Designing an online memorial service

Designing an online memorial serviceI am designing an online memorial service, to be held later this month. The deceased is not a person, but a beloved, 74-year-old small college that closed its local campus a few months ago. I taught there from 1983 – 1993. Under pandemic conditions, former alumni, faculty, staff, and other friends of the institution cannot even meet in person to grieve. So I decided to design and run an online memorial service.

My goals? To give people an opportunity to reminisce, share how they feel, catch up with old friends and make new ones, perhaps obtain some measure of closure, and have some fun.

We can currently only hold such gatherings online. So I’m sharing my design here, in the hope it’s helpful to others.

Designing an online memorial service — development

Given the above objectives, I worked on a design loosely based on what happens at traditional, in-person memorial services. Typically, these start with a formal set of remembrances and end with a social.

Framing the service beforehand

Most people have never attended an online memorial service before. So it’s important to give them an idea of what to expect. Besides explaining the program, as outlined below, we need to set expectations about what will happen during the event.

In this case, whether the school actually needed to close, how that decision was made, and the eventual closing of the school were all contentious issues. They stirred up a lot of feelings in the wider community. Orating about these (totally valid) feelings during the event would be like publicly complaining at a funeral about the poor quality of medical care the deceased received, or attacking other family members for caring poorly for the deceased. I decided that our event would not include public denigration, and included a statement to this effect in the invitations.

I also chose to call the service a “wake”, rather than a “memorial” or “funeral” for the school. Some participants who have not been actively involved with the school for decades may see the event principally as a way to share pleasant memories and catch up with old friends. The term wake evokes a more informal event and experience than that of a traditional funeral. I decided to start somewhat formally with everyone together, as in a traditional memorial service. Normally, such events transition into an in-person social, typically with food and drink available.

The opening program

Many in-person memorial services allow people to “come up to the microphone” when the spirit moves them. This doesn’t work so well online with a large group. There may be frequent pauses and it’s hard to create a workable presumption as to how long people speak.

So right now, I’m assuming that we will have a prescheduled opening program. During registration, we’re asking those who want to share to give us an idea of what they might do or say. Each contributor will know in advance when it’s their turn to share, and how long they have “on mike”.

Depending on the number of people who indicate they want to speak, we may include some time at the end of the opening program for a few additional people to share.

The transition program

Because this service is online, I’ve decided to add an optional transition between the formal remembrances and the ending social. To help reconnect people who have spent time together in the past, we’ll provide online “rooms” for specific groups. As the registrations come in, I will use the affiliation information included to create appropriate descriptions for these rooms. For example, we might have rooms for alumni who graduated in the 60’s or between ’90 and ’95, a room for staff, and a room for faculty. Registrants will preselect a room they’d like to join, and go there at the end of the formal session.

An online social

A year ago, there were few good options for providing an online substitute for an in-person social. Luckily, a host of new platforms have appeared this year (1) (2) that offer a great online social experience. I’ll have one of these available during the second and third phases of the service.

Implementation of the online memorial

I decided to design the wake as a three or more hour event. It’s scheduled to be optimum for North American participants (6:00 — 9:00+ pm EDT). This timing is not great for potential European attendees. But I reluctantly felt it necessary to focus on the majority of the target audience.

We’ll use two online platforms for the wake. I will run the opening, with everyone together, in Zoom, and use Zoom breakout rooms for the following smaller group get-togethers. The online social will be available after the opening, and will use one of the platforms mentioned in the above reviews.

Registration

Attendees (~90 right now) are registering on an online platform that’s free for free events. During registration, people let us know if they’d like to share something brief with everyone at the start, and, if so, what it would be. They can also suggest ideas for activities at the event, plus offer to help with any of the logistics:

  • Assisting with registration
  • Receive and curate writing, photos, audio, and video for creating some form of keepsake remembrance(s) for the event and, perhaps, post-event
  • Tech assistance on prerecorded content (if any) in Zoom
  • A Zoom meeting recorder
  • A “photographer” for the Zoom event
  • Zoom waiting room monitoring
  • Zoom meeting monitoring
  • Someone to assign Zoom breakout rooms
  • Zoom main room monitoring during group breakouts
  • Welcoming folks to and monitoring the online social platform

I am closing registrations five days before the event. This gives me and my volunteer assistants time to fine-tune the program, and figure out the amount of logistical support we’ll need.

A tip

One thing I’ve found invaluable in running large online meetings is a private channel for the event staff to communicate beforehand and in real-time during the event. (Meeting planners have employed wireless technology solutions to do this for decades.) I like to use a private Slack channel for this. Basic Slack has a short learning curve, has clients for every platform, and a free account is all you need.

Final thoughts

I hope this post will help you with designing an online memorial service. Have you designed and/or run one? What did you learn? What would you like to share to make the above advice more useful? Please let us know in the comments below!

Review of online social platform Rally

Review online social platform RallyAdding to my reports on new platforms providing online incarnations of traditional conference socials, here’s a review of online social platform Rally.

Two points before we start

First, if you don’t know about online social platforms, check out the introduction included in my earlier reviews of Gatherly and Yotribe.

And second, bear in mind that these platforms are continually improving, making reviews like this one a moving target. For example, Gatherly has significantly increased their platform functionality since I reviewed them two months ago, so be cautious making direct comparisons between my reviews. Be sure to visit the platform websites to get the latest updates. Better yet, get a free time-limited account and check them out yourself.

OK, on with the review.

Platform metaphor

Unlike the birdseye view map metaphor of Gatherly and Yotribe, Rally does something a little different. Rally provides a venue with multiple rooms, and each room can have a variable number of tables.

Currently, each room can hold up to 35 participants, and each table up to 9. The company says they are exploring increasing room size to 50.

Rooms can be named, opened, and closed by the Rally host (indicated with a ☆ next to their name). Venue owners can make other attendees co-hosts. You can set the duration for a room to be open — a nice feature. Rally can provide hosts with a custom URL for their venue.

Rally’s fixed maximum room size approach differs from Gatherly’s (where the typical maximum room size is larger, and can be increased by prior arrangement), and Yotribe’s (people are automatically split into new rooms when a room size of 36 is reached). Here’s a screenshot of a Rally online social.

We are currently in the Upstairs Patio. The room dropdown menu allows us to pick another open room to visit, as shown in the animated image at the bottom of this section.

My current table, where I’m video chatting with Jake and Steve, is shown below Aimey’s video (she’s on stage — more on this later). Three other tables are shown on the right.

Hovering over the picture of any occupant brings up a menu of potential interactions with that person. I can leave my table and join any of the others, and people can join my table too. Or I can invite anyone to sit with me at a new table (you can see me inviting Aimey to join me at a new table).

Since this screenshot was taken, Rally has added an option to make tables private, so no one can join the table or listen in to the conversation there until it’s set to public again.

Finally, Rally is planning to add room background images and color selection, and music background in rooms in the near future.

Sound

Rally has an interesting twist on the sound you hear during an online social. The speaker icon next to the “All Tables” caption allows you to choose the “background chatter volume”. Like an in-person social, you can set this so you can hear some of the conversation at other tables. There are three settings: medium, louder, and off. Some people probably like this. As an older, hearing-impaired guy who is quite auditorily distractible, I want this setting off. Your choice!

Chat and broadcast

Rally has recently added text chat and broadcast to the platform. Chat with the room is currently available, and Rally plans to add single person and table chat soon. The host can broadcast a text announcement to all attendees in all rooms.

Presentation & panel capability

Rally includes “on stage” functionality for each room, which can be useful for small gatherings. But it doesn’t provide a single stage for multiple rooms. So you can’t use Rally to create a presenter or panel session for more than (currently) 36 people.

A host can bring themself and others on and off stage. Folks on stage appear in larger video windows on the upper left of the screen. Anyone speaking on stage will be heard by everyone in the room, and presenters can hear audience response at a reduced level, rather like as if they were speaking at a live event. Rally includes functional presenter screen sharing. An unlimited number of people can be on stage at one time, though there can be bandwidth issues with more than four. If there are more than three people on stage, their video windows are reduced in size

A nice feature is that it’s possible to converse with other people at your table while listening to those on stage. Another feature that could be useful when in stage presentation mode is that Rally allows the meeting host to randomly shuffle table occupants into tables of 2, 3, or 4 people. This can be useful if you are using Rally in a stage plus discussion mode. Presenters can deliver a chunk of content, and then small groups, randomized as necessary, can then discuss what they heard or saw.

However, the room size limit to the number of people who can listen to folks on stage currently limits Rally to a presentation tool for small audiences. They say they’re working to include video broadcasting between rooms.

Experience quality and interface

Like the other platforms I’ve reviewed, Rally works best with Chrome on a laptop or PC. Hosts can login with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google. A Rally attendee just needs a link to the venue, and only needs to provide their name. If you have multiple input and output sound and video sources, you can choose between them.

I have used Rally a few times, and occasionally experienced glitches. There is an “Improve connection” button, which seems to take you out of the room and bring you in again, losing your place where you left in the process. In general I judge the quality of the video chat as good, but based on my limited experience, not as reliable as Zoom.

One annoying aspect of the interface is that anyone can invite you to a new table at any time without you being able to decline the request. This can be somewhat jarring. I was able to remove someone who was speaking on the stage by inviting them to a new table. A yes/no acceptance option when invited to join a table would solve the problem.

Rally needs to improve its onboarding process for first-time users. Though the interface is pretty easy to understand and use, the current one-page introduction document is barely adequate. Right now, it’s good to have a dedicated host who notices when new attendees appear and helps them acclimatize.

Pricing

Like other online social platforms, Rally is in beta and still firming up pricing. Currently they plan to offer two pricing models, one for repeated events, such as regular team happy hours, and another for one-time events. They expect repeated event monthly costs to be comparable to Zoom pricing. Custom events will be “competitive” and use a per user, per hour model.

Currently you can try a one-room version of Rally for free.

Platform focus

Rally describes its current platform focus as follows:

“Rally’s focus is on networking events. Our ideal markets are internal networking events or small to medium size events (10 to 1000 people); however we have been effective with 1000+ events as well. Our goal is to focus less on one time events and more on monthly recurring events. For us it’s better to sell to associations, businesses, corporate marketers, and student clubs instead of large tradeshows, conferences etc. So I’d position us on the more frequent smaller events scale vs. Gatherly or Yotribe.”

Understandably, most online services today prefer the steady revenues from subscriptions to one-time purchases, and, based on this statement, Rally is no exception. I’m sympathetic, though purchasing a subscription for an independent meeting designer and facilitator like me is probably not a great fit. However, I’m not Rally’s target market! As usual, my behavior will depend on the pricing model Rally chooses.

Conclusions

I like Rally a lot, and I’m enjoying the company’s continual improvement of their feature set and platform. I still slightly prefer Gatherly’s room map interface, but that’s a personal preference that many may not share. Both platforms offer a highly credible and enjoyable online social experience that is sure to be a permanent game-changer for meetings. (Until such platforms become the new normal.) I expect to use and/or recommend both Rally and Gatherly in future. Yotribe’s development seems to have stalled since I reviewed it — right now, in my opinion, it’s not a serious competitor.

There is always more to say, but I hope you’ve found this review of online social platform Rally useful. Please share your experience with Rally, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!

Stop treating adults like children at your conferences

stop treating adults like childrenPlease stop treating adults like children at your conferences. (For an exception, see the end of this post.)

With children there’s an argument for broadcast-style learning. Schools originally developed as establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information. They did this by bringing many students together, so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher. The key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society — for whatever reasons — is determined to cram into young heads during formal education.

For example, school curricula invariably include the Pythagorean theorem. (Why? One can make a case to skip it.) You can argue that most kids are best served by a broadcast style introduction to this GED requirement (though you might try a flipped classroom approach).

stop treating adults like children

Treat adults differently from children

But with adults, unless you’re an expert training a bunch of novices, there’s no excuse for deciding unilaterally “this is what you will learn today”.

Instead, frame the scope of the session, find out what people want to learn or discuss first, then create the session they want and need. Five minutes of Post It! for Sessions, described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing, is exactly what you’ll need for an in-person session. Or use this variant if you’re meeting online.

So, please stop treating adults like children at conferences. But with…

…one exception

Children play — and play is important at meetings. More precisely, creating the potential for meeting moments of what I’ve described as mystery, play, and the suspension of belief.

That doesn’t mean filling our events with children’s games, singing, and water and sand play tables. Though I remember a few conferences I attended where such activities would have made a distinct improvement.

Rather, consider including sessions involving improvisation, Serious Play, and creative group work that satisfy attendees’ actual wants and needs. And if someone brings bagpipes to your event, let’s dance the hornpipe! 

Which meeting design books should I buy?

Here are five meeting design books I especially recommend. Each gets a short overview, so you can figure out which one(s) will satisfy your wants and needs. In an outrageous display of chutzpah, I wrote three of these books. [If you decide to buy one of mine, read the conclusion of this post for ways to pay less!]

Into the Heart of Meetings: Basic Principles of Meeting Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design booksIn 2013, Eric de Groot and Mike van de Vijver published this unique, extraordinary, and important book on meeting design. Into the Heart of Meetings takes the reader on a deep exploration of “the essential processes that take place during meetings and how to influence these processes through Meeting Design in order to obtain the best outcomes.”

Rather than the usual “how to create great meetings book” approach of tying meeting design to the logistical challenges of the kinds of meetings we have all experienced, Eric & Mike correctly concentrate on the process of (non-routine) meetings: how to design in interactive meeting experiences and behaviors that create the meeting’s desired and needed outcomes.

There are methods of meeting process design in this book I’ve seen nowhere else. (To get a taste, check out blog posts I wrote about three of them: 1, 2, & 3). Whether you’re a meeting design novice or seasoned pro, you will learn really important things from this book. Buy it!

Intentional Event Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design books

Amidst the myriad books on creating and running events, Intentional Event Design, by Tahira Endean and published in 2017, stands out. (And I’m not saying that because she’s kind enough to mention two of my books and an event I designed and facilitated.)

This book is a modern, comprehensive, and eminently readable introduction to what Tahira calls people-centric, purpose-driven meeting design. Unlike older books, it covers the impact of digital technology (apps, online meetings, and social media marketing) on the meetings world, includes a healthy dollop of the relevance of learning theory to meeting design, and manages to squeeze in trade shows, accessibility, and wellness in a fairly short book.

Yes, other meeting industry books contain more detailed information about event logistics. Things like working with DMCs and writing RFPs. Tahira focuses on the important big picture issues, with a well chosen mix of detailed contributions from trusted industry sources. Intentional Event Design doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to design an effective event. But I think it’s a solid and accessible introduction to meeting design that’s well worth reading.

Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design books

I wrote Conferences That Work, published in 2009, because in 1992, after decades of convening and running traditional conferences, circumstances forced me to invent a new kind of meeting. (The story is told in the book’s preface.) During the next dozen years, I adopted the design for other events. Eventually, I realized that people loved the meetings it created.

In Conferences That Work I lay out four key assumptions that lurk behind the traditional meeting format. I show how they perpetuate a conference model that no longer well serves meeting stakeholders, especially attendees. The first third of the book is a powerful manifesto for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, just as relevant today as it was 11 years ago.

Once the case for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings is made, the book goes on to provide a complete practical guide to preparing and running a peer conference. It has been praised as an exemplary guide to creating a small conference of any kind from scratch.

I’ve updated the book (twice) via a free supplement that can be downloaded here.

Buy this book if you want to:

  • understand why traditional broadcast-style meeting formats are obsolete;
  • learn the why and how of creating meeting process that truly engages and satisfies participants; and
  • possess a complete detailed guide to creating peer conferences.

The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design booksWhile Conferences That Work teaches how to design and execute remarkable conferences, The Power of Participation shows how to improve your meetings at a finer level — individual meeting sessions.

Today, making valuable connections is for many the compelling reason for attending meetings. Yet, time and time again, meetings relegate “networking” to meals and socials outside the sessions, filling events with lectures followed by a few minutes of audience questions.

The Power of Participation supplies conference presenters, organizers, and marketers with a comprehensive toolkit of simple techniques for creating participative sessions that involve the audience in their learning while simultaneously fostering meaningful peer connections.

Smart presenters and meeting organizers integrate experiential learning and peer connection into their events. This book tells you how to do it.

Buy this book to learn:

  • why it’s vital to incorporate participation into every aspect of your events.
  • what you need to know to create meeting environments that support and encourage participation.
  • when and how to use an extensive compendium of specific, detailed techniques to radically improve your sessions and meetings.

Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design booksFinally, Event Crowdsourcing, which expands on a key portion of the material covered in The Power of Participation.

The book explains both program and session crowdsourcing: how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the right sessions and the session content attendees actually want and need. There is some overlap between this book and The Power of Participation. But Event Crowdsourcing includes new techniques, plus significantly more critical details and enhancements. (The enhancements to my core technique The Three Questions, alone, justify getting this book.) If you want to create events that are far more responsive to participant wants and needs than the dominant unconference paradigm — Open Space — this is the book for you!

Conclusion

OK, you skipped here to see if you could save money. Fair enough. Here’s the simple deal — the more of my books you buy, the more you save.

The best and most popular SKU is a set of all three books in both paperback and ebook formats, at a price that’s less than buying the three paperbacks separately.

Prefer ebooks? Buy a set of all three at a good discount.

Finally, don’t forget that first-time buyers of any book from my online store (even a single $11 ebook!) get thirty minutes of free consulting from yours truly at a mutually convenient time.

COVID-19, in-person meetings, and wishful thinking

COVID-19 and in-person meetings This is not an easy post to write. The pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter.

In order to overcome the many significant challenges created by the coronavirus, the meeting industry has made valiant efforts to rethink in-person meetings. The goal? To bring people safely into the same physical space, so they can meet as they did before the pandemic.

Sadly, I believe such efforts are based on wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking

It’s nice to imagine that, if we can figure out how to bring people safely together in person in a COVID-19 world, our meetings will be the same as they were pre-pandemic.

But until we create and broadly administer an effective vaccine (or we suffer the disastrous and massive illnesses and deaths that will occur obtaining herd immunity) they can’t be the same meetings.

Moreover, there are two reasons why there is no persuasive use case for holding almost any in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Why in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment

By now we know that in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, people near each other must:

  • Wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth; and
  • Stay six or more feet apart.

Here’s what that looks like at an in-person meeting.

COVID-19 and in-person meetings

Let’s set aside the significant issues of whether attendees can:

  • safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely;
  • move around an event venue while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • be fed safely.

While difficult, I think we can do all these things. Well-meaning meeting industry professionals are understandingly desperate to bring back in-person meetings from oblivion. But they assume that if they can solve the above challenges, an effective meeting can occur.

But good meetings are not about listening to broadcast content

In doing so, they have reverted to the old, deeply embedded notion that, fundamentally, in-person meetings are about listening to broadcast content. Since the rise of online, broadcast-format content can be delivered far more inexpensively, efficiently, and conveniently online than at in-person events.

As I have explained repeatedly in my books and on this blog (e.g., here) assuming that conferences are fundamentally about lectures ignores what is truly useful about good meetings.

Among other things, good meetings must provide personal and useful connection around relevant content.

Masks and six or more feet separation ≠ connection

Unfortunately, you cannot connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet away!Why? Because we are exquisitely sensitive to body language and facial expressions. With everyone social distanced and faces half hidden, the normal cues of connection, such as microexpressions and subtle shifts in posture, are hard to read. In my experience, it can often be easier to read emotions and responses in video chats than socially distanced situations.

New tools for online connection

In addition, new online social platforms (two examples) provide easy-to-learn and fluid video chat alternatives to the in-person breaks, meals, and socials that are so important at in-person meetings. Do these tools supply as good connection and engagement as pre-pandemic, in person meetings? Not quite. (Though they supply some useful advantages over in-person meetings, they can’t replace friendly hugs!) Are they good enough? In my judgment, yes! In the last few months, I’ve built and strengthened as many relationships at online meetings as I used to in-person.

A depressing conclusion

Right now, the learning, connection, and engagement possible at well-designed online meetings is at least comparable — and in some ways superior — to what’s feasible at in-person meetings that are safe to attend in a COVID-19 world.

Now add the significant barriers and costs to holding in-person meetings during this pandemic. The challenges of providing safe travel, accommodations, venue traffic patterns, and food & beverage all have to be overcome. Even if credible solutions are developed (as I believe they can be in many cases), potential attendees must still be persuaded that the solutions are safe, and your meeting can be trusted to implement them perfectly.

My own example

I’ll share my own example, as a 68 year old who, pre-pandemic, facilitated and participated in around fifty meetings each year. Since COVID-19 awareness reached the U.S. five months ago, I have barely been inside a building besides my home. I have only attended one in-person meeting during this time: a local school board meeting held in a large gymnasium with the fifteen or so masked attendees arranged in a large circle of chairs in the center of the room. I am not willing to fly anywhere, except in the case of an emergency. Everyone has their own assessment of risks taken during these times. But I will simply not risk my health to attend an in-person meeting at present. Especially when online meetings provide a reasonable substitute. I don’t think I’m alone in this determination.

I do not think that the research initiated and venue upgrades made are a waste of time, money, and effort. There may well be a time when an effective vaccine exists and is being introduced. At this point, in-person meetings may be able to start up again without the critical barriers introduced by universal masks and social distancing.

Until then, I don’t see a credible use case for holding significant in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Image attribution: Erin Schaff/New York Times

How to start online meetings on time

start online meetings on timeIs it possible to routinely start online meetings on time? Yes!

But first…

Think about the last three meetings you attended. Raise your hand if all of them started on time.

Anyone? Anyone?

Why don’t scheduled meetings start on time?

The reason that almost no scheduled meetings (in-person or online) start on time is that we provide one single time for meetings to both open and start.

Even with the best intentions, participants can’t and won’t all arrive simultaneously at the exact time a meeting is scheduled to start. With a single fixed time to open and start a meeting, everyone will either be “early” or “late”.

In addition, meeting invitations don’t supply information as to what the consequences of being early or late will be!

  • If you arrive early for an in-person meeting, you may find the meeting room locked or occupied by another, earlier meeting. You have to wait around until the room is free. You have no idea if anyone else may be early, which gives you little incentive to be early.
  • If you arrive early for an online meeting, you may find the meeting host hasn’t opened the online meeting platform yet. You will have to wait around until the host starts the meeting and lets you in. You don’t know if anyone else will be around beside the host, with whom you may have to chat to be polite. If you’re busy, the smart thing to do is to join the meeting at the last minute. And if there’s a glitch in the meeting platform technology or connection, you may end up being late.
  • If you arrive late for an in-person or online meeting, you may miss stuff. Things may need to be repeated for your benefit, annoying the folks who did arrive on time. Or you may effectively delay the meeting start because you (or enough of the other participants) are late.

Whatever happens, no one wins, time is wasted, and the meeting quality suffers!

Scheduling a meeting to open and start at the same time invariably ensures that it won’t start on time.

We reluctantly put up with this imperfect state of affairs for in-person meetings. Over time, repeated team or intra-organization meetings tend to create an implicit expectation as to when they will start. (For example: “We never get going until ten minutes past the hour“, or “the VP is always five minutes late and wants to be the last person to arrive“.) We adjust our behavior accordingly.

Starting online meetings on time is typically harder, because many of them include a specific mix of people who have never met before (and may never meet again as that exact set). There is no prior history to guide when you should arrive.

Although the following advice can improve the likelihood that any kind of meeting will start on time, I’ll focus on online meetings here.

How to start online meetings on time

Two small changes make it far more likely that an online meeting will start on time.

1. Include two times in your meeting invitation. The time when the meeting will open, and the time when the meeting will start.

For example: “We’ll open the Zoom meeting at 13:45 EDT, and start promptly at 14:00 EDT.”

2. To improve the meeting start experience further, let people know what (if anything) will be happening between the open and start time of the meeting.

For example: “Arrive a little early, and chat with our presenter, Lamar Moorel, before the meeting starts!”

Providing both an open and a start time for a meeting gives participants the information they need to plan when to join the meeting. People can join “early” if they are worried about getting the technology or connection to work, or if they want to chat informally with others before the meeting starts. And because it’s clear to everyone that there is a buffer time available to join the meeting, people are likely to understand and accept the expectation that the meeting will start promptly at the start time.

How much time should we allow between opening and starting the meeting?

The time difference between the opening and starting times depends on the meeting circumstances. For a small meeting using a familiar meeting platform, I’ll typically schedule 10 – 15 minutes. For a larger meeting, or one using an unfamiliar meeting platform I might open a meeting 30 minutes before it starts. This allows time for a help desk to assist anyone who has problems signing in.

Begin the meeting promptly at the start time!

Whatever duration you schedule between open and start times, it’s important to begin the meeting promptly at the start time! Unless a key person is missing, do not delay starting your meeting. By clearly communicating your meeting’s starting parameters, the onus to be on time falls on the participants, not you. And because most people will respond to the (invisible) social pressure created by your announced open and start times, you are likely to have many more people arrive “on time” than if you had just scheduled a single start time.

A final word about folks who are habitually late

Everyone is late to a meeting once in a while, for reasons beyond their control. But some people routinely arrive late to meetings, typically for two reasons:

  • Power dynamics — some folks feel the need to demonstrate they’re more important or busier than you.
  • Cultural differences — people from cultures where arriving “late” to meetings is normal. (For example: participants from such countries as Mexico, Greece, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Algeria, Ghana, India, Kazakhstan, and Russia may be habitually late.) Such folks aren’t being impolite — it’s simply what’s normal for their culture.

I don’t have a magic way to make people who are habitually late for meetings arrive on time. But by incorporating an open and a start time into your online meeting announcements, such people may get the message that you’re not going to delay the meeting start for them. If attending the entire meeting is important, who knows, perhaps they will stop being late for your meetings! (Only your meetings though.)

Do you have other strategies to start online meetings on time? Feel free to share them in the comments!

How to create great online breakout sessions

How can we create great online breakout sessions?

Does this sound familiar?

You attend a conference session on a topic that interests you. Perhaps you’re a novice, or an expert, or someone in between. Or perhaps you want a general introduction. Perhaps you have a few specific aspects you want to hear about, or questions to which you’d love to get answers.

The presenter begins, and you quickly realize the session is not going to meet your needs. (Or, even worse, you sit through the whole thing, expecting your specific interests to be addressed — but they never are.)

How many other attendees are having the same experience?  How many attendees are getting their wants and needs met by this session?

We will probably never know.

At traditional sessions, you might get a hint of how well the presenter met wants and needs at the end, when “there’s time for a few questions”. Whatever you discover at that point, it’s too late.

How to create great breakout sessions

There’s a better approach.

Whether a breakout session is in-person or online, the way for a leader or presenter to make it great is to:

  • quickly uncover audience interests at the start of the session; and
  • use the expressed wants and needs to create a session that covers the desired content at the required level.

Why does this approach create great sessions?

This approach works because it makes a transparent effort to provide an optimal session for the participants: what they actually want and need. Participants appreciate this! You might end up with a plan like this one:

“It looks like about a third of you are relatively new to [the session topic] and you’re mainly interested in an introduction. The rest of you seem most interested in spending time learning about X & Y. A couple of you have specific questions that I can answer quite quickly.

I can provide an introduction to [the session topic]. Ayesha has expertise in X, and Cyrus and I know about Y. I propose I start with an introduction to [the session topic] for ten to fifteen minutes. Then let’s turn the session over to Ayesha for fifteen minutes on X, followed by Cyrus & I for around fifteen minutes on Y. During the remainder of the session I’ll answer the two specific questions, and we’ll use any remaining time to answer final questions.

How does that sound to everyone?”

The transparency of this process is really important, because, of course, it’s impossible to create a session that’s perfect for everyone. Suppose, for example, that you have a specific need that might take up most of the session to be fulfilled…and you’re the only person who asks for this. OK, so you’re not going to get your needs met, but at least you understand why. Furthermore, a smart presenter may still be able to offer an opportunity to respond to your need: e.g., “John, we don’t have time in this session to talk about Z, but email me and I’ll send you some articles that should be helpful.”

How to create great in-person breakout sessions

At in-person events, it’s easy to uncover audience interests using the Post It! For Sessions technique described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. The presenter supplies a pen and sticky note to each attendee and asks them to write down one topic they would like explored, or question they would like answered during the session. The notes are collected and categorized into broad themes, and the presenter designs a responsive session, like the one above, on the spot. (Check out the book for more details.)

How to create great online breakout sessions

With a little ingenuity, it’s simple to modify Post It! For Sessions for an online breakout session.

To start, ask everyone to come up with their answer to this question:

What one thing do I want to get from this session?

Tell them that their response can be specific or general; they get to choose what they most desire. Give them a minute to think about their answer, and ask them to post it in the online platform’s text chat.
create great online breakout sessionsIn the example above (a breakout session held in Zoom for store owners) there is interest from more than one participant in: selling to millennials, store signage, ecommerce, and employee development.

Now, you and your participants have a much better idea of the wants and needs in the “room”.

Quickly review the requests, and ask submitters to clarify any that are unclear or vague.

Then create a brief plan for the session, based on the expressed wants and needs. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics you won’t be able to cover in the time available. Ask if there are subject matter experts in the room that can address some of the topics raised, and incorporate that information into your plan. Ask for feedback and adjust the plan if necessary.

Then do it!

It isn’t hard and it doesn’t take long

You can create great online breakout sessions in about five minutes. Taking the time to discover what participants want and need and creating a session that meets the group’s desires as closely as possible will pay rich dividends. Try it and see!

The best way to hold a discussion online

best way to hold a discussion online

What’s the best way to hold a discussion online?

For years I’ve been successfully facilitating in-person group discussions at meetings, using the simple fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich processes. These techniques work because at any moment, only a small, clearly defined, (but constantly changing) group of people are involved in the discussion. As a result you can moderate an interesting, orderly discussion with hundreds of people, any of who have an equal opportunity to speak.

Online group discussions bring a new set of challenges.

We have all experienced poorly facilitated online meetings, where people unilaterally turn on their microphones and speak away, colliding aurally with others and monopolizing the conversation. An experienced moderator can minimize this behavior with a starting set of clear agreements that participants will follow during the discussion.

But however good the facilitation, there is far less environmental and body language information available online than in-person. The subtle cues we’ve all learned for moving between listening and speaking in a conversation are largely absent. (Stephen Mugford and Pamela Kinnear go into more detail here.) This makes creating a useful, flowing discussion harder.

Existing solutions and their limitations

Some of the fancier online meeting platforms provide functionality that can support simple fishbowl process quite well. Typically they use the “panel on a stage” model. A moderator moves audience members who raise their hand in some fashion into a panel (speaking) seat. When people have finished speaking, they leave the stage and the moderator can fill their seat with someone else.

Currently, though, such platforms don’t make it easy to move people in and out of pair or trio share groups: a requirement for the “bread” portions of the fishbowl sandwich.

One of the reasons I like to use Zoom for online meetings is its reliable and easy ability to quickly move people into breakout room groups for sharing. Zoom is a great tool for a discussion session’s opening and closing small-group fishbowl sandwich sharing. But how can we moderate discussion amongst a sea of faces during the fishbowl itself?

How to effectively hold a discussion online in Zoom

I’m indebted to Stephen Mugford for suggesting a simple and effective way of moderating fishbowl in Zoom.

In-person fishbowls use “people sitting in the 3 – 5 chairs up front, facing the group” to indicate who can speak at any moment. For a Zoom discussion, the same delineation can be made. Simply ask everyone except the facilitator/moderator to turn off their camera and microphone at the start.

When someone wants to speak, they turn on their camera and microphone. A nice feature of Zoom is that their picture will then jump to the top of Zoom’s speaker or gallery view. This makes them easy to spot.

The moderator guides the order of speaking and discussion with those who are “live” in the usual way. When people have finished sharing for the moment, they turn off their video/microphone and return to listening.

A variation

Sometimes when I run a fishbowl in person there are many who want to speak. I have them queue up in a short line at the side of the chairs. That provides feedback to the folks in the chairs that maybe it’s time to give someone else a turn!

Similarly, you can use Zoom’s text chat to queue up people who wish to enter the fishbowl. This allows:

  • those who are calling in by phone to signal they want to speak; and
  • the facilitator and group to see how many people are waiting to speak.

In practice, I’ve found the suggested live/listening camera/microphone protocol works very well. I only add using text chat as a signaling channel when there are participants who are calling in by phone.

Simple!

This is a simple and successful way to implement fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich discussion process in Zoom. I recommend you try it! And if you have used other platforms to run these processes successfully, please share in the comments below!

How to entwine content and connection during an online conference

content and connection during an online conferenceHow can we entwine content and connection during an online conference?

During a MeetingsCommunity (MeCo) discussion thread “Networking at conferences” last week, Sharon Fisher posted this.

Sharon’s post

Hi all,

I am coming in very late to this conversation, but figured it’s never too late to share. For the last two years, I have been pondering “why is there such a big separation between content and networking?” Why do we look at those things as two distinctly different offerings? Why are we not blending the two together and looking at holistic ways to accomplish both goals with the same solutions?

And at the same time we being tasked with making our meetings more engaging, so why are so few of us asking ‘how do we make content/learning more engaging’ – as opposed to looking at those two concepts as different things. We seem to look at engagement as entertainment, décor, seating, venues, etc. (ie: more environmental) but rarely consider other alternatives to making our learning engaging.

Now that we are in the virtual world, I think it’s even more critical to stop looking at networking & engagement as something that happens outside of the sessions, and more as participation and conversation within the sessions. And exploring ways to blend education/learning/content with participation/networking/idea sharing/games so as to make our online learning more engaging.

Would love to hear from planners about how we might better integrate the ‘content designers/speakers’ into the engagement conversation. And to hear what you are doing in this online world to make your meetings more engaging.

Playing on…

Sharon Fisher

As it happened, I’d just completed facilitating an online conference that I think did entwine content and connection. This was my reply to Sharon:

My response

“Hey Sharon,

As you may know, you broach a topic dear to my heart. Why so many continue to relegate content and networking (though I prefer the term connection) to separate activities is related to the human inclination to do things the way we’ve always done them at meetings. Since I just finished running and facilitating a three-day European/Asian online finance conference for senior executives that I designed (and I didn’t have to travel further than the green screen studio in my attic!) I thought it might be helpful to share an outline of how we blended content and connection throughout the event.

Day 1

We ran the event mainly in Zoom, with a couple of other tools that I’ll mention. On the first day we used a process I call The Three Questions, which I’ve used at in-person events for many years. It allows the participants to learn about each other, current content interests, and expertise and experience in the group. The session provides a mix of content and networking, simultaneously uncovering the content people want to cover and the people in the room who are resources for doing so. We split the participants into three breakout rooms for a more intimate session. We scribed the content choices publicly in a single Google doc, viewable by all three groups. Each session also had a scribe to record the expertise and experience of individual participants. From this data we built an inventory of the learning resources at the event.

When this session was over, we immediately introduced the attendees to another tool, Gatherly, which simulates an in-person social online in a simple but effective way.

When you enter the Gatherly “room” you see yourself as a named dot on a room map. Other participants appear as named dots. Click on the map to move next to someone and you join each other in video chat. Your dots become a circle on the map, with the number in the circle showing how many people are in the video chat group. Placing your cursor over the circle shows who’s in the chat. Move next to the circle to join the group chat. (You can temporarily “lock” the chat to have a private conversation.)

Gatherly allowed people to meet people they’d heard share in the previous sessions and deepen their connection. We made it available at every break in the conference program.

We took the information gleaned from the opening session and a small group of us used an online whiteboard tool, Miro, to build a conference program for the following day, matching the content wants and needs with the appropriate expert leadership available.

Here’s the initial Miro board containing the topics uncovered by The Three Questions and imported into Miro.
content and connection during an online conference
And here’s the “working” Miro board after the small group had determined the peer sessions to hold.
Day 2

The second day’s sessions were not lectures but interactive discussions and explorations, focused on the actual needs of the participants. At the start of each session, we used a simple design to discover what people wanted to learn. The results shaped the session in the ways participants requested. During the sessions, people discovered peers who had relevant knowledge to share, further increasing relevant connection. Gatherly was again available during the breaks and after the day’s last session.

Day 3

On the final day, I facilitated a session that started with a trio-share.

People were moved into breakout rooms in three’s, where they briefly shared:

  • their takeaways;
  • the aspects of the conference they liked; and
  • those aspects they would change to make it better.

Then I brought them back into the main Zoom room. There they first shared their positive responses to the event, and then their suggestions for improvements. The latter gave us some great ideas for future meetings. The overall sharing during this session creates a public evaluation of the event and increases group social bonding. This makes future meetings more “can’t miss”.

After the usual closing remarks and thanks, we ended with a Gatherly social.

Post event, the main conference sponsor wrote. “Better than ordinary conferences – we have made more connections with senior people in the industry. When is the next one?”

I hope this example gives a taste of how content and networking can be organically combined throughout an event in ways that improve the meeting for all: participants and sponsors alike.

—Adrian Segar—”

Entwining content and connection during an online conference isn’t hard, and the results are well worth the effort. If you have other suggestions for integrating these two core components of a successful event, please share them in the comment below!

Please don’t call them virtual meetings

I’ve been noticing a strange trend, ever since COVID-19 caused just about all bread and butter meetings to vanish. Suddenly, people are calling the meetings we’re holding these days virtual meetings.

In the immortal words of Bob Newhart.

Stop it!

Virtual

I’m sorry, but when I think of a virtual meeting, this comes to mind…

virtual meetings

…together with content like this…

virtual meetings

Now, before I get a storm of protests from dedicated Second Life fans, let me be clear that I’ve nothing against anyone who enjoys time in virtual worlds.

And if your meeting is using holographic telepresence to bring in a presenter or two, perhaps virtual is the right term.

Otherwise, I think there’s a better word to use. But let’s explore using virtual for a moment.

The two relevant definitions of “virtual” in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED account required] are:

“Not physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so.”

“That may be so called for practical purposes, although not according to strict definition; very near, almost absolute.”

I can’t really quibble with the application of the first definition, but the second reminds us that virtual also means “almost”, with the unsaid connotation that “virtual” isn’t so good.

Why the rise of the phrase “virtual” meetings?

I think meeting industry people are using “virtual” to describe Zoom/Teams/BlueJeans/WebEx meetings these days because we are upset that our traditional meetings, together with our livelihoods and useful expertise, have largely disappeared overnight.

We were and are proud of the meetings we created and ran. “These internet-enabled meetings just aren’t the same!” (And we’re right, they’re not.) And we’re feeling a mixture of grief and anger that they’re gone right now.

As a result, it’s tempting and understandable to use a term like “virtual” to describe what’s taken their place. We feel a little better, because “virtual” meetings aren’t really quite as good as the face-to-face events we’ve been holding for years.

What’s in a name?

Various event industry folks have discussed this terminology, like Dennis Shiao, who puts those early days of “virtual events” in a historical context …

‘I wish we came up with a better name. The dictionary definition of “virtual” refers to something “simulated or extended by computer software,” while I associate the word with “that which is not real.” The “virtual” in “virtual events” makes the category seem mysterious. When something is mysterious, it’s easy to put it aside or pay less attention.’
—Dennis Shiao

… and a recent thread on MECO with Mike Taubleb, Rohit Talwar, me, Sue Walton, Naomi Romanchok, Michelle Taunton, MaryAnne Bobrow, and Gloria Nelson.

The term I think we should use

First choice: Online

Let’s (continue) to call them Online meetings! I say “continue”, because currently, online is the most popular adjective used on the internet (~1.5 billion Google hits). Everyone knows what online means: Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans or ON24 or …

Second choice: Digital

Digital is pretty descriptive (and is the second most popular adjective used: ~1.4 billion results), but to me it feels a little ambiguous. Digital could stand for Zoom or a Slack channel or Second Life or …

Not my favorites

I’d like people to stop using virtual, for the reasons shared above. (It is also less popular than the two previous terms: ~1.1 billion hits.)

Also, let’s avoid livestream for meetings that involve any interaction. I think to most people, livestream means one-way communication (think streaming a movie or music), not something that’s interactive. If you’re hosting an interactive online event, “livestreaming” seems misleading. If, however, you’re broadcasting a meeting without any interaction from the online participants, livestreaming is an appropriate description.

And what should we use for traditional meetings?

If you’re actually meeting in a room with people (let’s hope we get to experience that soon!) I prefer in person, in-person, or face-to-face. What’s the difference between the first two? “In person” is an adverb, and “in-person” is an adjective. So we hold in-person events in person. Get it?

Oh, and let’s not forget hybrid

Finally, hybrid is a useful and specific descriptor for meetings that have both in-person and online components. We’ve had hybrid meetings for years, and I predict their popularity post-pandemic will only increase.

Conclusion

The grammar police don’t always win! My opinion may make no difference — but at least I’ve shared it. What do you think? Share your favorite meeting adjectives in the comments! 

Virtual photo and description attribution: Flickr user Lilith