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!