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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

The key to creating virtual conferences that work

As event planners and attendees have learned, you can’t just duplicate a live event online. You need to rethink schedule, structure and content.

With conferences, retreats and in-person meetings rare these days, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, we have all discovered which kinds of face-to-face events can (or can’t) transfer to the internet. It’s already clear that a great virtual event takes more than a solid Wi-Fi connection and decent web conferencing software; it takes careful planning, effective facilitation and the right mix of channels.

As someone who has attended and spoken at many in-person and online conferences, I’ve learned a lot about what makes for good and bad events. Whether you’re planning a massive online gathering for thousands of attendees, or a simple meeting for a dozen colleagues, the same basic principles apply. And even if you’re just attending an event, rather than organizing one, a grasp of these principles can help you figure out which events are worth your time, and how to get the most from the ones you attend.

Setting up a structure

Right off the bat, if you’re creating an online version of what was originally envisaged as a live event, you need to rethink your schedule, structure and content. A full-day session is one thing when everyone is in the same space, but when you’ve got people dialing in and participating over video, it is absolutely exhausting. Between the focus required to stare at a screen all day and the awkwardness of feeling like you have to be camera-ready yourself, connecting over video is a lot more tiring than connecting in person.

You may need to break your event up into smaller chunks (like a series), add extended breaks throughout the day, or set it up it so that people can jump in and out when they need to refresh their attention. That way, attendees can decide which portions of the day get their full attention, and which portions they will half-listen to while they take care of other tasks.

Rethinking structure also means rethinking presentation. The obvious setup—someone talking to a camera, followed by video or text Q&A—can get tedious very quickly.

Organizers need to make sure that any essential information is shared in multiple forms: While the world has rightly turned against text-laden slides for in-person presentations, all that text can be helpful to audience members who are struggling to marshal their attention during a virtual event. It’s also useful to include some sessions that are audio only. Flagging these as “eyes optional" will make it possible for people to dial in by phone while they get outside for a walk, or take care of some chores around the house.

In addition, organizers should be sure to publish transcripts of all your presentations so people don’t have to re-watch the videos to absorb key lessons and insights.

Tone is another important factor. As long as you don’t get too cute, your event will probably benefit from a little levity; ask speakers to inject some lighter touches into their presentations, like some pop-culture references or candid photos of their chaotic home midcrisis, especially if they’re usually all business.

How to act

Once you’ve established a basic structure, you can set expectations for how participants will show up and engage.

If at all possible, design some portions of your event around audience participation, since most of us are even hungrier for human interaction right now. Again, think in terms of a variety of platforms and formats: Consider creating a Slack or Teams space with different channels and threads for people who want to establish continuing conversations over the life of the event, or a voice-only conversation room that can serve the role of the hallway at an in-person conference. You should also choose a videoconference platform that offers a chat sidebar for any questions or materials related to the immediate subject—fortunately, that is standard in just about every major platform.

You’ll also need at least one “off topic" space that is just for fun, playful interactions: There is nothing wrong with a business event turning social, and indeed, making room for that kind of spontaneity is only going to increase your participants’ sense of community and their positive feelings toward your event.

A guiding hand

But all of this conversation probably won’t happen naturally, at least at first. So make sure you have a dedicated facilitator (or facilitation team) to get things going.

In my years of attending online events, I’ve seen master facilitators take all kinds of approaches to this challenge. It can be as simple as asking everyone on the line to listen to the same piece of music for a couple of minutes, while setting aside all their other distractions and reflecting on their intentions for this gathering.

At a larger event, you might invite people to break out into one-on-one chats or small break rooms, and take turns exchanging answers to specific questions that let them get to know each other a little. Recently, I participated in a virtual meeting that began with everyone on the call sharing a photograph that represents what their life looks like during this period of social isolation, and talking a little bit about that experience.

After loosening people up and helping them get acquainted, a facilitator must maintain the flow of conversation and ensure different people have opportunities for participation. The facilitator should call on any raised hands, ensure any incoming comments or questions are actually addressed and invite contributions from people who haven’t yet found a way into the conversation.

While all of these considerations and potential changes can make it sound daunting to host a virtual event, few forms of work are as crucial right now. Gathering, in all its forms, is one of the most fundamental human traditions: It is how we connect with one another, how we build trust, how we learn and how we celebrate. At a time when so many people are suffering from social isolation, and when there is so much uncertainty about whether and how we will return to the world of meetings and events, our virtual gatherings provide a vital thread of continuity and connection.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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