Competent logistics are the new meeting minimum

new meeting minimum I’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

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)

The hallway of learning

hallway learning Image attribution Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Have you attended in-person meetings where your hallway conversations were the highlight of the event? I’ve certainly experienced my fair share, and I bet you have too. Don’t get me wrong. Hallway learning and the connections made through conversations struck up between sessions are often valuable and important. But I see meetings where hallway learning trumps a majority of, if not all, conference sessions as failures of design, rather than a fact of life.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the quantity and quality of hallway learning, conversations, and connections throughout an event?

Well, we can. Here are two ways.

1—How to improve conventional hallway conversations

We can increase the quality of conventional hallway conversations by designing a physical meeting environment that encourages and supports them. Create an architecture of assembly: spaces outside the session rooms where people can talk comfortably. Provide a range of spaces. For example, chair pairings, small group furniture arrangements, standing areas with places to park food and beverage, covered outdoor spaces, etc.

“…people, even very smart people, are unable to anticipate the benefits of in-depth interaction with colleagues until they have experienced it for themselves”
Nancy Dixon, The Hallways of Learning

Read Nancy’s article to learn how an office redesign strengthened connections amongst a group of formerly loosely connected peers. [And she gets a hat tip for inspiring this post!] Similarly, your design layout will affect the likelihood and value of hallway learning conversations. And participants most likely won’t even be aware of it!

In addition, be sure to schedule enough time for hallway learning to occur. Give your attendees plenty of breaks. Then they can rest and recuperate, consolidate what they have learned, and have time to engage in conversations that matter.

2—How to significantly improve hallway learning and connection throughout events

By far the best way to significantly improve hallway learning and connection is to build it into our meeting sessions.

Why should we do this? Here’s Nancy again:

“Typically, a presenter offers what happened in his or her own situation, but that is not what learners need to hear. Learners are interested in knowing how to adapt the lessons to their situation and for that they need to have a conversation so that the other person can understand their context, and they also can understand the context of the other.”

The trick is to use session designs that blend short useful pieces of content with conversations amongst participants. In effect, you’re providing structured hallway conversations about the content that’s just been delivered. There are many different formats you can use for such conversations (described in detail in my books): pair and trio share, facilitated small group breakouts, fishbowls, etc. You can create conversational groupings at random (“pair up with someone you haven’t met yet”) or use human spectrograms to assign attendees to like-minded folks.

Building hallway learning opportunities into our meeting sessions has additional advantages. Once a session is over, and traditional hallway conversations are about to begin, attendees are ready to continue or start new conversations with the people who were in their session. They are primed to continue to explore and deepen their hallway learning.

Conclusion

I’ll close with a final Nancy Dixon quote from a different post:

“Before people can learn from each other or collaborate on issues, they need to build connections – that is, gain some understanding of who the other person is, including their skills, depth of knowledge, experience, and attitude toward others. People are unlikely to ask each other questions or ask for assistance, until they have built a connection that allows them to learn that the other person is knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to engage.”
—Nancy Dixon, Connection before Content

To maximize useful connection and learning at our meetings, optimizing hallway learning throughout the event is the way to go!

[Cropped] image attribution Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Make the meeting bigger!

Most of the event industry and our clients continue to assume that if you can make the meeting bigger it’s a good thing.

It ain’t necessarily so.

How we got here

The massive disruption of in-person events since March 2020 has shaken our industry to the core. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events that weren’t canceled have seen drastically reduced attendance compared to prior years. Online and hybrid meetings have seen less drastic reductions.

One bright spot has been the normalization of online meetings for routine connection and collaboration. We have also seen the emergence of new forms of online events, supported by solid business models.

So as I predicted in 2020, we haven’t seen the old normal since the pandemic started, and it’s likely we’ll never see it again.

What we shouldn’t do

The event industry unduly focuses on large meetings. Our trade magazines mainly report on big events, the ones with big-name speakers and eye candy razzle-dazzle. Pandemic-induced smaller audiences engender hand-wringing. What to do? How can we get our old, big events back?

Some respond by increasing their event marketing. Often, however, that’s not a smart move, as Seth Godin illustrates:
make meeting bigger

Make the announcement louder. Make the logo bigger. Yell. Call more people on the phone to sell them an extended warranty. Send more emails. Hustle harder.
None of it works.
The problem with the fountain isn’t that they didn’t make a big enough sign. The problem is that the fountain itself is poorly designed…
…If you get the design right, you can whisper instead.
—Seth Godin, “Make the sign bigger!”

What we should do

For too long, we’ve equated a meeting’s “success” with its size. “Bigger is better.” But if we concentrate on increasing attendance, we overlook getting the meeting design right. Improving an event’s design makes the meeting better for all the stakeholders: meeting owners, sponsors, and participants. In contrast, large meetings are usually less effective at satisfying stakeholders’ desired goals and objectives.

Do yourself a favor, and rid yourself of the “bigger is better” meeting mindset. It may help to remember that in reality, most meetings are small meetings. And that’s OK.

So don’t try to make the meeting bigger. Instead, make the meeting design right. (Get in touch if you’d like some help.)

You and your stakeholders will be glad you did.

Photo attribution: Seth’s blog post “Make the sign bigger!

Humanity’s problem is a meeting problem

Meeting problem In 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009

Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.

And so it goes with meetings.

Emotions

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, our emotions run us, not our rationality. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, wrote a long book about this. It’s why businesses sponsor meetings. It’s why we judge meeting experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. And it’s why transformational learning occurs when a group experiences a positive emotional connection together.

Want more evidence? Well, information dumps from an expert lecturer are one of the worst ways to learn anything important. And simple workshops that support connection (which may be emotional) between participants around relevant content provide better learning experiences.

Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.

Institutions

The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.

The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.

So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.

Technology

And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.

Consequently, vendors flood us with technological “solutions” to problems we often aren’t even aware we have. In some cases, these solutions are actually manufactured for a plausible yet illusory need. But even when there’s a genuine problem that the right technology can solve, our emotions can make it hard for us to see its value, and our institutions may be resistant to implementation.

The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings

Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.

That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.

Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?

Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.

The written word

Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
presentation versus interaction
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.

Since my first book on participant-driven and participation-rich was published 13 years ago, I’ve been gratified to see how the meeting industry has at least started talking more about the importance of bringing interaction and engagement into meeting sessions. But, despite all the talk, meeting owners and presenters still all too often serve up the same lecture-style sessions that are far less effective and engaging than learning in community through well-designed interactive process.

In the 1960s, we finally began focusing on interaction versus presentation in our culture.

That was half a century ago.

It’s time to practice what we preach.

Good meeting design is cheaper than special effects

good meeting design Far too much money is spent on meeting glitz at the expense of good meeting design. Seth Godin makes an analogous point in this post…

Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“In movies, that’s obvious. It costs far less to make The Big Lebowski than a Marvel movie.

But the metaphor applies to just about any sort of creative project.

We often err on the side of ‘special effects’. It’s easier to staff it up, to spend the money…

…But the race to spend more and more on special effects…it might be worth more to take the time and invest the effort to design something great instead.”
Seth Godin, Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“There’s no budget”

I’ve noticed over the years that every meeting has a budget for F&B. There’s usually a budget for decor and production—sometimes a big budget. There’s often a budget for a dramatic big-name speaker or two. If you ask about a budget for event design, stakeholders think you’re talking about decor and drama. But “there’s no budget” for core event design, which is actually about designing great meeting process. Meeting conveners have a blind spot about the importance of meeting process design: what happens for stakeholders at their meeting.

It turns out that designing good process into your meeting is cheaper than paying for special effects. For the price of a coffee break, you can make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose and its impact on participants. Learn how to do this from my books, from the hundreds of articles on this blog, or get in touch!

[P.S. In case you’re wondering, I fed the two words “meeting design” to an AI program, which generated the animated image accompanying this post.]

 

Hub and spoke meetings

Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…

…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?

A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.hub spoke meeting Hub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.

A terminology reminder
In-person meeting: participants are physically together.
Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams.
Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.

The benefits of hub and spoke

Increased learning, interaction, and connection

If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.

Flexibility

Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.

In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.

You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]

Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.

Convenience

As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.

Hub and spoke variants

Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:

In-person hub and in-person pods

This is the classic hybrid hub and spoke format that we used 11 years ago at Event Camp Twin Cities (ECTC).

Producing Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.

There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.

Online pods

My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.

Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…

hub spoke meeting

I commented about the recursive nature of this…

…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.

Our pod experience

The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.

It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.

Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.

The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)

In-person and online pods

Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!

Conclusion

I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.

It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.

What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Control versus freedom at meetings

control versus freedom at meetings How can we design the optimum balance between control versus freedom at meetings? First, let’s get one misconception out of the way. As I wrote in 2010:

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the myth of control. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.
The myth of control

Note that I’m not suggesting meeting professionals give up any attempt to control what happens at their events. Maintaining control of vital logistics, and having and executing backup plans when unexpected developments occur are core requirements and responsibilities of our job.

It’s when we try to tightly control every aspect of our meeting that our events suffer. Surprisingly, clinging to control is the easy way out. As Dee W Hock, founder and former CEO of VISA, put it:

“Any idiot can impose and exercise control. It takes genius to elicit freedom and release creativity.”
—@DeeWHock

To “elicit freedom and release creativity”, we need to recognize that participants are stakeholders in the event, rather than “just” an audience.

Why are they event owners?

“…participants are event owners because, to some extent, they control what happens next.”
—Adrian Segar, Who owns your event?

Creating events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs

In order to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs, we need to provide three things:

  • Appropriate meeting logistics that meet participants’ bodily and sensory needs.
  • Content and experiences that participants actually want and need.
  • Maximal opportunities for participants to connect around the content and during the experiences.

Our traditional work

The first bullet point describes the traditional work of meeting professionals. Our logistical designs control the environment that participants experience. They include flexible, support (plans B – Z) when the unexpected happens. In this arena we are in control through our careful planning, which includes resources for a wide range of contingencies.

Giving up control where and when it’s not needed

To satisfy the remaining bullet points, we have to give up control. Why? To give participants the freedom to satisfy their wants and needs! To do this, participants need the freedom to choose what they talk about, whom they talk to and connect with, when it suits them. Our job is to support these activities as much as possible by providing appropriate:

  • Structure [participant-driven and participation-rich formats and sessions]; and
  • Resources [flexible physical and/or online spaces, facilitators, and a schedule that can be developed, as needed, at the event].

Notice that providing these improvements over traditional meetings doesn’t mean that your meeting will turn out to be wildly different from what took place before. It’s perfectly possible that your event will include sessions that look very similar to what you might have scheduled for a tightly controlled program. The difference is that your participants will have chosen these sessions and formats themselves, not you.

Instead of control versus freedom, choose control and freedom. Each assigned to the appropriate characteristics of your event.

That makes all the difference.

A bonus

For a discussion of control versus freedom in the context of event leadership, you may find this post useful…

Designing an online memorial service

Designing an online memorial service I 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!