started. As conversations started on screen, I offered break out rooms to people to get together on that particular topic. It worked really well. They were able to come back to the main group when they had caught up or stay until I sent the message that we were starting in one minute.
    The group size was twelve and I knew everyone so this was an easy thing to facilitate. They enjoyed it and felt secure that there was always a few of us together on the main screen for general warm up conversations until the main session began.
    The June event would usually be themed around a cream tea and summer celebration so they all had all tea and cake with them, which was rather nice, as was the whole group screenshot.

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