How to entwine content and connection during an online conference

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

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

Sharon’s post

Hi all,

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

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

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

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

Playing on…

Sharon Fisher

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

My response

“Hey Sharon,

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

Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Adrian Segar—”

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

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 4

process participant information
Part 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Part 2 explains how to prepare for The Three Questions, and Part 3 explains how to run them using Zoom breakout rooms. Read them before diving into this post! In this post (Part 4) I’ll cover Step #2 — how to process the participant information uncovered in Step #1 to create an optimum conference program. Part 5, the last in this series explains how to run your peer conference using Zoom breakout rooms.

Creating and convening your conference program group

By the end of The Three Questions (see Part 3), your scribed Google document contains a rich list of your participants’ desired and needed topics, issues, and current challenges. Now it’s time for a small conference program group of conference leaders and subject matter experts to use participants’ answers to the Second Question to create an optimum conference program. (Part 1 lays out options for your participants while this is going on.)

Make sure your small group contains someone from each Three Questions breakout group. These people can identify participants in their group who have expertise, experience, or interest in leading or facilitating the sessions you choose.

The conference program group can meet in a variety of ways. Perhaps participants are listening to a presentation while your small group meets in a Zoom breakout room. If attendees are taking a meal break, you can use the current Zoom meeting, and restrict attendance to the conference program group. Or you can simply set up a separate Zoom meeting for the small group to hash out the upcoming conference program.

Building your optimum conference program

The small conference program group needs a tool to review and organize the topics that participants have requested and suggested.

Tools for in-person meetings

At in-person meetings I use the process Post It! for Programs, described in Chapter 22 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. Read Chapter 22 to understand the detailed process I summarize in this post. (You may find Chapter 21, Peer Session Selection and Sign-up useful too.)

The small group starts with a wall of participants’ topics, written on large sticky notes. We clean up, cluster, and consolidate the topics, moving notes around and rewriting them as needed. The small group reviews and rates the results, and chooses the most relevant topics. Finally we find leaders and/or facilitators for these peer sessions, and then schedule them into an optimum conference program.

Tools for online meetings

Two tools that provide the above functions for online meetings are Miro and Mural. You can read a useful comparison of their features and user interface here. Miro has a free limited version, and Mural offers a free limited-time introductory plan. It’s worth upgrading to a paid plan for either of these products if you expect to use them regularly.

In this post, I’ll outline how to use Miro to collaborate remotely with your small group. I don’t know Mural as well, but you should be able to use it in a similar fashion. Even though the basic concepts can be quickly grasped, both Miro and Mural provide a rich variety of functionality. So you and your small group members should practice using them. Before the conference, give small group members a link to a “playground” Miro board where they can freely explore Miro’s frames, sticky notes, and tools.

Importing participant topics into Miro

Miro has a simple, though slightly obscure, way to import the topics from your Google doc into separate sticky notes. If you try the obvious approach —bulk copy all the topics and paste them directly into Miro — they’ll end up in a single block of text. Instead, open any spreadsheet program (e.g. Excel, Numbers, or Google Sheets) and paste the topics into the top left-hand cell. They will fill the left-most column, one topic per row. Now copy all these cells and paste them into Miro. Each topic will be added to a new sticky note, nicely laid out in a grid.

Here’s an example: the topic list shown in Part 3…

…turned into a set of Miro sticky notes via the above copy-paste-copy-paste process.

process participant information

Process participant information: cleaning up and clustering topics

Once you’ve created a board of imported topics, copy it to a new board for the small group to work on. (In Miro, click on the name of the board in the top left-hand corner and click “Duplicate”.) This keeps the original topics available for reference, if needed.

The next task is to review the topics and check that they’re clearly (or clearly enough) expressed. If a topic is unclear, rewrite the note or discard it. As you review the notes, notice themes and create a Miro frame for each one, plus a Miscellaneous frame for isolated ideas. Cluster topics by dragging sticky notes out of the original grid into the appropriate frames, as shown below.

process participant information

The small group should have agreed conventions for working on the topic board and identifying and collecting sticky notes that eventually become peer session topics.  There are many ways to do this. For example, you can:

  • Use a specific sticky note color to indicate a potential or definite peer session topic. (You can change the color of an existing note from its context menu.)
  • Create a separate frame for topics that will become peer sessions.
  • Create frames or a space on the board for topics and frames that have been reviewed and are not going to be incorporated into the conference program.

Process participant information to determine the peer conference program

Use the process described in Chapter 22 of my book Event Crowdsourcing to determine the peer sessions you will offer, pick leaders and/or facilitators for each session, and schedule sessions into your conference program time slots. As you decide on each session, drag its sticky note into a “Peer Sessions” frame, as shown below.

process participant information


In Miro, you can switch the type of a sticky note to a card. I recommend doing this for your chosen peer session sticky notes, since Miro cards provide you with a structured way to add data, like the names of session leaders, a long description, etc.

Distributing your peer conference schedule

As soon as you’ve created your peer conference schedule, distribute it appropriately to all participants. You could publish the schedule on your conference website, email it as a Google Doc, or supply it as a link in Zoom chat.  Remember to also inform session leaders when their sessions will be held, and be available to answer any questions they might have. I also recommend distributing a version of the introductory handouts for peer sessions that are included in two of my books (Appendices 4 & 5 in Conferences That Work, or Appendix 6 in Event Crowdsourcing).

All that remains is to prepare for and run your online peer conference, which I’ll cover in the final post of this series.

Conclusion

First, a big thank you to the super-creative Liz Lathan of Haute Dokimazo for sharing with me how she collects and begins to process participant information online. Liz figured out how to use Mural to do this — the Miro process I’ve described above mirrors hers.

So far, in the first four posts of this series, I’ve:

The last post (Part 5) will describe how to run your peer conference program using Zoom breakout rooms.

Check back on this blog for future posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss the rest of the series, subscribe.