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

My new book Event Crowdsourcing will be released this Fall

[Update] Now released! Purchase here!

"Event Crowdsourcing" release this Fall
Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need

I’m happy to announce that my third book Event Crowdsourcing will be released this Fall. It covers a fundamental yet neglected topic: creating meetings people actually want and need.

My research has shown that over half the sessions offered at traditional preplanned conferences are not what attendees actually want! Event crowdsourcing allows you to create meetings where attendees want and need every session.

Who should buy this book?

    • Are you a meeting planner/designer who wants to create the best possible meetings for your clients? Then you need this book!
    • Are you a presenter who knows the importance of meeting the wants and needs of your audience? Session crowdsourcing ensures that your sessions will reflect the real-time needs of those who attend.
    • Are you a conference stakeholder eager to grow an event by making it the very best it can be? When attendees are enthusiastic about your event because it meets their wants and needs, they recommend your event to their peers and return year after year. As a result, your event grows, continually adapting to the changing desires of your participants, and your event and organization communities strengthen over time.
    • Are you an attendee who tires of events full of irrelevant pre-planned sessions? Event crowdsourcing ensures that you will be enthusiastic about the content and value of events and sessions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Leadership for meetings

Leadership for meetingsWhat might leadership for meetings look like?

Let’s turn to Harold Jarche for inspiration:

“Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.
—Harold Jarche, work in 2018

Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons from Anguilla: What meeting designers can learn from religious services

meeting designers can learn from religious services

What can meeting designers learn from religious services?

On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing. As I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, as I enjoy the harmonies I hear, I begin to think about religious meeting design. And here’s what meeting designers can learn from religious services

Religious services are probably around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting created by humans. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed some important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.

What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!

So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.

Don’t let any one person talk too long

The most frequent preaching length in Christian churches is 20 to 28 minutes. Although some pastors take more time, their number is decreasing. And in 2014, the Vatican recommended that sermons be limited to eight minutes or less!

While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.

Include lots of communal activities

Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C. Communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Jewish and Christian religious services are full of singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.

Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?

Breaks aren’t communal activities

Most meeting organizers assume that breaks and socials should provide the majority of human interaction in their meetings. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially. This strengthens the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.

Keep ’em moving!

People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.

Provide an emotional experience

Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.

Conclusions

What can meeting designers learn from religious services? I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it. How would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?

Church service photograph courtesy of The Anguillan

Healthcare professionals want participant-driven events too

boring meeting 370268513_6c026f08e3_b

75% of healthcare professionals want to have input into the content of meetings they attend. Yet 36% have never been asked to provide input into any agenda or program. These disconcerting statistics are two of the research findings in a February 2016 report The Future of Meetings [free download] commissioned by Ashfield Meetings and Events.

Though healthcare meetings were ranked just behind professional journals (92%) as the second most popular (87%) regular channel for learning, the survey of 237 healthcare professionals from 11 countries across the Americas, Asia, and Europe found “nearly 40 per cent of those interviewed have not had a positive delegate experience at the meetings they have attended.”

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that these findings, from a meeting sector that is relatively well-funded and certainly capable of supporting high-quality meeting design, would be replicated at most conferences held today.

Meeting owners and planners: it’s time to supply what your attendees want!

A hat tip to MeetingsNet‘s Sue Pelletier for making me aware of the report via her article “Research Puts Some Science Behind Scientific Meetings“.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markhillary

Participant-driven association meetings presentation slides and resources

Here are the slides and resources from my June 18th 2010 presentation to the NE/SAE (New England Society of Association Executives) annual meeting held at the Colony Hotel, Kennebunkport, Maine:

Some Research about Face-to-Face Communication at Live Events.

Innovative Techniques in Conference Formats (slideshare).

NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework helps people navigate the range of approaches that are available to them and make design choices that are appropriate for their circumstance and resources.

The Meeting of the Future.

On confidentiality: The Europe/Chatham House Rule.

Do You Allocate Enough Time for Interaction?