Creating space for transformative conversations
March 31, 2020

This piece is a copy of our Executive Director Shauna Sylvester's presentation for Events Industry Council's webinar Moving online: How to transition your live event to an engaging virtual experience on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

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Good morning. It’s great to be here and I want to begin by acknowledging that I’m speaking from the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people – xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and SəlíM lwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. I’m in Vancouver and whenever we host a meeting in person, it is our protocol to acknowledge our indigenous people. I’ve done it here because although we have moved to an online platform, I want us to remember that this platform isn’t neutral – all of the same social, economic differences and similarities are still with us and we need to ensure that our technology helps us be more inclusive.

I’m excited to be with you today. You are the people who bring others together – you know what it is to create meetings that work. Like great hosts – you know how to welcome people, set a table, ensure everything runs without a hitch and that people go home feeling a little bit better because of what you have created.

So, my first message to you is that you have this. You have the skills and capacities to make the transition to online meetings – you are likely better equipped than most. And while the technology and the platforms you choose do matter, it is the skills that you bring in meeting design, in hosting, in setting the tone and following through that will make the difference between a good online experience and a bad one. So, others will have a chance to talk to you about technology and online community engagement, I want to talk to you about what makes a great online meeting.

1. The Why Matters

When you are designing an online meeting you need to be crystal clear about why you are bringing people together. We are all having to spend too many hours online right now so when we do sign up for a webinar, attend a gathering or a meeting, we don’t want it to be wandering and disorganized. You need to do the same scoping that you’ve always done. You need to identify what a successful meeting looks like and what failure looks like and you need to design the process of your meeting to fit that need. Which means the preparation is 75% of the meeting.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Have you sought the information you need to be clear on the objectives of the meeting (in other words did you scope this well? What promises are you making to the participants – is this an information sharing process? An educational meeting? A decision-making session? A deliberative process?)
  • Does the design deliver on those objectives?
  • Have you prepared your participants adequately?
  • Are they clear on the objectives, the protocols of the meeting and the technologies?

2. The Participants are Key

In a dialogue our job is to level the playing field and ensure that everyone that is coming to participate feels like gold. Ensuring people are adequately prepared to participate is important but creating opportunities for people to be seen, heard and valued is key in an online setting. We are getting more and more creative in how we do this.

In a dialogue we say we start and finish with participants. When we are in person, we’ll usually ask everyone to introduce themselves around the table, join a line exercise or introduce themselves to their neighbor. Online, we need to find new ways of grounding people in the room. “Video cameras on” is important so we can see everyone and while that works for smaller meetings, it may be more challenging for bigger ones. Where breakout rooms have been set up you can still do introductions around the table (we recommend asking them something personal – like what is one good thing that has happened to them that day, or describe what they can see when they look out their window or something that grounds the meeting – what is a question you want answered today). In a big space, you can do a poll when people sign on – a simple question that can easily be summarized in the opening by the moderator.

Whether it is a poll or getting everyone to unmute and on the count of three - call out one adjective that describes how they are feeling – whatever you do, ensure you find a way of opening your meeting in a way that acknowledges your participants.

3. Facilitation is Essential

How many of us have attended an online meeting when we didn’t know whose turn it was to speak or how to maneuver through the Q and A. There are lots of tools that enable us to moderate online dialogues but it is essential to have a one person playing the role of facilitator – guiding the process, acknowledging the speaking order for feedback or questions and keeping things flowing. I prefer the facilitator stays constant throughout the meeting.

Often when we are organizing an in-person meeting there are a series of people who have to be profiled (e.g. sponsors etc). Sometimes we ask these people to play moderating roles because of their positions and they don’t have the process skills to manage the online flow of a meeting. It’s critical that you have an experienced online facilitator managing the meeting flow. If you still need to profile others, make those short and effective speaking roles e.g. official welcoming, closing or introduction of speakers.

Where we are enabling chat functions or other online tools simultaneously, then it’s important to have a co-host - a person managing those interactions who the facilitator works with and calls on to summarize at certain points. Facilitation is more than being a traffic cop on line – the facilitator has to know how to communicate the online protocols and adhere to them, learn how to read the online room, know how to manage a group when the technology gets in the way, or understand that it is the facilitator’s role to interrupt speakers when they have gone astray and are taking up too much space. Ideally your facilitator designed the process for the meeting so they know how to pivot or adjust the agenda when it is required.

Remember, engagement will often take longer online so you need to buid in the time. If people have the mic, they tend to take longer, so the facilitator needs to model both the timing of a response and use of the mic so people can self manage.

4. Protocols or Terms of Engagement

Each online platform has different functionality and capacities for engagement. It’s important that well before the meeting begins the organizers know how to work with the technology and have a clear sense of how the participants will interact with it.

Ideally before a meeting starts, all participants will have been briefed on the technology and the protocols for the meeting. A written brief would have been sent out in advance of the meeting so that time is not spent bringing people, who have different experience and comfort levels with the technology, up to speed.

If it is possible, it’s good to get people to sign on to terms of engagement so they know how they are supposed to act. E.g. I acknowledge that I’m joining a meeting that is online and may be recorded. I promise not to record any part of the meeting or capture screen shots without permission from the organizers. I will keep my video screen on and my mic muted, to ensure that any background noise coming from my workplace does not interfere with the functioning of the meeting. I will use the hand raise to indicate when I would like to speak (or x in the chat function, or whatever formal or informal signal) and I will unmute my mic when the facilitator calls on me. If I need to leave the meeting for a few moments, I will turn off my camera so that it indicates that I am not available etc.

It’s important for the organizing team to develop these protocols or terms of engagement together so that they reflect the spirit of the meeting that you are hosting.

5. Different Engagement Styles for Different Learning Styles

We all learn in different ways. Some of us are verbal, some like to learn by doing, some like to have time to think and analyze before speaking. We also have introverted and extroverted personalities in our meetings and online sessions can create anxiety for some and be limiting for others. To add complexity, participants reflect different ways of knowing and may have cultural factors that influence how they act online.

When designing your online meeting, think about the different ways people like to learn, how they express themselves and how they interact and create different modalities to respond to these different online personalities. There are a variety of different strategies we employ. For examples: Polls are a great way for people to participate without revealing much about themselves. When you want to engage substantively, break out into smaller groups using breakout room functions. Allow people to engage on chat without calling them out to participate directly or give time for people to reflect on paper before asking for responses to a question. What can be irritating, is allowing those who feel comfortable online to dominate the discussion.

So, those are my top 5 essentials of hosting effective online meetings and dialogues. As all of you know, we could dive into any one of these and take a full day to explore it, but my sense is most of you already know the basics. You know how to create great meetings, now you need to value your expertise as you move to a new platform of delivery.

Remember that no one is an expert here, it is an evolving field. I hope you go easy on yourselves and have fun experimenting and innovating. Chances are good that some things will work and others will fail. And if you do fail, find the learnings and share them broadly because we can all learn from what doesn’t work as much as we can from what does.

I want to end with a very quick story – the other day, a good friend’s mother died. She was 95 and she was very well loved. In her honour a friend hosted a virtual memorial where we all came with our gin and tonics (Jean’s favourite) drink to the online platform. It was beautiful, intimate, fun and I haven’t felt so moved by a memorial in my life. We could see each other (or everyone that had linked in with camera’s on). We had our mics turned on for the celebration moments and off for the solemn moments. It felt like we were all there in the same room, laughing, telling stories and making toasts. Someone shared their screen and showed a slide show of Jean and we laughed some more. If you had told me I would be attending a memorial in this way I would never have thought it could work. But in the end, it was as beautiful and tender as if we had been in the same room.

So we can do this! It will be different, but you know what it takes to make a meeting great!

You have this!