Online Events: Preparation That Drives Participation

Imagine this: You were due to be heading to Brussels for the 100-person regional forum of a large international NGO. You and your national delegation are already discussing some of the key issues and setting out your positions. Then, with less than three weeks to go, the first covid-related travel restrictions come into force across the continent. The event looks doomed… until the steering committee decides to go ahead, online.

It turned out brilliantly. 

Comments included:

  • “The tech and facilitators were amazing, it felt super inclusive.”
  • “Technology facilitated a more inclusive meeting than is usually possible in person.”
  • “Technology! Great to have breakout sessions with so many different people. It makes everything very inclusive.”
  • “Great facilitation. Great diversity and inclusion.”
  • “Best facilitation ever (thanks Martin, Orla, Judy), more equal interaction than at any other meeting, no flights (climate thanks us). Virtuality rules!”

As part of the facilitation team with Martin Gilbraith and Orla Cronin I learned loads from this piece of work for Amnesty International.  

And my biggest learning was about preparation: how it’s more complicated, more time-consuming and more important for online events than for in-the-room ones.

Preparation for a remote event has many more dimensions than for an in-the-room one. More things are new, to more of those involved. With more new things comes more uncertainty, and a greater potential for things to go wrong…

As my friend Lisette Sutherland makes an excellent comment in Work Together Anywhere: “Successful remote working results from a finely tuned, consciously chosen combination of skill set, mind set and tool set.” 

It turns out that preparation for an online event also involves skill set, mind set and tool set – for facilitators, organisers, sponsors and participants. Let’s look at them individually.

Tool Set

Of course, everyone needs to learn how to drive the tools – in this case Basecamp for asynchronous communications, Zoom and Mentimeter for the synchronous event. 

At the same time, they need to learn to drive “the tools that drive the tools” – their own broadband, computer(s), headsets, webcams and wifi. 

And there’s another set of “tools” that make for effective online engagement. Things like light on your face, a quiet place to call from and a professional-looking background. What participants do here makes a huge difference to other participants’ experience. 

For an in-the-room event, organisers can choose a venue, step back and let the staff make it work. With an online video event like this one, everyone brings a part of the room with them. 

Until people are used to bringing a great space with them to the event, this is a big chunk of extra preparation for everyone. For the Amnesty event, all of this was lumped under the heading of “technology” and we tried to cover it in a couple of half-hour “orientation” sessions. 

  • In future, I’d find more ways to help people prepare to use not just the event tools, but their tools to drive those tools – and to set up their space to help others to have a great experience.  

Skill Set

As a facilitation team, we had the skills to design and run the event. We applied principles from Technology of Participation, adjusted for the online context with some ideas from Web Events That Connect

We knew that online events couldn’t reasonably run synchronous sessions for whole days over multiple days, so we worked with the organisers to reduce the amount of content to be covered. With an in-the-room conference there would have ben social time over meals: in this context we had to plan time for people to stand up, move, prepare food and so on, as well as providing social and lobby opportunities within the synchronous sessions. To keep things moving and the energy high, plenary sessions needed to be super short, breakout sessions frequent, instructions super clear.

I hadn’t reckoned with the variety of skill-set adjustments needed by organisers, sponsors, presenters and participants in this new environment. Everyone brought different levels of experience of “online”: some loved to use video, some were pouring ideas into the Zoom chat, others loved to post pictures in Basecamp, while some were clearly uncertain about the whole project, fearful of clicking the wrong button.   

Moderators and chairpeople, who may have spent decades honing their in-the-room skills, were suddenly at a loss. How do I know who wants to speak? How do I track the mood of the room? When it came to participants, the tried-and-tested approaches of the in-the-room committee-person seemed challenging in this context. How do I catch the eye of the chair? And what’s happened to corridor lobbying? 

It turns out that there’s a whole lot to learn. It’s a challenge. We expected people to just dive in and try things out. 

  • In future, I’d find ways to help organisers, presenters, sponsors and participants develop their online engagement skills, and distinguish this from “the tech”. 

Mind Set

Which leads on to the importance of mind set. 

In the Amnesty event, for presenters, sponsors and participants, it was largely about “having a go”. They had to accept that they probably wouldn’t feel as well-prepared as they would for an in-the-room event. 

For event designers and facilitators, like myself, the mind-set shift went somewhat the other way. I needed to do more preparation than I expect. My natural tendency leans towards spontaneity and emergence, but in this context I need to be willing to set constraints to ensure everyone felt as comfortable as possible. 

I needed to grab a hat which is labelled “producer” in the virtual-facilitation world, which means I’m there to be relied upon. The fact someone’s there “to look after the technology” meant that everyone else had more attention to pay to the people.

And that’s something that’s consistent whenever people meet, in-the-room or online. When we pay attention to the other, when we listen to what’s being said, when we respond authentically from head, heart and gut, good stuff typically emerges. That’s what happened here. 

  • In future, I’d be clearer with all those involved about the mind-set shift that was being requested. I’d develop more personal clarity about the distinct roles of event designer, producer, facilitator and moderator/chair, and share this with others. 

7 thoughts on “Online Events: Preparation That Drives Participation”

  1. Thanks for sharing Judy – well done. And to your point even with my weekly sessions with a small group – you are right there is a series of protocol messages that I have had to develop to educate the team at the NGO I work with to set up and send out my messages at the right time to our participants ( with cancer) re behavioural preps and practices for a successful session… on my third session… so much smoother with clarity as you say of role and managing the unexpected. Grateful for the pioneering work you and Steve are doing and your dedication to adding important resources to the knowldege commons. Take care and keep safe xxx Anne Munro-Kua

  2. Great article, Judy, and it was a pleasure working with you. I shall be referring all my virtual facilitation training participants to this blog post!

  3. Pingback: Online Events: The Details Of Good Preparation - Judy Rees

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