Nervous excitement is back!

nervous excitement

After two years of only designing and facilitating online meetings, I’m suddenly immersed in preparing for in-person meetings again. And that strange emotion nervous excitement is coming back!

Two multi-day events, 2,000 miles apart, in the space of a week.

Even an in-person pre-con, just like the old days.

I find it tough preparing for meetings. Creating designs, turning them into implementations, trying hard to not miss any important details, making sure everyone involved knows what they need to know and do, negotiating compromises, contingency planning, etc. Frankly, I feel just plain nervous before the event. It’s stressful. Preparation seems to have no limits — except I know it must end as soon as the meeting starts.

At that moment, nervous excitement takes over.

Nervous excitement

Many meeting professionals, speakers, and performers will know what I mean by nervous excitement. If you don’t, here’s how I described it at the start of my book The Power of Participation:

“When I got on my feet to dance in public for the first time in 32 years I felt a strange mixture of emotions, best described as nervous excitement. I had given up the idea that I had control over what might happen and was all too aware of the scary possibility that I might feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Simultaneously, there was a part of me that was tremendously curious and excited about what I was about to do.”
—Adrian Segar, The Power of Participation, Chapter 1

I feel nervous excitement when I:

  • have the responsibility for making something happen for many people;
  • am aware that what I do matters in the moment;
  • am giving up the illusion of control;
  • feel excited by and open to the possibilities of what might happen.

And then a funny thing happens…

…Usually, these days, I don’t feel nervous excitement that long!

It disappears. To be precise, the “nervous” piece goes away, and I’m left with excitement.

Which is pretty nice.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started standing up in front of meetings, I felt scared of making mistakes, losing control, or failing somehow.

Eventually, I learned that I never had control to begin with, just the myth of control.

And decades of practice showed me that I survive (so far) whatever happens. This emotional learning somehow changed how I felt once I got going. I’ve become brave. And I quickly move into what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called flow, “characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.”

I’ve noticed however that if I feel rushed — like at a workshop I gave recently — the nervous component persists. And that’s OK. As a lifelong learner, I continue to accept opportunities to improve my work. Nervous excitement is a vast improvement over the fear I felt when I dared to present and facilitate long ago. Oh, I gotta go, time to step up to the front of the room…

Image by Neil Cummings, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Lessons I learned from an online workshop

lessons learned online workshopI recently ran a workshop, hosted by the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Professionals (CSAE), on the design of participation-rich events. Here are the lessons I learned from this online workshop.

[Note: This event was a workshop, not a presentation. Sessions are often advertised as “workshops” that aren’t. If you want to know the difference, read this.]

Allocate enough time for workshops so you don’t have to rush

I think my biggest regret about this workshop is that it felt rushed. Why? The quick answer is that I tried to include too much for the time available. But it’s more complicated than that.

Don Presant asked me to offer a CSAE session of up to an hour in length. I asked for the maximum. In retrospect, I should have asked for more time. (I might not have got it, but it never hurts to ask.) After the workshop, Don asked me how long a time I would have preferred. “Two hours,” I replied immediately.

Over the years I’ve become good at keeping to the time allocated for sessions. My approach is simple; I practice what I plan to do with a stopwatch running and keep paring down what I’d thought to include until it fits. I note the elapsed time at the start of each new segment and check how I’m doing during the session, adjusting accordingly.

This workshop didn’t work out so well. I cover the logistical reasons below. But being rushed is never good. I had never tried to run a one-hour online workshop before. And one lesson I learned is that I’m not going to try to run one in just one hour again.

Additional concerns when a workshop is online

My workshop was designed to include two chunks of content and two participative exercises. As is usually the case in my workshops, I work at two levels. I try to make the workshop personally useful for the participants by allowing them to learn about each other. Simultaneously, participants experience and get familiar with how the formats I use work.

This workshop would have been better in person. I probably could have done it in an hour. What made it rushed online was the time taken to switch between content and participative segments, and the toll this took on the flow of the session.

If I’d run this workshop in person, I could have easily run it by myself. Online, I needed two assistants — thank you, Don and Carrie Fischer! Don did the intro and close, monitored the chat, and fed me questions. Carrie hosted the meeting on Zoom, set up multiple breakout rooms, and messaged instructions while the breakouts were in session. There’s no way I could have run this workshop without them. Yet I now realize that having one of them or a third person manage the context switches between the interactive and content portions of the workshop would have helped me a lot!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve run multiple successful two-hour or longer online workshops. Looking back at the run of shows, these workshops had a similar or fewer number of context switches between interactive and content segments. Consequently, I’m going to allocate longer times for workshops than an hour from now on.

Logistical concerns that made this workshop rushed

One unexpected logistical concern occurred just before the workshop started. Instead of using CSAE’s Professional Zoom account, we had to use mine. Fortunately, my Zoom settings were set as I needed them to be, but I did worry that this would require me to take over some of Carrie’s work. Luckily, with Don and her as co-hosts, Carrie was able to handle the usual Zoom support.

Unfortunately, I was responsible for the context switches between Zoom Gallery mode and sharing my keynote presentation slides. That was a mistake; at least the way I tried to implement it.

Using Keynote in Zoom

There are several ways to share a Keynote presentation in Zoom. My favorite is to share my Keynote presentation as a virtual background in Zoom. Zoom has described this functionality as “beta” for a while, but I’ve not had any problem with it to date except for the minor bug I found this time, as described below. My “talking head” is superimposed on my slide at the size and position I choose. Here’s an example (this is my view as the presenter):

lessons learned online workshop

This works well for a one-off presentation in a Zoom meeting. However, it turns out to be painful to implement when you need to switch in and out of Keynote during a workshop. Here’s why:

  • When you switch to displaying a Keynote deck via this method in Zoom, there’s a short delay while Zoom loads the deck. We tested this during our tech rehearsal and the delay was acceptable (a few seconds) with the setup and bandwidths we had. This is not a big deal, though it’s not what a professional production team would do.
  • More seriously, if you stop sharing your deck and then want to share it again, you can’t continue from the last slide you displayed. Zoom reloads the entire deck from scratch. My workshop involved three shares of my master deck, interspersed with participative portions in Gallery view. To avoid having to step through previously viewed slides, I split my workshop presentation into three Keynote decks. And that’s when I found a Zoom/Keynote bug…
  • The Zoom/Keynote bug. After splitting my presentation into three separate decks, I began a rehearsal. I ran through the first deck, stopped sharing it, and then selected the second deck. Zoom picked the wrong deck to display! (At first, I thought I’d clicked on the wrong deck, but it quickly became clear that Zoom+Keynote was to blame.) This was not acceptable! I realized that each of the three decks had the same long filename with a number appended to the end. I guessed that Zoom was not reading the entire filename, and that’s why it was picking the wrong deck. Sure enough, when I renamed the three decks with a number at the beginning of the filename, Zoom reliably picked the deck I had chosen. Phew!

Better ways to manage context switching

During the hour workshop, I had to perform six context switches while facilitating: Gallery->Keynote->Gallery->Keynote->Gallery->Keynote->Gallery. I found it distracted my mental flow, especially the several steps involved in starting up a different Keynote deck each time.

In Gallery view, I used breakout rooms and a camera off/on technique for simple human spectrograms and fishbowl discussion during the last segment of the workshop. This was complicated to manage in the short time available, and I felt the quality of the workshop suffered.

I mentioned these problems to my friend and event production expert Brandt Krueger, who sympathized. He pointed out that I had encountered limitations of software-based solutions to what are essentially production issues. For example, I could run Keynote on a second machine (I have three in my office) and use a switcher to instantly switch video between the Zoom and presentation computers. (Brandt loves the ATEM Mini switcher, and I have come close to buying one on several occasions.)

Consequences

I had assumed that what I’d rehearsed might take a little longer when I went live. And I expected to spend some time answering impromptu questions during the first three segments of the workshop. But I had reserved what I thought was enough time for the open-ended final discussion so I could still end on schedule.

As it turned out, I underestimated the slowdown from context switching. Answering a couple of questions brought me to the final segment about ten minutes later than I’d planned. The time for the concluding discussion was shorter than I would have liked. We went over a few minutes, and I cut a final “lessons learned” pair share I had planned to include.

Although I covered everything I’d planned, the workshop felt rushed to me, and I don’t do my best work under the circumstances.

Well, that’s how you learn. I’ll do better (and allow longer to do it) next time.

Conclusion

There are some of the lessons I learned from this online workshop. I hope they help you avoid my mistakes. If you have other suggestions for improving the challenging exercise of running an ambitious online workshop, please share them in the comments below.

Free online Participate Lab — May 11, 2022

Participate LabA rare opportunity! Hosted by CSAE Manitoba, this free one-hour online Participate Lab will introduce you to the design of participation-rich events through the direct experience of participatory meeting techniques and formats. All are welcome to attend this event at no charge (both CSAE members and non-members).

Registration is limited, so register now!

Where & When

Online on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 — 12:00 – 1:00 pm PDT • 1:00 – 2:00 pm MDT • 2:00 – 3:00 pm CDT • 3:00 – 4:00 pm EDT • 8:00 – 9:00 pm BST • 9:00 – 10:00 pm CEST.

What We Will Talk About

We’ve known for a long time that lectures are terrible ways to learn. Today’s attendees are no longer satisfied sitting and listening to people talking at them. If you want to hold meetings where effective learning, connection, and engagement take place, you need to build in authentic and relevant participation.

Our time together at this Participate Lab will cover:

  • Why creating participation-rich meetings is so important.
  • Human spectrograms: a simple tool for learning about other participants.
  • The Conference Arc:
    • Building connection while uncovering wants, needs, and resources.
    • Creating the right program.
    • Consolidating learning.
    • Facilitating individual and community growth.
  • Ask Adrian Anything: using a fishbowl sandwich to facilitate group discussion on meeting design and facilitation.

This workshop is limited to 100 attendees, so register now!

Two novel hybrid meeting formats

hybrid meeting formatsI’ve been writing about hybrid meetings for a long time; my first post was in February 2010. The COVID19 pandemic created an explosion of interest in hybrid meetings, and the marketplace and event professionals are still defining what “hybrid” means. (No, sticking a streaming camera in the back of the room does not make an in-person meeting hybrid.) It turns out that hybrid events offer rich design possibilities. To illustrate, I’ll describe the objectives and subsequent design of two novel hybrid meeting formats. Both are unique, as far as I know, in that the in-person and online participants are the same people! Sounds crazy, yes, but stay with me!

The first novel hybrid meeting format was invented by Joel Backon back in 2010. The second is a design I’ll be using in a conference I’ve designed and will be facilitating in June 2022.

1—In-person attendees participate in an online session!

Back when hardly anyone used the term “hybrid” for a meeting, let alone participated in one, I had the good fortune to participate in a novel session “Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop” designed by Joel Backon at the 2010 annual edACCESS conference. During the session, all the in-person participants had an online experience, followed by an in-person retrospective. The online portion felt eerie…

“Some participants had traveled thousands of miles to edACCESS 2010, and now here we were, sitting in a theater auditorium, silently working at our computers.”
—Adrian Segar, Innovative participatory conference session: a case study using online tools, June 27, 2010.

Check out my original post for the details of the session, which explored the unexpected advantages of working together online even when the participants are physically present. The experience certainly opened my eyes to the power of collaboratively working on a time-limited project using online tools.

You can use this novel hybrid meeting format to explore the effectiveness of employing appropriate online tools to work on problems at an in-person event. Following up the exercise with an immediate in-person retrospective uncovers and reinforces participants’ learning.

These days it’s even easier to implement similar hybrid sessions at in-person meetings. Participants will learn a lot while exploring the advantages and disadvantages of collaborating online!

2—Crowdsourcing a program online the day before an in-person conference

As I write this I’m designing a one-day, in-person peer conference for 150 members of a regional association. As readers of my books know, running a peer conference for this many people in one day would be a somewhat rushed affair. Unfortunately, the association practitioners simply couldn’t take off more than a day to travel to and attend the event.

Squeezing The Three Questions, session topic crowdsourcing, the peer sessions themselves, and at least one community building closing session into a single day is tough. In addition, the time pressure to quickly crowdsource good sessions and find appropriate leadership is stressful for the small group responsible for this important component.

To relieve this pressure I’ve designed a hybrid event that once again uses the same participants for both the online and in-person portions.

The online portion

The day before the in-person meeting, participants will go online briefly twice, in the morning and in the afternoon. During the morning three-hour time slot, participants can suggest topics for the in-person conference. We’ll likely use a simple Google Doc for this. They will be able to see everyone’s suggestions and can offer to lead or facilitate them.

Around lunchtime, a small group of subject matter experts will clean up the topics. Then, during the afternoon three-hour time slot, participants will vote on the topics they’d like to see as sessions the following day. The evening before the conference, the small group will convene and turn the results into a tracked conference program schedule that reflects participant wants and needs. They will also decide on leadership for each session. (Read my book Event Crowdsourcing to learn in detail how to do these tasks.)

Moving the program creation online the day before the in-person event allows participants to spend more time together in person. This choice sacrifices the rich interactions that occur between participants during The Three Questions. But in my judgment, the value of creating a less rushed event in the bounded space of a single day is worth it.

Conclusion

[Want to read my other posts on hybrid meetings? You’ll find them here.]

I believe we’ve barely started to explore the capabilities of hybrid meeting designs. Including both online and in-person formats in a single “event” multiplies the possibilities in time and space. I’m excited to see what new formats will appear in the future!

Have you experienced other novel hybrid meeting formats? Share them in the comments below!

Working with suppliers and practitioners at meetings

suppliers and practitioners at meetingsOver the years I’ve designed and facilitated hundreds of meetings. One of the most common issues I address that is rarely acknowledged openly is the tension between the wants and needs of suppliers and practitioners at meetings. By “suppliers” I mean vendors of products or services, and sponsors. By “practitioners” I mean the folks who do what the meeting is about; e.g., doctors at a medical event or scientists at a conservation conference.

Sometimes these groups are given well-defined opportunities to interact in a familiar way. Often, vendors meet with practitioners at a tradeshow, and sponsors (who are usually vendors too) get opportunities to address practitioners. Such forms of interaction are well understood and I won’t address them further here.

But what happens when both suppliers and practitioners at meetings attend sessions?

What happens when suppliers attend event sessions

I’ll start by saying that I’ve found that the smartest suppliers attend relevant meeting sessions. Even if they keep their mouths shut during the session, good suppliers can learn about content that’s relevant to what they sell. And in addition, they can also learn about practitioners’ wants, needs, and concerns — both as individuals and as a group — that will make a smart supplier’s work easier.

Having both suppliers and practitioners at meetings attend sessions has both positive and negative consequences. Unfortunately, supplier and practitioner perspectives on having suppliers present don’t usually align.

The practitioner’s perspective on including suppliers at meeting sessions

Typically, practitioners:

  • Really don’t want suppliers to pitch what they’re selling during a session.
  • May not want to talk about supplier products and services when suppliers are present.

Less frequently, practitioners may appreciate suppliers with subject matter expertise who contribute to the value of sessions without overt pitching.

The supplier’s perspective on attending meeting sessions

Typically, suppliers are looking for opportunities to sell and perhaps get some education.

Smart suppliers will do this by contributing to session value without blatant pitching, and by learning more about practitioners’ wants, needs, and concerns.

Unfortunately, some suppliers will alienate practitioners by inappropriately pushing what they sell. (A tip: don’t do this! Few people want to be hustled. You will alienate most if not all of your potential sales prospects.)

How to maximize the benefits of meetings and sessions that include both suppliers and practitioners

Most meetings simply don’t address the conflicting wants and needs described above. That’s a shame. With a little forethought, it’s possible to maximize the benefits of meetings and sessions that include both suppliers and practitioners while minimizing undesired outcomes.

Here’s what you can do.

Understand practitioners’ and suppliers’ wants, needs, and expectations in advance

First, you need to understand before the meeting what your practitioners and suppliers want, need, and expect. As a meeting designer, if a meeting is going to include both practitioners and suppliers I always ask my clients about the relationship between these groups and their wants and needs.

Some associations, for example, know both groups well and are confident that their members are comfortable with suppliers in their sessions. Others tell me that their members don’t want suppliers present in some or all of their sessions. For example, I once worked on the design of a legal conference where the practitioners worked at large law firms and the suppliers were outside counsel attorneys eager to get a slice of lucrative legal business. Discussing what level of access outside counsel would have to the law firms during the event was the most difficult part of the meeting design.

Another key factor is the expected ratio of practitioners to suppliers at event sessions. If a minority of attendees are suppliers, it’s usually fairly easy to ensure constructive behavior in sessions. But sometimes the reverse is true. Recently I attended an online speed dating platform’s meeting industry event. I wanted to meet some other meeting planners and get to know them a little. But as I was matched with supplier after supplier it became clear that few meeting planners were present, and I had to politely listen to pitch after pitch from suppliers. The experience turned out to be a waste of my time and did not endear me to the platform.

To avoid unpleasant (at least to practitioners) experiences like this, do the following.

Facilitate active learning about who’s present and their roles

Uncovering who’s at a meeting and the relevant roles they play is one of the important things I do at meetings I facilitate. Body voting (aka human spectrograms) is the key technique I use. The specifics depend on what is useful for the people in the room to know. In the context of this post, at a minimum I’ll have attendees move into two groups: practitioners and suppliers in different areas of the room. All attendees can then see who else “like them” is present. Invariably, I’ll ask participants to divide into more specific sub-groups — determined in advance via client consultation. I’ll then give each grouping a little time for members to get to know each other.

For example, at a conference for librarians, I might first have them move into groups by the kind of library they work at: e.g. public, K-12 school, college, specialty, and “other”. Then I’ll ask them to organize themselves by role: e.g. director, cataloging/technical services, reference/adult, youth, trustee, or friend. During this exercise, if anyone wants to know about a grouping I haven’t included it’s easy to have people regroup to supply that information.

Doing this simple exercise allows participants to quickly get a sense of the sizes of pertinent groups present. In addition, they get the opportunity to meet other attendees who are “like them”.

Unless you’re facilitating a local conference, also include a human spectrogram map, which helps attendees meet others who live near them. Doing this also allows regional suppliers to meet nearby practitioners.

Discovering at the start of an event or session others who live near you, the proportions of practitioners to suppliers present, and other “similar to you” individuals is valuable information that every meeting should make available.

Tell suppliers not to pitch in sessions

While most attendees expect and tolerate brief scheduled pitches from sponsors, impromptu marketing during sessions is rarely appreciated. Most suppliers know that aggressive pitching during sessions is not a productive approach, but some don’t. Minimize this behavior by telling suppliers that marketing is not allowed during meeting sessions. A brief announcement to this effect at the opening of the meeting won’t hurt either. Finally, before the event, ask leaders to curtail pitches occurring in their sessions.

Restrict supplier-led sessions to topics where the supplier has significant subject matter expertise

I’m not against sessions being led or presented by suppliers per se. (Suppliers explicitly identified as sponsors, of course, get to pitch a little.) But I have attended too many events where a supplier leading a session uses most of their time to hawk their product or services. These sessions — often misleadingly advertised as containing useful content — leave a bad taste in most attendees’ mouths. Before you assign a supplier to lead or present at a session, check that they have significant subject matter expertise, and tell them directly that they should avoid any pitching.

I still remember vividly a conference I convened forty years ago where a vendor ignored this request and pitched their products for twenty minutes to the entire event. These days I would have interrupted them, but back then I felt too embarrassed to intervene. There are no guarantees that every supplier will respect your request. But making it explicitly before the event should minimize all but the most brazen behavior.

When appropriate, consider offering “practitioner-only” sessions

Practitioners sometimes don’t want suppliers present during certain sessions. For example, consider a session where practitioners want to discuss the pros and cons of various commercial solutions to a common problem. At such sessions, the inclusion of suppliers inhibits free and frank discussion. It also introduces the possibility that suppliers will then pursue individual practitioners who shared they’re ready to buy. So state in the session description that it’s for practitioners only. If suppliers turn up they can be asked politely to leave.

Conclusion

Integrating practitioners and suppliers appropriately in meeting sessions can improve everyone’s experience. Practitioners appreciate the experience and expertise that knowledgeable suppliers can bring, while suppliers build better relationships with practitioners without aggressive marketing.

If your meetings involve suppliers attending sessions, please use these simple approaches to maximize the synergy from including both groups, while minimizing the all-too-common downsides. Your participants will appreciate the results!

Do you have additional suggestions or comments on integrating suppliers appropriately into meeting sessions? Share them in the comments below!

 

Competent logistics are the new meeting minimum

new meeting minimumI’m about to go on my first pre-con site visit since the Covid pandemic started over two years ago. My work at a pre-con is different from that of a typical meeting planner since I focus on the meeting’s design and facilitation. I’ve been convening meetings for decades, though, so I know a fair amount about meeting planning. As I prepared to review the venue’s meeting spaces, room set options, and traffic patterns, I thought about how, today, competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this from looking at meeting planning textbooks. I have a pile on my desk as I write this. With a single exception — Tahira Endean‘s excellent Intentional Event Design: Our Professional Opportunity — they devote minimal space (usually a single chapter) to the importance and the how-to of exploring meeting objectives and outcomes before hundreds of pages on site selection, food and beverage, lodging, decor, entertainment, technical production, transportation, budgeting, trade shows, registration, etc.

The traditional bread and butter of a meeting planner’s job.

Yes, all these logistical considerations are important and need to be done well! But when you’re spending all your time on these issues it’s easy to forget that they are not what meetings are about. Today, competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.

The deficiencies of meeting planning textbooks and education

Such textbooks barely mention the essence of a meeting: what has to happen to achieve clearly defined meeting objectives and outcomes? Why? Because they make assumptions that what has to happen is what happened at just about every meeting their authors ever attended. They assume that meetings will consist of sessions with speakers on a stage. They assume that the core purpose of a meeting session is to transmit content to an audience. And they assume that when attendees are not in sessions, we should ply them with food and drink and entertainment.

Their opening chapters, with sections entitled “Needs Assessment”, “Prioritize Goals and Objectives”, “Design Factors”, and similar titles, are only a few pages because the authors unconsciously accepted traditional meeting human process. Far more space is devoted to entertainment and food and beverage. The focus is all on the wrapping and the beautiful box, ignoring the reality that the chocolates inside are missing, sparse, or stale.

The meeting industry has redefined novelty as creativity. A “creative” event design is one with a novel venue and/or decor and lighting and/or food and beverage. Consequently, planners restrict the entire focus of creative event design to novel visual and sensory elements.

When meeting planner textbooks gloss over the key ways that meetings can be made much more effective and useful for all stakeholders, planners remain ignorant, and traditional broadcast-style meetings continue to be the norm. Sadly, few clients know any better. Most assume that a meeting planner is all they need. They aren’t aware that professional meeting designers and facilitators exist and have great value.

Competent logistics are the new meeting minimum

I love to design and facilitate meetings that are great because they use participant-driven and participation-rich human processes. I have little competition. But I feel frustrated that so many opportunities to improve our events are going to waste. In my opinion, meeting planner education is deficient. Planners could be educated so they can help their clients with meeting design. Or they could learn and understand the importance and benefits of including meeting designers in the meeting planning process and encourage clients to use them. Either outcome (both could coexist) would cause a significant upgrade in the quality of meetings.

Steve Jobs said, “Design is how it works”. And good event design is about how a conference works. Combining perfect logistics with a traditional meeting design only leads to a flawless traditional meeting. That’s better than a flawed traditional meeting, of course, but we can do so much better. That’s why competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.

Image attribution: OISHII~DESU

Facilitating an online participation-rich workshop in Gatherly

online workshop in Gatherly

Earlier this month, the folks at Gatherly kindly invited me to host an event of my choosing for their clients and potential users. I decided to facilitate an online workshop in Gatherly that took full advantage of the platform. This coming June will mark my 30th year of designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings. So I designed the workshop as an “Ask Adrian Anything” about meeting design and facilitation.

I’ve shared the why? and the details of how I typically run this format here. In this post, I cover the additions I made, issues that arose, my impressions, and the feedback the workshop received.

An experiment: I try something I’ve never done before!

I like the Gatherly platform and have reviewed it a couple of times (1, 2). Gatherly’s best feature, in my opinion, is its user interface for online social interaction. The platform uses a birds-eye view of rooms (there can be more than one of them on different “floors”) with each participant shown as an icon with their name. Deciding to talk with someone is as easy as clicking on their icon, which moves you to their position in the room and puts you in video chat. The two of you then form a “huddle”, shown as a circle with the number of people talking at its center.

Moving your mouse cursor over a huddle shows you the names of the people there. Others can join a huddle by clicking on it; you can leave a huddle at any time by clicking on the floor outside it. Gatherly currently supports huddles of up to fifteen people.

Because Gatherly allows you to see where people are in a room, it can support a fundamental technique I use at almost all in-person events I design and facilitate: body voting, aka human spectrograms.

So I was excited to see whether I could implement body voting online, something I’d never tried before.

I ended up incorporating four body voting experiences into the workshop:

  • “How did I get here?” (run in trios)
  • If this workshop was really great for you, what one thing would you want to learn about/discuss/happen?” (run in pairs)
  • Where do you live?” (See the map we used below.)
  • “What industry/job role fits you best?” (See the floor plan we used below.)

online workshop in Gatherly
Body voting map for “Where do you live?”

online workshop in Gatherly
Body voting map for “What industry/job role fits you best?”

Read on to find out how I implemented these exercises in Gatherly and how they worked out.

Designing an online workshop in Gatherly

The first decision we had to make was how long the workshop should run. Since the event was participant-driven, the Gatherly staff and I agreed to let it run as long as it seemed people wanted, with a 2½ hour limit.

Up until now, I have used Gatherly as a pure platform for online socials. For this workshop — indeed for any workshop — I needed to provide separate whole-group-together and small-group-work environments. Just like every other meeting platform, Gatherly has developed a broadcast/stage mode (see the first image in this post), where one or more speakers can broadcast to everyone else. When you start a Gatherly broadcast, the room map is still visible but huddles are disabled.

So in this workshop, we frequently switched between broadcast and map (huddle) mode. In broadcast mode, I provided short segments of content and instructions for upcoming group work. We also used broadcast mode for fishbowl discussions and the core “Ask Adrian Anything” session.

All meeting platforms that have a small-group/breakout mode pose a communications problem for the meeting host or facilitator. Small groups meet via video chat, so messages from the meeting host to everyone can’t be sent through audio — the standard communication mode when in broadcast.

In Gatherly, the tool I had to address this issue was text chat. I asked everyone to select the Event chat option (the red Event button in the first image in this post) and to monitor text chat for exercise instructions during their huddle small group work. I also asked participants to also use text chat for important issues, so this communications channel wouldn’t be filled with distracting messages.

Leading folks through small group work in Gatherly

Before the workshop, I prepared a text document with step-by-step instructions needed to lead participants through all the exercises I’d planned.

Here’s a sample:

For each small group exercise, I did the following:

  • In broadcast mode, verbally explain and go through the exercise steps.
  • Switch to map mode. Cut and paste each prepared prompt into the Event text chat at the appropriate time.
  • Provide a final prompt that we’d be returning to broadcast mode.
  • Switch back to broadcast mode.

Once I’d practiced this flow beforehand for a while, it was easy to run.

Using raise hands during the workshop

I chose to use Gatherly’s raise hands tool in a couple of ways during the workshop.

  1. During the geographical map and industry/role body voting exercises, I asked people who lived outside the United States, or who placed themselves in the “Other” area of the industry/role floor map to raise their hands. When you do this in Gatherly, your name rises to the top of the participant list, so you’re easy to spot. In broadcast mode, we brought these folks briefly onto the stage and asked them to share their name and where they lived/their role. This is analogous to walking around and interviewing such individuals at in-person meetings. Recognizing people who are a little outside the main group geographical focus/job descriptions is interesting and helps to bring them into the group.
  2. During fishbowl-based group discussions, including the Ask Adrian Anything segment, we asked people to raise their hand if they had a question or wanted to add their voice to a current conversation. Only Gatherly admins can remove people from the stage, so we asked people to lower their hands when they wanted to leave the current discussion.

A major issue that arose during the workshop

While facilitating this online workshop in Gatherly, I made heavy use of Gatherly’s broadcast mode for the first time. Unfortunately, broadcast mode did not work reliably for some people. At times, the video stream for some participants on stage (including me) was blank. When this happened to me, I wasn’t aware of it since my screen showed my own camera-direct video, and I was only made aware of the problem through text chat.

I’d seen this problem while testing the workshop platform beforehand, using two computers in my office on different ISPs and networks to join the session. At the time I assumed it was a temporary glitch or technical issue involving the OS/Chrome version used by one of my machines. This turned out not to be the case. Most people showed up fine, but functionality like this — a basic feature of pretty much every meeting platform these days — should be rock solid. (I’ve never seen this happen on Zoom, for example.)

Given that I’ve found the video chat provided in huddles (map mode) by Gatherly to be more reliable than any other platform I’ve tried, this deficiency is puzzling. I hope it’s eliminated soon.

My thoughts and impressions of the workshop

Almost everyone stayed for the whole workshop!

I had no idea who would show up for the workshop or how long it would run. When we did the geographical map exercise, a substantial proportion of participants were from outside the US, which I did not expect. But what really surprised me was that almost everyone stayed for two hours, until after the Ask Adrian Session was over. (And a few people shared at the start that they weren’t going to be able to stay the whole time.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve found that when you create meetings that allow and support engagement at any time on participants’ terms, people stick around.

A small group remained for informal discussion and feedback, and we reluctantly wound up when we reached our 2½ hour hard limit.

Guiding participants through small group activities

Before the workshop, I wondered how well using text chat to prompt small group activities would work. Would participants, busily engaged with each other, follow the prompts? (This can be a problem when in person too, but it’s easier to see when it’s happening.)

I needn’t have worried. Participants responded to my directions to form groups of various sizes much more quickly than I expected. In fact, they divided into groups of the right size faster than in an in-person workshop! The Gatherly birds-eye view of everyone in the room, plus the displayed count of each huddle size makes it easy to see who’s not yet in a group, and which groups are too large or too small.

Feedback on the workshop

The Gatherly staff were impressed that so many people stayed so long, (and I was pleased)!

Several people commented that although they could not see me during portions of the broadcast segments, my audio feed was all they needed to stay engaged. Yes, it’s nice to see people at online meetings, but it’s worth remembering that for those who aren’t hearing impaired, audio beats video every time.

The small group exercises were popular. And people thanked me for showing the value of what we did, not only by experiencing it but also by learning how to facilitate the formats for their own communities.

Conclusions

I learned that I can successfully run body voting online, at least on Gatherly. (Wonder will probably work too.) Body voting is perhaps the best way for a group to quickly learn important information about who’s present, and to have this capability online is valuable. (See my book The Power of Participation to learn more about body voting.)

One suggestion I have for Gatherly to improve their product is to provide a better way for meeting hosts to broadcast instructions when participants are in huddles. This could be done with text messages that are displayed more prominently than at present to all huddle members.

Would I facilitate an online workshop in Gatherly again? Absolutely! (As long as the broadcast video problem is fixed.)

Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings

Someone to tell it to

“Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.”
—Miles Franklin, Childhood At Brindabella: My First Ten Years, 1954

Miles Franklin, the Australian writer and feminist best known for her novel My Brilliant Career, wrote the above words in her autobiography. Like Miles, I believe that all people want and need opportunities to share how they’re thinking and feeling.

Meetings of every kind offer these opportunities. When I walk into our tiny town rural post office, I sometimes see folks for whom a conversation about almost anything with the sole postal worker is clearly important. Perhaps that customer will have little or no other human contact that day. What is talked about is far less important than the act of telling.

Personal meetings like these, whether brief or extended, between good friends or strangers, are fundamental. Many of us are lucky enough to have “someone to tell it to”, though some do not.

Someone to tell it to at conferences

Conferences, whether in-person or online, are also potential arenas for conversations. They are places for participants — who have something in common with each other — to find someone to tell it to. Even if the teller believes that they weren’t fully heard, the act of telling is valuable. (Otherwise, people wouldn’t journal and practice self-affirmations.)

But some conferences offer better opportunities than others. Traditional events relegate conversations to the hallways, to breaks and socials. No conversations occur during lectures. Even post-presentation Q&As rarely evolve into a conversation, which is always between the presenter and a succession of audience members.

Given the fundamental human need to tell, meeting stakeholders owe it to participants to create opportunities and environments for rich conversations in the sessions, rather than just the gaps between them. I have been doing this for 30 years, and it’s clear that meeting designs that integrate meaningful conversations into sessions have a transformational effect on almost all participants. (Read any of my books to learn specific techniques and designs that create meaningful and valuable conversations during meeting sessions.)

In 2006, Cory Doctorow wrote: “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.” Content is everywhere, but conversations require tellers and listeners. While telling something to ourselves is better than nothing, it doesn’t compare to telling to and being heard by another human.

Let’s give attendees the priceless gift of someone to tell it to at our events.

Children listening to each other image (cropped) by J. Verkuilen, licensed under (CC BY 2.0)