With the current uncertainty around travel and events, many organisations are facing event cancellations and postponements. Although it’s always better to bring people together face-to-face, virtual events can be effective with a bit of time and care put into them to make them engaging.
If you’re thinking of running a virtual conference, here are some “Virtual Meeting 101” things to consider:
Find your best software
Nowadays, there is fantastic videoconferencing software available that companies use regularly- far gone are the days of clunky connections and blurry camera quality.
Software such as Skype For Business (soon to be Microsoft Teams) is already embedded within organisations using Office 365 and can accommodate meetings of 200+ participants as well as having some “snazzy” features like screen sharing, artboards and polling. Zoom is another fantastic piece of software, with smooth-running camera and presentation features that’s easy to use; similarly, WebEx has great file sharing capabilities.
Of course, your best choice will be to look at whatever your organisation already uses. Think about the software that will be best for you- consider how many people/devices you need to accommodate, and try to go for something that maximises interactivity, as well as being reliable. There’s nothing worse than when a connection falls over…
Make it personal
One thing that virtual conferences struggle with is recreating the “personal” feel of a face-to-face event. It might never be quite the same as meeting people in person, but there are ways you can make teams feel less detached from the event.
If you and your software can handle it, turn your camera on. It’s not always possible, but it can make a difference. It’s far easier to build connection when you can see someone’s face, far easier to have discussions, and easier to “read the room”, knowing when someone has something to contribute.
If turning cameras on just won’t work, try to get people to put a picture of themselves on their account instead. It’s much easier than talking to a faceless grey figure!
Consider time zones
It should go without saying that time zones are a huge consideration for a virtual meeting. If your team, function or organisation is globally spread, you’ll have to work on the times at which your event sessions will take place, so that everyone can take part without having to stay up all night!
Sometimes, this is easier said than done- speaking from experience, time zones can be incredibly confusing. One approach that works well is to hold your “plenary” sessions at times that work for everyone worldwide, then having time zone brackets for smaller content sessions and discussion. This means that everyone can take part at a time that works for them and have the same experience as their colleagues in other countries, before feeding back together in a global plenary.
Make it visual
It’s not unfair to say that video conferencing can be quite boring. Just like in a face-to-face event, it’s often hard to concentrate when someone is talking through a slide deck…except this time, you can’t see them and it’s even harder to engage with those around you.
Try to keep the visuals in your meeting as engaging as possible. The best way would be to have those speaking on camera, especially in introductory or plenary sessions, or those with a leader or speaker. If you’re using PowerPoint, add in pictures of your presenters and keep the slides as visually appealing as possible, with as few words!
Even though it’s virtual, your event can still have a theme. We’ve run an event where sessions were set in different virtual “buildings”, each with its own visual style and appeal. People liked the idea that they were in a “community centre” and would refer to it accordingly!
Keep it interactive
As well as looking at how your content looks, you should consider how people will interact with it. As an absolute bare minimum, you should have a chat box feature enabled on your software to allow people to react, make comments and ask questions in real time.
If possible (and maybe during smaller meetings rather than with larger numbers), unmute the microphones at points where you’re looking for active discussion or Q&A. Allow time to take comments and answer any questions in the moment. Some software has some interactive features included which may help further participation, for example, polling, document sharing and collaboration- great to use if you want to gather opinions, share information or work together.
Break it out
One of the most effective parts of any conference is the discussion that takes place between delegates, usually over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. You can recreate this virtually by creating breakout sessions that take place in smaller groups or pairs.
It might take a little time to get a list of your attendees and pair them with people they wouldn’t usually work with (getting a good spread of different offices if you can), but it does pay off. Get your breakout group members to chat with their peers and allocate their own time for a virtual “coffee chat” whenever is best for them.
If you are still able to get people together in regional/local offices and/or use telepresence rooms for their breakouts, this is an even greater way of building connection- even if the in-person part is in distinct pockets.
If you’re facilitating a session in person, you become accustomed to reading the room, taking questions and comments. On a video call, it can be a little trickier, requiring more attention to pick up on the signals from participants that they have something to contribute. Pay particular attention to those on the call and make sure everyone gets a say.
If you’re using the chat box, for example, it might be best to facilitate sessions in pairs, with one person as the content/presentation lead and the other as a moderator. That way, you can cover any questions as they arise via the chat box or pause the presentation to voice them. You can also allocate specific question time, with the moderator collating questions as the session progresses.
If you’re using open microphones, you will need to make sure that people are muted and unmuted at the right time in order to help the conversation flow.
A virtual meeting doesn’t create a feeling of community quite as easily as a face-to-face meeting, but you can use the tools at your disposal to facilitate conversations before, during and after.
Make sure your communications in the lead up to the event are clear, with timings, logistics and joining instructions sent out to everyone. If your meeting has a theme, this is a great way of establishing it in advance, with visuals and tone, and event teaser campaigns can create a sense of excitement. Encourage people to meet the rest of their community in advance via chat or your team site.
When the event has finished, follow-up on the events that have taken place. If you’re able to, it’s a good idea to record the parts of the meeting- plenaries, keynotes or important updates- in order for people to access them again afterwards, as well as sharing any outputs. Bring your community into the communications, too- encourage people to add their own thoughts, pictures and videos from the event, or even a newsletter writeup of their experience.
Virtual meetings can require a fair bit of logistical planning, but they can be a good replacement for in-person events where travel and health restrictions are a problem.
If you’d like to speak to us- virtually or otherwise- about our experience in running virtual conferences, or have one of your own you’d like to plan, let us know!
“Please note: Colour; Noun is a partnership that believes in equality in all things, so if I have copied in firstname.lastname@example.org it is because we are equals. Please ensure that any replies don’t go just to me, but include her as well. Thank you.”
I have that as the signature on my email. I wish I didn’t have it, but it’s become necessary. In fact, emails are the tip of the iceberg.
We’ve all had it… the email that you send where you copy someone else in to keep them in the loop, followed by the reply that goes straight to you, ignoring the person you tried to include. Sometimes it’s an oversight, the consequence of the distance between “reply” and “reply all”. Sometimes it’s intended to keep people’s inboxes from overflowing with clutter. But, unfortunately, I believe, in this case, it’s part of a wider problem, rooted in attitudes and biases that don’t show much sign of going away. Let me tell you how the rest of the iceberg looks. But first of all a bit of background.
Colour; Noun was set up as an equal partnership between me – a man in my fifties - and Vicky Holding – a woman in her twenties. We split everything down the middle, whether it is work, money or responsibility because what we do requires both of us to bring our particular skills and apply them as necessary, when necessary. But…
So far, so male business world. But it isn’t. Alarmingly we’ve seen women do it too, many, many times. I could take this down a route that could lead to accusations of self-flagellation and a desperate desire to accentuate my feminist credentials, but I won’t. Even as I write this I am aware that it reads like I am attempting to protect her and plead her case. It’s not that at all. She is perfectly capable of holding her own, pushing herself forward and throwing herself wholeheartedly into whatever challenge comes along- and she does so all the time. In fact, I know that however unfair these attitudes are, she recognises them as part of life and has made her peace with that.
No, this isn’t about protecting Vicky’s feelings. It’s much more self-centred than that.
I get embarrassed. Embarrassed that people think I’m somehow more important, or cleverer, or better than her, when none of those things are true. Embarrassed by having to engineer inclusion into conversations by saying “what do you think Vicky?” or “you know more about this than I do”, when her repeated self-inclusion attempts don't work. Embarrassed that people think I turn up to meetings with a secretary, or a PA, or someone to take my notes and write up my reports. I hate leaving a meeting, or an event, or reading an email that elevates my status at the expense of someone who is most definitely at least half of Colour; Noun, and without whom we would not be what we are.
I’m not going to even try to change the way the world is through a blog post. I’m just saying it’s there and I hope that this article might make you think twice about the assumptions you make when you deal with people professionally.
And if I can eventually get rid of my email signature, you will make an (older) man very happy.
“We’d like to do something different” is a phrase we hear a LOT when we get event enquiries. But some people who say they want something different, actually don’t. What they want is Conference 101; they just want people to think it’s slightly different than last year.
Doing something different scares people. And for good reason. It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and it can be hard to break the mould, especially when people have become comfortable with the same things year after year. It can also be hard to convince people that doing “something different” is the right thing to do. You know people don’t like change...
Luckily, something different doesn’t have to mean something huge. You can start small and build up to something bigger and more daring as time goes on.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start, so here’s a few ways you can actually start to “do something different” at your next event:
Of course, you don’t have to do all of these, especially not all at the same time! Think about what you want to try first, and which small change would make the biggest impact at your next event.
And if you need help, give us a call...
Sometimes when you do something over and over again you see it with fresh eyes and appreciate how subtle and complex it really is. I’ll explain what I mean and perhaps it will encourage you to look at some of the systems and processes you follow as part of your routine and see what has been under your nose but hidden all along.
There is one exercise that I have been using for many years, and that we often return to at Colour; Noun, that explores how teams work together to develop a solution in a pressured and uncertain environment. From the outset, it has illustrated the core principles that the academic team that developed it wanted to highlight: that people will persist with what seems to be successful, even if it doesn’t advance their project; that unexpected changes provoke extreme reactions and attempts to deny that the change has happened; and that sometimes you have to take a step backwards to take more steps forward.
For a long time this activity that looked at processes had become just another process for me too… until the act of repetition started revealing patterns that repeated from group to group and that were much more subtle than the main themes that the exercise had been designed to address.
Little things started to click into place. The fact that everybody walked backwards to retrace their steps because if they turned around, they lost all their landmarks. The way that the group split when they planned their strategy at the start of the exercise into “planners” and “disconnected passengers” who lost all interest in “the plan” when it inevitably failed, and how even amongst the “planners” this failure brought about apathy, despair and a lack of connection – and an inevitable dilution of people who could offer guidance to the group.
The “big”, “obvious”, “intended” points were still there, but only by repeating the exercise dozens of times, with different groups, did the hidden, very human commonalities start to come out. There are many more things I started to see, and once I started seeing things that repeat and echo over a longer timescale than the exercise itself, it’s impossible not to see more each time. It’s like moving from being aware of the changing of the seasons to having an awareness of how continents move, and it has made the activity richer and more valuable to me and to the people who experience it.
So, what are the things that you have stopped seeing because you know them too well, and what things might become clear if you look past the comfort of the short-term activity and see the longer-term, repeating rhythms and behaviours that give an insight into how people work and operate?
I’d love to hear your thoughts...