How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 3

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomPart 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 using Zoom breakout rooms. Read them before diving into this post!

In this post (Part 3) I’ll cover how to run The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms.

Preparing staff to run The Three Questions in Zoom

As described in Part 2, each breakout room must be staffed by a facilitator and one or preferably two scribes. Before the breakout sessions of The Three Questions start, the facilitator and scribes need to know what they need to do, and have the necessary tools to do it.

Staff tools

I recommend that facilitators and scribes run Zoom on a personal computer, rather than a mobile device. This will allow them better simultaneous access to both Zoom and additional shared docs — typically a set of directions and a place for scribed participant responses, as described below. (Although less critical, I’d encourage participants to join the meeting on a PC too, if possible.) At the start of the meeting, make the facilitators Zoom co-hosts, so they can manage participants (mainly mute/unmute) in their Three Questions breakout room.

Each facilitator needs a countdown timer with a visual display: usually, a phone timer app — for example, Apple’s Clock. Displaying remaining time on the facilitator’s webcam is a simple way to keep sharing on schedule. (Hopefully, one day, Zoom will provide this functionality in their software.) For participants who join by telephone, the facilitator should give them a verbal “half-time” and “times up” message when needed.

Facilitators also need a way to track the time remaining in their breakout room, so they can check that

Each scribe needs access to a place to scribe the responses to the second of The Three Questions: (the topics, issues, and challenges that participants want and need). Any online shared document can be used for this.

A shared Google Doc is an obvious choice. Here’s a template you can download and adapt for your event. Be sure to make the document sharable and editable! Create a short URL link, using a service like bit.ly, to make it easy for scribes to copy, and distribute the link to the scribes before The Three Questions starts.

Here’s an example of a topic list created at a technical conference.

Three Questions facilitator training

Ask your facilitators to read Chapter 18 of Event Crowdsourcing or Chapters 31 & 32 of The Power of Participation so they are familiar with running The Three Questions. Decide on the sharing time, typically around 2 minutes, for each participant. Communicate it to the facilitators, so they will all be able to end their session at approximately the same time. Because all Zoom breakout rooms close at the same time, emphasize that time keeping is important, so that all participants get to share and everyone has the same time.

Three Questions scribe training

Explain to the scribes that their job is to record concisely the topics, issues, and challenges that participants share in response to the Second Question only. Introduce each scribe to their session scribing partner, and have them decide who scribes for the first sharer. Give your scribes the link to the shared online document in advance. Ask them to practice entering a few topics before their session starts.

When using a shared Google Doc, editors are assigned arbitrary names, shown in color during editing. It can be helpful for two scribes in the same session to learn each other’s assigned name before the session starts, so they can check on what their partner is writing.

Scribes can be participants too — when there are two scribes per session, one can scribe topics for the other’s sharing. Suggest that scribes alternate scribing for participants: one for the first participant, the other for the second, and so on.

If a topic is mentioned for which one or more participants have expertise and/or experience (the answer to the Third Question) it can be helpful to make a note of their names so they can potentially tapped as leaders or facilitators for the main conference breakout sessions.

It’s likely that some topics will be suggested in more than one of the separate Three Questions breakouts, or by several people in the same session. Since all scribes will be using the same Google Doc, it’s helpful for scribes to keep an eye on all the topics that are appearing during the breakouts. For a repeated topic, scribes can add an “x” at the end of the original topic line each time. Sometimes the topic will be similar but not the same as another topic. In this case it should be entered as a new item.

Running The Three Questions in Zoom Breakout Rooms

Before running The Three Questions, assign facilitators and scribes to specific numbered breakout rooms. Remember that breakout room assignments will be random. The main group facilitator or another designated staffer should, therefore, promptly move facilitators and scribes to the correct number room as soon as the rooms open. (See the section “Preparing breakout rooms” here to learn how to do this.)

At this point you’ll have a set of Zoom Breakout Rooms, each populated by an equal number of participants and a trained facilitator and scribe(s). Have everyone mute their audio except the facilitator and scribes.

Determining who shares next

During seated face-to-face meetings, it’s easy to keep track of who has or hasn’t yet shared by their location in the room. Online, it’s harder to track who hasn’t yet shared without a little help. (Don’t assume that a gallery view of participants will remain unchanged throughout the session; the display changes unpredictably if participants arrive or depart.)

Consequently, the facilitator should choose who shares next. (See this post for more information on “who goes next?” process.) To do this, each Three Questions facilitator must have their participants list visible. They then call on participants in turn, maintaining a written list of those who have shared. If the facilitator has a printer, track people who have shared on a printed screen shot of the attendee list.

Because people may join a session late, the facilitator should always check that everyone has shared.

Individual sharing

As each person shares, the Three Questions facilitator monitors their progress. If they are spending too much time on the First Question, let them know. It’s helpful to let sharers know when half their time is up, at which point they should be well into their answer to the Second Question.

If many people aren’t using their full time, point this out and encourage participants to say a little more. (But don’t insist that anyone share more than they originally offer.)

It’s a facilitator’s job to prevent people sharing too long, ensuring that everyone gets an equal amount of time to contribute.

When sharing in a Three Questions breakout is complete

When everyone in a Three Questions breakout has shared, there should be some free time left in the session. If desired, the session facilitator can solicit additional short expressions of interest in the uncovered topics, and perhaps suggestions of additional topics sparked by what has been heard in the group.

Each Three Questions facilitator should let the meeting facilitator know (typically by private message in Zoom’s text chat) when their session is over. The meeting facilitator can then close the breakout rooms once all breakouts are complete.

That concludes step #1, as outlined in the first post of this series!

At this point:

  • Participants will have met a useful number of other participants and learned useful information about each other, namely, details of their association with the meeting topic, their wants and needs for the meeting, and their relevant expertise and experience.
  • Conference organizers will have a comprehensive list of topics, issues, and challenges that are top-of-mind for attendees, plus identified participants who can facilitate/lead/present on them.

Conclusion

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

  • provided a brief recap of the benefits of peer conferences;
  • given a big picture overview of how you can hold one online;
  • explained how to prepare to run The Three Questions online in Zoom; and
  • covered how to run The Three Questions online in Zoom.

The next post (Part 4) will describe in detail how to carry out step #2 — creating an optimum conference program from the information uncovered in step #1— using Zoom.

Part 1 (an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom) is available here.
Part 2 (preparing for The Three Questions) is available here.

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.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 2

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomPart 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Read it before diving into this post!

In this post (Part 2) I’ll cover most of Step #1 of the previous post: preparing for The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms.

If necessary, get familiar with Zoom, including breakout room functions, before proceeding. I’ve included links to the relevant Zoom tutorials and reference articles, when appropriate, in the following instructions.

What is The Three Questions, and why use it?

I developed The Three Questions in 1995 as a fundamental opening process for peer conferences. It’s described and explained in all three of my books. You can find the most detailed implementation in Chapter 18 of my 2019 book, Event Crowdsourcing.

The Three Questions is the most effective way I know to assist a group of people to get to know each other usefully, safely, and authentically. It’s quite different from the common but often artificial and awkward icebreaker approaches used in “team-building” and “getting-to-know-you” activities because it focuses on core information we want to know about the people we’re currently with: why they’re present, what they want to do/learn about/discuss, and what useful resources they possess.

Besides connecting people around their fundamental interests, The Three Questions is one of the best formats for discovering important topics, issues, and questions that were previously unknown to event organizers and a majority of the participants, as well as associated levels of interest.

Zoom’s key tool for effective active learning and connection — Breakout Rooms

Frequent and well-designed small group work is the key to creating active learning and connection at any meeting. Zoom’s tool for small group work is Breakout Rooms.

Zoom allows facilitators to speedily split a meeting into up to 50 separate sessions. Participants can be allocated to these separate sessions automatically or manually.

If you’re not familiar with breakout rooms, take time to review Zoom’s tutorials. Practice using them at small group meetings before employing them for a significant event!

Preparing for The Three Questions in Zoom

Learn about The Three Questions

First, read the detailed instructions on how to run The Three Questions which you’ll find in my books:

  • Event Crowdsourcing [2019] (Chapter 18) [recommended: most comprehensive and recent information]
  • The Power of Participation [2015] (Chapters 31 & 32)
  • Conferences That Work [2009] (Chapter 25, pages 260-265)

If you don’t possess one of these, you can buy an ebook for $11US.

Decide on the number and size of your Three Questions breakout groups

Next, decide the number and size of your breakout groups. This will depend on:

  • the number of attendees;
  • the duration and scheduling of your conference; and
  • the time you plan to devote to The Three Questions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, these days, most meetings are small meetings (less than 100 attendees) and that’s a good thing! So the following barebones examples offer suggestions for online conferences with up to 100 attendees. They don’t include a closing session, which I recommend — I’ll make suggestions for appropriate formats in a later post.

With care, more staffing, and a beefier Zoom license, The Three Questions can definitely be run successfully at larger online events.

Example 1: 60 attendees, ~4½ hour event (includes ~75 minutes of breaks), two one-hour breakouts with three simultaneous sessions per slot (six peer sessions)

Suggested schedule:

  1. Five minutes for welcome.
  2. Fifteen minutes to explain The Three Questions, for attendees to write their answers, and divide attendees into three breakout rooms with 20 people in each.
  3. One hour for each (simultaneous) Breakout Room for The Three Questions; two minutes sharing per person, with a five-minute break after 30 minutes.
  4. Fifty minutes for conference organizers to build the nine-session conference program and set up Breakout Rooms for the resulting sessions. See the Part 1 post for attendee options during this time.
  5. Ten minutes for attendees to review the program and decide which session to attend.
  6. One hour for the first set of peer sessions.
  7. Ten minute break.
  8. One hour for the second set of peer sessions.
  9. (Optional, but recommended) Closing session; for example some form of Plus/Delta.
Example 2: 100 attendees, ~6½ hour event (includes ~140 minutes of breaks), three one-hour breakouts with four simultaneous sessions per slot (twelve peer sessions)

Suggested schedule:

  1. Five minutes for welcome.
  2. Fifteen minutes to explain The Three Questions, for attendees to write their answers, and divide attendees into five breakout rooms with 20 people in each.
  3. One hour for each (simultaneous) Breakout Room for The Three Questions; two minutes sharing per person, with a five-minute break after 30 minutes.
  4. Ninety minutes for conference organizers to build the twelve-session conference program and set up Breakout Rooms for the resulting sessions. See the Part 1 post for attendee options during this time.
  5. Fifteen minutes for attendees to review the program and decide which session to attend.
  6. One hour for the first set of peer sessions.
  7. Fifteen minute break.
  8. One hour for the second set of peer sessions.
  9. Fifteen minute break.
  10. One hour for the second set of peer sessions.
  11. (Optional, but recommended) Closing session; for example some form of Plus/Delta.

Both of the above examples allow each participant ~2 – 2½ minutes to share their answers to The Three Questions with their groups. As described in my books, when calculating sharing duration add at least ten seconds per participant for the inevitable pauses between shares.

If you want to adjust the time allocated to The Three Questions, you can adjust the size of the breakout groups and/or the sharing time for each participant. But don’t stray too far from the suggested parameters of the above examples. And don’t forget to include breaks!

If at the start of the event, the number of participants turns out to be significantly different from what was expected, facilitators should be ready to collectively adjust sharing time so that the total sharing still fits comfortably into the scheduled Three Questions session length . Each Three Questions breakout should use the same sharing time per participant, so all breakouts can close at the same time.

Staffing an online Zoom peer conference

An experienced practitioner who’s familiar with Zoom can often handle the facilitation and technical support for very small meetings. Online Zoom peer conferences, however, require multiple staffers, who need to be identified and prepared in advance. Typically they will be set up as Zoom co-hosts. I recommend the following staffing:

  • At least one staffer handling technical issues: user support, muting/unmuting participants appropriately, assigning facilitators to their Three Questions rooms, and pre-assigning attendees to breakouts in Step #2.
  • A meeting facilitator, who introduces  The Three Questions to the entire group. (This person can also be a facilitator for one of the The Three Questions Breakout Rooms.)
  • A facilitator for each Three Questions Breakout Room, who keeps track of sharing time, and ensures the sharing runs smoothly.
  • One or two scribes for each Three Questions Breakout Room. (Two scribes will have a much easier task than one.) Ideally, scribes should have some conference topic experience so they can summarize attendee responses accurately and concisely. During each Three Questions session, scribes summarize answers to the second question, usually in a shared Google Doc.
  • A small group of subject matter experts who will review the topics, issues, and challenges uncovered in Step #1, build a responsive peer session program, find leaders for each peer session breakout, and publish the resulting program.
  • Each peer session will need one or more participants who lead and/or share useful experience or expertise and/or facilitate the session.

As for any conference, adequate preparation and, if needed, training, for meeting staffers is crucial for a smoothly run event. Until everyone involved is experienced in supporting online meetings, a pre-meeting mock run through on Zoom is strongly recommended!

Preparing attendees for a peer conference

At in person meetings, facilitation via verbal directions works well. Because online participants can be more easily distracted or late, I recommend distributing a short preparatory online document for participants to read before the meeting.

Be sure to communicate in advance the importance of being present at the start of The Three Questions. The document should contain a short explanation of the value and format of a peer conference, and a schedule. You don’t need to provide detailed information about The Three Questions. You can see some examples here and here.

The facilitator can share this document on-screen while introducing The Three Questions.

Introducing attendees to The Three Questions

One of the advantages of creating a peer conference online with Zoom is that participants don’t need to physically move to separate break out rooms. At in person events this takes time. Consequently, it’s simplest to introduce The Three Questions to attendees when they are all together in the main Zoom meeting room. Once the explanations are over, and participants have been given a few minutes to answer The Three Questions in writing, it’s easy to allocate them to their separate breakouts.

At the start of the peer conference, welcome attendees and then cover any housekeeping issues. Ask all attendees to turn on Zoom text chat, which supplies a useful way for facilitators, scribes, and participants to ask questions, and assist with format and technical issues.  Also share links via screen share and/or text chat to the conference introductory document, and the online document that will contain participants’ responses to the second of The Three Questions: (the topics, issues, and challenges that participants want and need), as described in Part 3 of this series of posts.

The facilitator who introduces The Three Questions can use the same guidance and scripts provided in my books, with the following minor variation. At the start of the introduction, ask attendees to have paper and pen available. Instead of passing out printed cards, the facilitator shares their screen, displaying a copy of The Three Questions card, and then introduces the exercise.

Allocating attendees to Zoom Breakout Rooms for The Three Questions

Once The Three Questions has been introduced, give attendees a few minutes of silent time to write down their answers. (As always, emphasize the importance of writing their answers.)

Once you’ve checked that attendees are ready to continue, it’s time to assign them to breakout rooms.

When running an online session of The Three Questions in Zoom, it’s easiest to assign people to Breakout Rooms automatically, i.e. at random. Pre-assigning people to specific rooms is possible in Zoom, but somewhat clunky — as you’ll see when implementing Step #2!

After creating the breakout rooms, click Options and make sure the following (and only the following) options are checked:

  • Move all participants into breakout rooms automatically.
  • Allow participants to return to the main session at any time.
  • Countdown after closing breakout rooms.

As soon as people are randomly allocated to their rooms, find your individual room facilitators and scribes on Zoom’s participant list and move them as needed to their correct room. (See the section “Preparing breakout rooms” here to learn how to do this.)

Congratulations! You’ve completed the major portion of Step #1. Part 3 of this series covers how the break out room facilitators run their Three Questions session.

Conclusion

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

  • provided a brief recap of the benefits of peer conferences;
  • given a big picture overview of how you can hold one online; and
  • explained how to prepare to run The Three Questions online using Zoom.

The next two posts will describe in detail how to:

  • run The Three Questions online (Part 3); and
  • carry out step #2 — creating an optimum conference program from the information uncovered in step #1— using Zoom (Part 4).

Part 1 (an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom) is available here.
Part 3 (how to run The Three Questions) is now available here.

Check back on this blog for these posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. (Part 1 of “How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom” can be found here.) To ensure you don’t miss them, subscribe to this blog.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomWhy implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom?

I’ve been designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich in person meetings — aka peer conferences — for almost thirty years. Why? Because participants love these meetings!

Now the covid-19 pandemic has forced meetings online. Unfortunately, most online events are still using a traditional webinar/broadcast-style approach: presenters speaking for long periods, interspersed with chat-mediated Q&A.

Why Zoom?

Zoom has rapidly become the dominant platform for online meetings. Though there are many features that would make the platform better, it’s popular for good reason. Zoom:

  • has a well-chosen feature set;
  • is relatively easy to use; and
  • has proved very reliable despite the platform’s meteoric growth.

While Zoom is currently missing some functionality that would smooth the process flow, it’s already a viable platform for online peer conferences.

I started using Zoom in 2012, but since the pandemic began I’ve facilitated more Zoom meetings than the last seven years. And I’ve become intrigued with the possibilities of incorporating the peer processes developed for successful face-to-face meetings into online events.

I’ve written three books about why creating participation-rich conferences that deliver effective learning, connection, engagement, and action is so important, and how to do it for in person events. So I won’t repeat myself here; read them for full details!

In person meetings have vanished overnight. It’s time to implement what we’ve learned about great face-to-face meeting design and process into online meetings. Meetings will never be the same. When the pandemic is over, the meeting industry will have much more experience and understanding of what is possible online versus in person.

My mission is to make meetings better for everyone involved. That’s why I’m publishing this series of posts on how to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom.

I’ll start with an overview.

The big picture

The core reason why peer conferences work that they become what participants actually want and need. They accomplish this in real-time — during the event — via two essential steps:

  1. At the start of the conference, uncover participants’ wants and needs and the resources in the room.
  2. Develop an optimum conference program that matches the uncovered wants and needs with the resources in the room.

Once the conference program has been developed and scheduled, you’re ready to hold the resulting peer sessions. I’ll explain how to do this in a future post.

Step #1

I’ve been implementing step #1 at in person events for twenty-five years, using a process called The Three Questions, which is described in detail in my book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll explain how to implement The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms.

As in face-to-face events, I recommend allocating at least ninety minutes for step #1. If you are running an extended event (see below) with multiple sets of breakout sessions, schedule two hours. Note that these times include short breaks, as described in this post.

At the end of step #1:

  • Participants will have met a useful number of other participants and learned useful information about each other, namely, details of their association with the meeting topic, their wants and needs for the meeting, and their relevant expertise and experience.
  • Conference organizers will have a comprehensive list of topics, issues, and challenges that are top-of-mind for attendees, plus identified participants who can facilitate/lead/present on them.

Step #2

Step #1 generates a large amount of information about attendees’ real-time wants and needs, as well as relevant expertise and experience that can be tapped.

During step #2, conference leaders and subject matter experts use this information to create an optimum conference program. In Part 3 of this post I’ll explain how to do this. What’s important to know is that step #2 takes time!

For a small meeting (e.g., 60 people, two one-hour time slots with three simultaneous sessions per slot ==> 6 peer sessions) creating the program might take 30 – 60 minutes.

For a larger event (e.g., 100 people, three one-hour time slots with five simultaneous sessions per slot ==> 15 peer sessions) choosing a program might take 90 – 150 minutes.

Regardless of the time needed, conference attendees should be otherwise engaged during step #2.

You have (at least) three options at this point.

Allow attendees free time while the conference program is designed

One option is to simply schedule an attendee break that’s long enough to complete step #2. For example, if your attendees are from the same or contiguous time zones, consider scheduling step #1 so it ends around lunchtime for most of them. Your pre-conference schedule could then include an hour or more break for lunch while the program is developed.

Schedule a presentation for attendees during step #2

While conference leaders and subject matter experts are using step #1 information to choose and schedule peer sessions, the other participants attend a pre-scheduled presentation or session of some kind that’s long enough for step #1 to be completed.

Be sure to include at east a short break between the end of step #1 and the start of the presentation.

One minor drawback of this approach is that step #1 often involves checking the availability of participants who have relevant experience or expertise to lead a peer session, as well as their willingness to do so. Doing this (typically by private message in Zoom text chat) while these participants are involved in another session can be a little disruptive.

Schedule steps #1 and #2 on different days

A third option is to schedule your entire event over two or more days. This gives ample time for step #1 to be completed. For example, you could run step #1 for a couple of hours on Monday morning or afternoon, then complete step #2 and distribute the resulting conference program, and run the resulting peer sessions on Tuesday.

Conclusion

In this post I’ve provided a brief recap of the benefits of peer conferences, and given a big picture overview of how you can hold one online. Future posts will cover detailed descriptions of how to carry out steps #1 and #2 using Zoom.

Check back on this blog for upcoming posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss them, subscribe.

Schedule breaks during online meetings!

schedule breaks during online meetingsProviding downtime during any meeting is important, but it’s especially important to schedule breaks during online meetings.

What happens if you don’t schedule breaks during online meetings

Some people have the attitude that attendees at online meetings are grown-ups and they should be given the freedom to take a break when they want and/or need to. Let’s explore this.

Obviously, there are times when online meeting participants need to take a break. They are working from home and their kid falls down and hurts themself. Or they have to take an important call they’ve been waiting for from their boss. (Hopefully they explained that at the start of the meeting.) Perhaps they have a physiological emergency.

You can’t do much about people who need to take a break. But, by scheduling breaks at an online meeting you can drastically reduce the number of people who want to take a break, and do so because they have no idea when they’ll next get a scheduled opportunity to take a break!

When you don’t schedule enough breaks, people will leave an online meeting seemingly at random. Sometimes they’ll do this because they need to, but the other meeting attendees don’t know this. As a result, the meeting will feel unnecessarily disjointed, and it’s easy for participants to conclude that the meeting is not so important, or boring, or a waste of time. (Of course, meetings can be all these things, breaks or not! But there’s no need to make the experience worse than it already might be.)

To summarize, scheduling appropriate breaks during online meetings makes it much more likely that people will stay present and only leave if they have to.

Why attention span is especially fragile at online meetings

Let’s think about in person meetings for a moment. Long face-to-face meetings — a conference for example — are invariably broken up into sessions, interspersed with scheduled breaks, meals, socials, etc. We are used to building scheduled breaks into in person meetings. And such breaks inevitably involve movement: leaving a meeting room for refreshments, moving to another location for the next session, etc.

Unlike in person meetings, there may be very little downtime between multiple online meetings. Online meeting participants don’t have to get out of their chair and walk to another room to join a new meeting; they just click a new Zoom link. Moreover, online meeting participants usually have no idea whether other attendees are on their first or tenth meeting of the day.

Consequently, it’s not unusual for people working remotely these days to become Zoombies (no, not this kind, hopefully). Sitting for long periods in front of a screen is a recipe for inattention. Our brains simply can’t maintain peak alertness without regular stimulation of movement (our body, not someone else’s), active engagement (e.g. answering a question, engaging in conversation), or meaningful emotional experience. In my experience, most online meetings contain very little stimulation of this type. Scheduled breaks allow us to create this vital stimulation for ourselves.

Even if a meeting facilitator is aware of the importance of scheduling breaks to maintain attention, there’s another factor that makes it harder than during face-to-face meetings.

Reading the room at online meetings

At in person meetings, it’s fairly easy to read the room and notice that attendees are getting restless. People start to squirm a little in their seats. Their body language telegraphs they’re tired or inattentive. A good meeting leader/facilitator will see this and announce a break, or ask the group whether they can power through for another fifteen minutes.

It’s harder to read the room during online meetings, because we have less real-time information about the participants. It’s difficult to judge how people are doing when all you can see is their upper body in a little rectangle on your screen. In addition, most microphones are muted, so you can’t hear people shifting around in their chairs or audible distractions nearby.

Scheduled breaks reduce the need to reliably read the room with limited audible and visual information available.

OK, so how long can people meet online without a break?

It depends. Online meetings that focus on making a single decision can, if well-designed and facilitated, be useful and over in twenty minutes. No break needed! In my experience, though, most online meetings run 60 – 90 minutes.

If the attendees aren’t participating in back-to-back online meetings (unfortunately, increasingly common these days) it’s reasonable to schedule a 60-minute meeting without a break.

90-minute meetings are a stretch, and scheduling a five-minute break around the middle will help participants regenerate.

If you feel impelled to run a longer meeting, I strongly recommend building a five-minute break into the agenda every 45 minutes.

If you’re still wondering why meeting breaks are important, check out this light-hearted review on the value and science of white space at events.

What you ask people to do during breaks is important, and I’ll share my suggestions below.

How to schedule online meeting breaks

There are several ways to inform participants about online meeting breaks.

The most obvious is using your meeting agenda, distributed before the meeting. Simply add a five-minute break in the middle of your 90-minute meeting, or include a couple of five-minute breaks during your 120-minute meeting agenda.

Alternatively, you can announce scheduled break times at the start of the meeting. Be sure to repeat this information once any latecomers have joined.

A variant is to announce at the start that there will be breaks, say, every 45 minutes or so, but the exact time will depend on how the meeting proceeds. Ask participants to speak up if more than 45 minutes passes without a break.

Finally, you may occasionally need to schedule an impromptu break. For example: an unexpected issue arises that necessitates spending five minutes to get data needed to make a decision. Under circumstances like this, an impromptu break may well be appropriate.

Whatever method used to schedule breaks, periodically remind participants when a break is coming up. For example: “We have a five-minute break scheduled in fifteen minutes; let’s see if we can get everyone’s thoughts on this issue before the break.”

Directions for attendees during breaks

Finally, it’s important to give clear directions to participants before each scheduled break. Here’s what to do.

  • Obviously people need to be clearly told the length of the break, and the time the meeting will continue. Display a countdown timer showing the break time remaining; this is an essential aid for getting everyone back online on schedule. If your online meeting platform doesn’t have this capability built in, the meeting leader can share their screen during the break, displaying a large-digit timer counting down the minutes.
  • Suggest that people turn off their cameras and do some movement and stretching exercises, or, if there’s time, go for a quick walk. Even short amounts of movement increase our in-the-moment cognitive functioning and ability to learn. (See Chapter 4 of The Power of Participation for more information on the benefits of movement.)
  • If the break is for a significant amount of time, for example, a lunch break, you may be giving participants some preparatory work before the meeting resumes. Before the break, provide clear instructions on what is needed. For example: “During lunch, please spend a few minutes thinking about the options we discussed this morning, and be ready to share and justify your top choice when we reconvene at 1 pm EDT.”

Conclusion

I hope this article has been helpful explaining how to schedule breaks during online meetings. As always, your comments are welcome!

Who goes first — protocols for online meetings

who goes firstLast week I shared protocols for “who goes next?” at meetings. This week it’s time to cover a closely related topic: who goes first?

When everyone shares at a meeting, someone has to start! There are two scenarios to consider: facilitating a discussion for a single group, and providing directions for choosing who goes first when simultaneous small group discussions are needed or desired.

Face-to-face and online meetings have different signaling options, which I described in detail last week. So for this post, I’ll chronicle “who goes first” options for single and multiple group scenarios.

Options for choosing who goes first with a single group

• Ask for a volunteer

Probably the most common protocol for determining who goes first is to ask “who wants to start?” and provide a signaling method: e.g., raise your hand, or use an online signaling option.

This is generally a perfectly acceptable method, though, as you’ll see the next two options may be preferable under some circumstances.

• Facilitator/leader goes first

Sometimes a topic under discussion is tough to talk about. I’ve been in many meetings where the first contribution avoided addressing what was asked, or was meagre or superficial. This gives later sharers a license to follow suit. For example, a question about how a person is feeling about an issue may be answered by what they are thinking about it.

When a meeting facilitator or leader starts the sharing and models the kind of response that’s wanted, it’s much more likely that others will respond in a similar way.

• A plant goes first

No, not that underwatered yet surprisingly intelligent potted hibiscus that’s sitting next to the speakerphone. Or Groot. Rather, the facilitator asks a reliable participant, perhaps warned beforehand, to provide a great response to the posed question/issue/challenge.

Ways for small groups to independently determine who goes first

When you’re facilitating multiple small group sharing, either in person or online, you need to provide each group with guidance on how to choose who goes first. In person, you can provide this guidance once everyone is in their small group. Online, typically, you will need to supply “who goes first” instructions before people are whisked into their virtual breakout rooms.

A word about pair share

One of the best ways to improve any meeting session is to regularly include pair share (where paired participants each take time in turn to share their thoughts with their partner). Online, rather than splitting everyone into pairs, I recommend you create groups of four. Instruct each group to form two pairs, perhaps using one of the methods described below. Have one pair run pair share while the other pair listens, and then switch. This makes it more likely that each pair will actually follow instructions, and gives the group of four people a taste of three perspectives rather than one.

Methods for small groups to choose who goes first

You can use a couple of strategies: either leave it up to the groups to decide, or provide a method for them.

[Some of the following ideas were sparked by this post (check it out for even more ideas!) by Ted DesMaisons]

Letting each group decide who goes first is always an option, but it can also be fun to have groups compare or discover something about each other. Here are some simple ideas; feel free to add your own, especially if you can identify something that relates to the topic groups or pairs are going to discuss:

  • First name closest to start of alphabet
  • Longest first name
  • Tallest
  • Nearest to birthday
  • Earliest up in the morning
  • Lowest street address number
  • Closest to a point in the room
  • Longest hair
  • Most pockets
  • Lives nearest to water
  • Most recently worked in the garden
  • Last purchased something
  • Most colorful clothing

Feeling whimsical? For a pair share, pick neutral substitutes for partners A and B. For example: “One of you is cup, one of you is saucer.” “One of you is coffee, the other tea.” “One of you is sun, one is moon.” There are plenty of other pairs you can use (rock and roll, knife and fork, bread and butter) but avoid those that could have a negative connotation (e.g., life and death, right and wrong). And if you’re running multiple pair shares in a session, have Partner B start first sometimes, and change partners and who-goes-first strategies as well.

Are there other ways to decide who goes first?

I hope these ideas will prove helpful. I bet there are more I haven’t thought of. If you have additions and improvements, please share them in the comments! 

Who goes next — protocols for online meetings

who goes nextYou’ve surely overheard or been part of a “conversation” where one person talks non-stop. Who goes next? Nobody! “Free discussions” at meetings frequently suffer from the same phenomenon. A few people monopolize most of the time, and many people, often a majority, say nothing.

If you want to support everyone’s right to share at a meeting, you’ll need to facilitate what happens via defining and agreeing on who can speak, and when, and for how long.

One of those agreements involves determining who goes next.

Let’s explore strategies for who goes next, first for face-to-face meetings and then online meetings.

Face-to-face options for who goes next

When all participants are physically together in one room, there are several ways “who goes next?” may be decided.

• Random

No facilitation or explicit process used. Whoever speaks gets to talk. If two or more people start simultaneously, they decide (or battle) as to who should speak next.

Because this is the default mode for most casual human conversations, many groups unconsciously adopt it when they meet. As we all know, this (lack of) process eventually breaks down as the group gets larger, with people shut out or deciding not to speak.

• Round-robin sharing

The simplest who goes next protocol for a face-to-face group is round-robin sharing, where participants’ physical location determines who speaks next. When using a circle of chairs, this is easy to do. It’s not much harder for a facilitator to implement round-robin in other room sets, providing participants aren’t moving around. An agreed limit on time to speak is typically needed in order to prevent one or more people from monopolizing group time. And it’s important for the facilitator to check that no one’s been left out when sharing appears to be done.

• Popcorn sharing

In popcorn sharing, people indicate they’d like to speak by some agreed on method, say by raising their hand, and a facilitator guides who speaks next. This allows people to speak when they’re ready to say something, rather than be forced to speak because it’s “their turn” due to where they are sitting or standing. For successful group sharing, a facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again. Again, a time limit is recommended.

“Pass” should always be an option

However a group uses to decide who goes next, it’s important to make clear that speaking is optional. Give anyone who doesn’t want to speak at an available time an explicit opportunity to state this, rather than assuming that anyone who hasn’t spoken doesn’t want to.

Who goes next at an online meeting?

Determining who goes next during an online meeting discussion poses additional challenges to those of a face-to-face meeting. That’s because we don’t have all the signaling options that are possible when all participants are physically together.

• Facilitator chooses

At an online meeting there’s no physical room set to use for a round-robin process. (A common mistake is to assume that the order participants appear on one’s screen is the same for everyone, but that’s not the case—and the visible order may change at any time when participants join or depart the meeting.)

One strategy is to have the facilitator choose who speaks next. For a small group, the facilitator’s memory may be sufficient to keep track of who has spoken and who hasn’t.

Alternatively, meeting platforms generally allow the host to display a list of participants, and the facilitator can use a screenshot of this list to invite and track who goes next.

Finally, for a more formal meeting, an agenda distributed before the meeting can include an ordered list of speakers.

As in face-to-face meetings, the facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again.

• Participants raise hands

We are all used to raising hands when we want to speak in a group. If all participants have their camera on, and the facilitator can see everyone on one screen (check this — every meeting platform has a limit to the number of participants shown simultaneously), you can have people raise a hand if they want to speak. The facilitator then names who will speak next. If more than one person raises their hand, it’s good to recognize both: e.g. “Martha, and then let’s hear from Priya”.

If you have a few people on phones, the facilitator can check in with them periodically, asking if there’s something they want to contribute. However, phone-only attendees are typically second-class citizens on video conferencing calls unless the meeting group is small.

Some meeting platforms have the capability for participants to click on a “raise hand” icon, to inform the host they want to speak. (Microsoft Teams will be adding this, though the displayed hand is pretty small.) Zoom implements this well, even allowing phone callers to “raise their hand” by entering *9 on their keypad.

• Participants use text chat

If everyone has appropriate access, another approach is for attendees to request to speak via text chat. I’m not a big fan of this approach because I’ve found that text chat is a great channel for people to connect with other participants and comment on the meeting, and it’s hard to use this channel for two different purposes. One alternative is to reserve the meeting platform text chat for normal use, and agree on a separate text chat channel that uses a different platform for queuing speaking requests. This could be a viable approach for very large online meetings, though remember that running a free-floating discussion amongst a large number of people is just as ineffective and prone to abuse online as it is in person.

• Current speaker picks the next person to speak

A final strategy is to have the current speaker pick who speaks next. This adds a little nice informality to the sharing. There are a couple of things to bear in mind with this approach. First, it can be hard for people to remember who has spoken and who hasn’t. And second, I’ve seen everyone avoid choosing people with hard-to-pronounce names until they are the only folks left!

Are there other ways to decide who goes next?

If you have additions and improvements to the above ideas, please share them in the comments! And stay tuned for my upcoming post on a similar online meeting issue: who goes first?

How to support a community online during covid-19

support a community online during covid-19
How can you support a community online during covid-19? Over the last few weeks I’ve run numerous online Zoom meetings for support groups and local, social, and professional communities. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about what makes these meetings most useful for participants.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned (so far) here.

Key takeaways

• Breakout room functionality is essential for your online meeting platform.
Small group conversations are the core components of successful online meetings. (If your meeting only involves people broadcasting information, replace it with email!) Unless you have six or fewer people in your meeting, you need to be able to efficiently split participants into smaller groups when needed — typically every 5 – 10 minutes — for effective conversations to occur. That’s what online breakout rooms are for. Use them!

• It’s important to define group agreements about participant behavior at the start.
For well over a decade, I have been asking participants to agree to six agreements at the start of meetings. Such agreements can be quickly explained, and significantly improve intimacy and safety. They are easily adapted to online meetings. (For example, I cover when and how the freedom to ask questions can be used when the entire group is together online.)

• Use process that allows everyone time to share.
You’ve probably attended a large group “discussion” with poor or non-existent facilitation, and noticed that a few people monopolize most of the resulting “conversation”. Before people divide into small breakout groups, state the issue or question they’ll be discussing, ask someone to volunteer as timekeeper, and prescribe an appropriate duration for each participant’s sharing.

• People want and need to share how they’re feeling up front.
I’ve found that pretty much everything important that happens at these meetings springs from people safely sharing at the start how they feel. They learn that they’re not alone. I ask participants to come up with one to three feeling words that describe how they’re feeling: either right now, or generally, or about their personal or professional situation. They write these words large with a fine-point permanent marker on one or more pieces of paper and share them, one person at a time, on camera or verbally. (Elaborations come later.)

• Sharing what’s working is validating, interesting, and useful.
In my experience, everyone has made some changes in their personal and/or professional lives that are helping them deal with the impact of the coronavirus. Sharing these in small groups is a supportive process that’s well worth doing.

• Consultations are a powerful small group activity.
Set aside time, if available, for a few group consults on individual challenges. Ask for volunteers. They will receive support, and their small group of impromptu consultants will feel good about helping.

• Don’t forget to provide movement breaks.
Occasional movement breaks are even more important for online than face-to-face meetings. Participants can feel trapped sitting in front of their camera. Schedule a break every 45 minutes.

• Check before moving on to a new topic.
If you are on video, ask for an affirmative sign (thumbs up or down), or use Roman voting. On audio, ask “who has more to contribute on this?”

• Provide a set of tips and conventions for the online platform you’re using.
Here are mine for Zoom.

• Schedule time for feedback and/or a retrospective.
Key questions: What was this like? Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

Preparing for your community online meeting

Key information should be distributed appropriately well in advance of the meeting. Include it in a single online document, and create a descriptive URL shortened link (e.g. bit.ly/ephhfeelings).  I suggest you share a short promo for your why? for the meeting, followed by this “complete details” link. Because many people don’t read the details until shortly before the meeting, resend your share closer to the time of the event.

I also like to display the link printed on a card visible in my video feed, so folks who have joined the meeting can catch up. Don’t rely on a chat window for this, since latecomers will not see earlier chat comments in most meeting platforms.

Here’s a sample of what you might want to include in your pre-meeting document for a 90-minute online meeting. My comments are in curly brackets {}.


Sample pre-meeting information document for community online meeting

[Date and start/end time of meeting]
[Time when host will open online meeting] {I suggest opening the meeting platform at least 15 minutes before the meeting starts. This allows people, especially first-time users, time to get online}
Meeting starts promptly at [start time]

Please check out the following three links before the meeting:

Why you should attend [meeting title] {audience, rationale, agenda, etc.}
How to join this meeting {complete instructions on how to go online}
[Meeting platform] tips {make it easy for novices to participate — here are my Zoom tips}

Preparation

Please have a few blank pieces of paper and a dark color fine point permanent marker (several, if you are artistically inclined). Before we start, write large on one piece of paper where you’re calling from. On another, please write (or illustrate) one to three feeling words that describe how you’re feeling: either right now, generally, about your personal or professional situation — you choose.

Schedule

We will open the meeting at 11:45 am EDT.

Please join us before 12:00 if at all possible, so we can start together promptly. We’ll try to bring you up to speed if you join late, but it may be difficult if there are many already online and it will be disruptive for them.

Exact timings will depend on how many of us are present. This plan may change according to expressed needs. All times EDT.

11:45: Online meeting opens.

11:45 – 12:00: Join meeting.

12:00: Meeting starts. Housekeeping. Where are you from?

12:05: Sharing our feeling words together.

12:10: Preparing for sharing what’s going on for you.

12:15: Sharing what’s going on for you in online breakout room.

12:25: Group recap of commonalities and illustrative stories.

12:35: Preparing for sharing what’s helped.

12:40: Sharing what’s helped in online breakout room.

12:50: Break — get up and move around! {Share your screen with a countdown timer displayed so people know when to return.}

12:55: Group recap of what’s helped.

13:05 Preparing for individual consulting. {Ask for a few volunteers.}

13:10: Individual consulting in online breakout room.

13:25: Group recap of individual lessons learned.

13:35: Group feedback on session. Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

13:55: Thanks and closing.

14:00: Online meeting ends.


Support your community online during covid-19

Most online meetings do a poor job of maintaining participants’ attention. I’ve found that starting with a quick opportunity for people to share how they’re feeling effectively captures attendees’ interest. And using a platform and process that allows everyone time to share what’s important keeps participants engaged. You might get feedback like this…

“I just wanted to reach out again and thank you for the call today. What an incredible conversation spanning such significant geographical areas. The perspective we gain from discussion like today is priceless. I just got off of another call with [another community] and the vibe was completely different. While everyone was respectful, everyone’s overall sense of well being was generally pretty positive. And that’s where they wanted to keep it.”
—A participant’s message to me after an online meeting last week

Please try out these ideas! And share your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below.