Lessons I learned from an online workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional concerns when a workshop is online

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

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

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

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

Logistical concerns that made this workshop rushed

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

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

Using Keynote in Zoom

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

lessons learned online workshop

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

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

Better ways to manage context switching

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

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

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

Consequences

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Free online Participate Lab — May 11, 2022

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

Registration is limited, so register now!

Where & When

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

What We Will Talk About

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

Our time together at this Participate Lab will cover:

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

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

Two novel hybrid meeting formats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The online portion

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Ask Adrian Anything — a free online participant-driven workshop on the future of events

Here’s a rare opportunity to ask me anything about meeting design and facilitation at a unique, free, online workshop. Join me next Thursday, March 10th, 2022 at 12:00 pm EST for Ask Adrian Anything (AAA): an online participant-driven workshop on the future of events.

Though the central core is the AAA session, this is an active learning workshop. During it, you’ll experience some of the practices I use to support and build participant learning, connection, engagement, and community.

How long will the workshop last? That’s up to you! I’m willing to keep it going as long as you have questions and concerns to share. When it’s over, you’re welcome to stay and socialize online, and I’ll stick around for informal chats.

If you want to join us, it’s important you’re ready to begin at 12:00 pm EST. We’ll open the workshop platform at 11:45 am EST so you’ll have time to do the usual camera/microphone online setup boogie for a prompt start at noon EST.

Register for free
We’ll meet online, using Gatherly [1, 2], a platform designed for online social interaction and learning. [Apart from being a fan, I have no affiliation with Gatherly, and am donating my services.] The Gatherly platform will allow us to learn about each other and about top-of-mind issues, concerns, and questions through small group work, human spectrograms, and fishbowl discussion.

Ask Adrian Anything

This is an opportunity for you to experience one of my participant-driven workshops. You’ll learn through doing, both about other participants and how to implement what you experience into your own events.

  • Experience a participant-driven online event.
  • Learn by doing participant-driven methods that increase event engagement, connection, and community.
  • Meet, workshop with, and learn from other event professionals.
  • Take this opportunity to ask Adrian anything about meeting design and facilitation.
  • Enjoy time after the session in an online social environment that closely mimics meeting in-person socials. You’ll be able to find folks you’d like to talk with and hang out one-on-one or in small groups for public or private conversations.

Register for free

The loneliness of the long distance facilitator

long distance facilitator Right now, I am a long distance facilitator. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I only facilitate meetings of people who are not in the same room. Often, they are thousands of miles away.

And, like Colin Smith, the protagonist (played by Tom Courtney) of the classic 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I sometimes feel alone.

Meeting via Zoom is far better than not meeting at all, but it doesn’t compare with being with people face-to-face.

I love to facilitate in-person meetings, and I miss the personal connection possible there.

The Invisible Man

But even when I facilitate in-person meetings, there are times I feel lonely. No, not while I’m working! Not when I work with clients to design great meetings, create safety, uncover participants’ wants and needs, moderate panels, crowdsource conference programs and sessions, facilitate group problem solving, and run community-building closing sessions.

But there are times during the event when I’m not working. While the sessions I helped participants create are taking place. During breaks when I’m not busy preparing for what’s to come. And during socials.

At these times, I feel a bit like The Invisible Man.

Why? Because, though I may have facilitated and, hopefully, strengthened the learning, connection, and community of participants present, I’m not a member of the community.

In the breaks and socials I see participants in earnest conversations, making connections, fulfilling their wants and needs in real time. But I’m hardly ever a player in the field or issues that have brought them together. (Usually, as far as the subject matter of the meeting is concerned, I’m the most ignorant person present.) So I don’t have anyone to talk to at the content level. I’m physically present, but I don’t share the commonality that brought the group together. It’s about participants’ connection and community, not mine.

I may have made what’s happening better through design and facilitation, but it’s not about me.

Every once in a while, participants might notice me and thank me for what I did. It doesn’t happen very often—and that’s OK. My job is to make the event the best possible experience for everyone. My reward is seeing the effects of my design and facilitation on participants. If I were doing this work for fame or glory, I would have quit it long ago.

If you’re at a meeting break or social and see a guy wandering around who you dimly remember was up on stage or at the front of the room getting you to do stuff?

It’s probably me.

No lonely breaks online

Paradoxically, when I facilitate online meetings there’s no “invisible man” lonely time. Whenever we aren’t online, we’re all alone at our separate computers. We can do whatever we please. We were never physically together, so we don’t miss a physical connection when we leave.

If I had to choose…

The loneliness of the long distance facilitator is accentuated at in-person events by the abrupt switches between working intimately with a group and ones outsider status when the work stops.

At online events, we are all somewhat lonely because no one else is physically present. Our experiences of the other people are imperfect instantiations: moving images that sometimes talk and (perhaps?) listen.

It wouldn’t be a no-brainer choice, but if I had to choose between facilitating only in-person or online meetings, I’d choose the former. The intimacy of being physically together with others is worth the loneliness when we’re apart.

Image from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

How to run The Solution Room online

run The Solution Room online

The most popular of the in-person sessions I design and facilitate is The Solution Room (here are some testimonials). The 90 – 120 minute session, for 20 – 600 people, engages and connects participants, and provides just-in-time peer support and answers to their most pressing professional challenges. These days, wouldn’t it be great to run The Solution Room online? Well you can!

I’ve described in detail how to run The Solution Room at in-person meetings in my last two books: The Power of Participation & Event Crowdsourcing. The latter has the most up-to-date instructions, but either book should suffice. (Don’t have a copy? For the price of a sandwich you can buy either ebook.) So this post covers just the changes you’ll need to make to hold this highly rated plenary session on an online/virtual platform.

Resources

To run The Solution Room online you’ll need:

  • An online platform with seats for all attendees, plus a private/breakout room for each solution table. In this post I’ll use Zoom to illustrate. The number of breakout rooms will depend on the table size (typically six to eight people; see the book). For example, to run The Solution Room with 100 people and a table size of seven, you’ll need 15 breakout rooms.
  • A Solution Room facilitator, plus a couple of staff to assist with table groupings/support, and timing announcements.
  • If you’re dividing participants into heterogeneous groups (the best choice in my opinion), a method of capturing the number of participants and each participant’s number of “years of experience”. You can use a shared Google Sheet for this, like the embedded one below.
    The above sheet includes a formula that automatically counts the number of people who have entered their name, making it easy to determine how many breakout groups will be needed. It also calculates participants’ grand total of years of experience. Feel free to use a copy for your session, enlarged if necessary.
  • A way for each participant to create a mindmap or other illustration of their current professional challenge that can be shared with the other members of their table. For example, you can ask participants:
    • To have some paper and colored pens on hand to draw their mindmap. This is the simplest and safest option. The resulting drawing can be held up to the camera during the table breakout.
    • To use any drawing program on their computer to create their mindmap. Participants can then share their screen window with the drawing when it’s their turn for a consultation.
  • Campfire and jungle images for the comfort level spectrogram, open in windows for sharing on your online platform.
  • If you’d like to display participants’ before and after comfort levels with their challenge and/or the likelihood they’ll work to overcome the challenge they shared, you can use an online polling tool like Poll Everywhere. Note that you won’t be able to do the dramatic before/after move comparisons online.

How to run The Solution Room online

Opening the session

The Solution Room facilitator follows the “How?” section of the relevant chapter in The Power of Participation (Chapter 34) or Event Crowdsourcing (Chapter 23) with the following modifications.

In advance of the session, ask participants to have available a method of creating a drawing to share with their small group. Provide detailed options, so they know how they’re going to create their drawing and how they’ll share it.

Before starting, have your staff check that every participant is displaying their name in the participant list.

Introduce The Solution Room, and provide the link to the shared Google Sheet years-of-experience sheet (here’s my sample Sheet). Ask participants to think of their challenge, and then enter their Zoom name in the column headed by their number of years of experience.

Once everyone has entered their years of experience, your staff can calculate the number of breakout rooms needed. While you continue, staff pre-assigns participants to breakout room tables using the information in the Google Sheet.

An example of table assignment, using the sample Google Sheet

The sample Google Sheet contains twenty participants. So if we are using a table size of seven, we will need three breakout rooms. Your staff will, therefore, go through the Sheet from the left, down each column, and then to the right, assigning each participant a number between 1 and 3. F0r the example, the three tables will be:

#1: Julio Melia, Marvin Brentwood, Elizabeth Strong, Gurdeep Mac, Liliana Hoffman, Ivor Rennie, Zahrah Valenzuela

#2: Harold Kormann, Fergus Roth, Khi Suliman, Bayley Sims, Arian Faulkner, Alayah Hurley, Adrian Segar, Tyriq Kenny

#3: John Smith, Mario Fernandez, Selina Hatherton, Malaika Byers, Inigo Tyler

Each table contains a mixture of years of experience, from novice to veteran.

The comfort spectrogram

Run the comfort spectrogram, sharing your campfire and jungle images at the appropriate times. If you have a polling instrument, ask each participant to rate their pre-exercise comfort level on working on their challenge on a scale of 1 (extremely uncomfortable) to 10 (perfectly comfortable) and to enter their rating. No polling instrument? Simply ask them to remember their rating.

Running mindmapping

While everyone is still together, give the mindmapping instructions and give participants a few minutes to create their drawings. Ask participants to turn off their camera, raise their hand, or provide some other signal that they have finished. Tell them they can use private chat with the facilitator or staff if they have any questions.

When it’s time for table sharing to start, provide the instructions for table sharing. Answer any questions, and then move participants to their breakout room tables, or tell them their table number and have them move themselves.

Use broadcast messages to provide the midway, two-minute, and time’s up announcements. At the start of the last sharing round, remind tables with one empty seat to use the time for additional consulting.

Ask everyone to thank their table colleagues for their advice and support. Allow a couple of minutes for this, and then bring everyone back together.

Running the closing spectrogram(s)

Display the jungle and campfire images and run the second comfort spectrogram. If using a polling instrument, compare the pre- and post- comfort distributions. Otherwise you can ask people to raise their hand for three options in turn: their comfort level increased, stayed the same, or decreased.

If desired, run the likelihood that participants will work to overcome the challenge they just shared.

Finally, if you have time and the inclination, take some sharing about the exercise, using an appropriate “who goes next” protocol.

That’s it! If you run The Solution Room online, please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

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!

How to create great online breakout sessions

How can we create great online breakout sessions?

Does this sound familiar?

You attend a conference session on a topic that interests you. Perhaps you’re a novice, or an expert, or someone in between. Or perhaps you want a general introduction. Perhaps you have a few specific aspects you want to hear about, or questions to which you’d love to get answers.

The presenter begins, and you quickly realize the session is not going to meet your needs. (Or, even worse, you sit through the whole thing, expecting your specific interests to be addressed — but they never are.)

How many other attendees are having the same experience? How many attendees are getting their wants and needs met by this session?

We will probably never know.

At traditional sessions, you might get a hint of how well the presenter met wants and needs at the end, when “there’s time for a few questions”. Whatever you discover at that point, it’s too late.

How to create great breakout sessions

There’s a better approach.

Whether a breakout session is in-person or online, the way for a leader or presenter to make it great is to:

  • quickly uncover audience interests at the start of the session; and
  • use the expressed wants and needs to create a session that covers the desired content at the required level.

Why does this approach create great sessions?

This approach works because it makes a transparent effort to provide an optimal session for the participants: what they actually want and need. Participants appreciate this! You might end up with a plan like this one:

“It looks like about a third of you are relatively new to [the session topic] and you’re mainly interested in an introduction. The rest of you seem most interested in spending time learning about X & Y. A couple of you have specific questions that I can answer quite quickly.

I can provide an introduction to [the session topic]. Ayesha has expertise in X, and Cyrus and I know about Y. I propose I start with an introduction to [the session topic] for ten to fifteen minutes. Then let’s turn the session over to Ayesha for fifteen minutes on X, followed by Cyrus & I for around fifteen minutes on Y. During the remainder of the session I’ll answer the two specific questions, and we’ll use any remaining time to answer final questions.

How does that sound to everyone?”

The transparency of this process is really important, because, of course, it’s impossible to create a session that’s perfect for everyone. Suppose, for example, that you have a specific need that might take up most of the session to be fulfilled…and you’re the only person who asks for this. OK, so you’re not going to get your needs met, but at least you understand why. Furthermore, a smart presenter may still be able to offer an opportunity to respond to your need: e.g., “John, we don’t have time in this session to talk about Z, but email me and I’ll send you some articles that should be helpful.”

How to create great in-person breakout sessions

At in-person events, it’s easy to uncover audience interests using the Post It! For Sessions technique described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. The presenter supplies a pen and sticky note to each attendee and asks them to write down one topic they would like explored, or question they would like answered during the session. The notes are collected and categorized into broad themes, and the presenter designs a responsive session, like the one above, on the spot. (Check out the book for more details.)

How to create great online breakout sessions

With a little ingenuity, it’s simple to modify Post It! For Sessions for an online breakout session.

To start, ask everyone to come up with their answer to this question:

What one thing do I want to get from this session?

Tell them that their response can be specific or general; they get to choose what they most desire. Give them a minute to think about their answer, and ask them to post it in the online platform’s text chat.
create great online breakout sessions In the example above (a breakout session held in Zoom for store owners) there is interest from more than one participant in: selling to millennials, store signage, ecommerce, and employee development.

Now, you and your participants have a much better idea of the wants and needs in the “room”.

Quickly review the requests, and ask submitters to clarify any that are unclear or vague.

Then create a brief plan for the session, based on the expressed wants and needs. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics you won’t be able to cover in the time available. Ask if there are subject matter experts in the room that can address some of the topics raised, and incorporate that information into your plan. Ask for feedback and adjust the plan if necessary.

Then do it!

It isn’t hard and it doesn’t take long

You can create great online breakout sessions in about five minutes. Taking the time to discover what participants want and need and creating a session that meets the group’s desires as closely as possible will pay rich dividends. Try it and see!

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

Two tools for online conference socials: Gatherly versus Yotribe review

Gatherly versus YoTribe review If you can’t hang out with people in person, how can you best meet up with your tribe online? That’s the selling proposition for a host of new platforms that have sprung up over the last few months: creating a compelling online incarnation of the traditional conference socials we all know and love (or hate). Last week I got to try out a couple of these new platforms, so I thought I’d write a Gatherly versus Yotribe review.

[Added November 23, 2020: after reading this review, see this post for an update on these two platforms and Rally.]

A maximum of around thirty people were present at any one time at the Gatherly test event, which I set up. I estimate there were around a hundred folks at the Yotribe event, which was organized by Anh Nguyen.

First, some context…

In-person conference socials

Imagine an in-person conference social. <sings>”It isn’t hard to do.”</sings> You enter the room and look around to see who’s there.

Perhaps you see people present whom you know. So you go over to them and say hi, or perhaps join a conversation they’re having with others. Perhaps you don’t recognize anyone. So you have to bravely sidle up to someone or a group and introduce yourself. Or insinuate yourself into a conversation. Perhaps you know there are people present who you’ve met online, but short of sneaking a look at everyone’s badge, there’s no easy way to find them.

During the social, you usually have multiple conversations with different individuals and groups. You move from one conversation to the next, as you and others desire. You may meet folks with whom you want to have a private conversation, so you go somewhere you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

These are the processes we take for granted at an in-person meeting social.

The inadequate networking functionality of most online meeting platforms

These days, we can network online via group messaging/text chat, audio chat, or video chat. (OK, yes, virtual reality has been available for a while too, but it hasn’t really taken off.) Just about all online meeting platforms now include traditional webinar style video conferencing, and many offer Zoom-style main room and breakout room meetings.

Many online meeting platforms tout their “networking” capabilities. When you look at the specifications, however, the majority offer only text chat! Some provide one-to-one networking via private video chat. And some describe their capability to support multiple video breakout rooms as “networking” — but this is disingenuous.

As anyone who’s tried to use Zoom breakouts for networking knows, the big barrier is that once someone’s entered a room, they can leave it to return to the main Zoom meeting but they can’t then move themselves to another breakout room. (Unless you make everyone a co-host, which is not a good idea for a meeting of any size, since a careless or malevolent co-host can cause havoc.)

Even if an online platform allows users to move between multiple breakout sessions, you still won’t experience something close to an in-person social. That’s because breakouts are fixed platform units that have to be set up in advance. There’s no easy way for three people, say, to decide they want to video chat about something amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then spontaneously split up and meet others.

Online conference socials using platforms like Gatherly and Yotribe

Online social platforms like Gatherly and Yotribe provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. They do this using a map interface that shows individuals or groups of people scattered around a room or rooms. Gatherly versus YoTribe review When you join a social on one of these platforms, you find yourself as an name or photo on the map. You move around the map by simply clicking where you want to go.

If you move near another person’s name or picture, you’re automatically connected to them by video chat. If you move into one of the circles on the map — colored in the Yotribe screen shot above, or numbered (so-called “huddles”) in the Gatherly image below, you’ll automatically join a video chat with everyone in the circle/huddle. Gatherly versus YoTribe review Finished chatting? Click on the map to move somewhere else to join someone else or another conversation! Or click on the map away from everyone else so you can answer that phone call you just got.

That’s the basic interface. All such platforms provide this birds eye view of the positions of everyone in the social and the same mechanism to move around and meet others. Of course, each platform does this a little differently, and they include additional functions, like text chat, which I’ll cover below.

Requirements

Setup on both platforms couldn’t be much simpler. Both are browser based, so there’s no app to download or software to install. Attendees are given a link and an (optional) password to join the social room.

Gatherly requires you talk with their sales staff to set up the meeting. This ensures they size your server correctly. They will give you a link to your room that you can distribute to attendees. Gatherly requires you to use the Chrome browser.

Yotribe can be set up without any input from a Yotribe human. Get your own room from the button on their home page! Once you have your room, you can set up a room background (see below), set a room password for attendees. You can also set up an “icebreaker question”, though I’m not a big fan of these.

Meeting size and conversation group size

How many people can be in a single meeting while supporting multiple on-the-fly group conversations? And how many people can be in a single on-the-fly video chat?

These are key questions!

Just eight years ago, public platforms that provided a stable video chat with a mere ten people (think Google Hangouts) were state of the art. Today, we take this kind of technology for granted. But supporting multiple constantly-reconfiguring video chats for hundreds of people is hard, and costs money.

Most platforms today use open source WebRTC technology, the availability of which allows small companies like Gatherly (a handful of computer science students in Atlanta, Georgia) and Yotribe (a few techies in Berlin, Germany) to create a pretty impressive fluid video chat infrastructure.

In my opinion, the one-to-one private video chat provided in several other online meeting platforms is not sufficient to offer an intimate and fluid social experience. This is a key differentiator for platforms like Gatherly and Yotribe.

Gatherly size issues

Gatherly asks meeting owners to provide the maximum number of people who will be in the room and the largest group video chat size desired. They then host your meeting on a server that can handle the required load. In a test meeting last week, Gatherly comfortably handled spontaneous video chats with ~15 people. This seems more than enough capability to me.

Yotribe size issues

Currently, Yotribe has a different approach. One of the Yotribe founders, Leonard Witteler, explains: “As thousands of participants join a room, we split the room into many areas and serve the smaller areas from a properly load-balanced backend.” In our test last week, Yotribe ran into problems with groups larger than about ten people. Since there’s no limit that can be set on a conversation group’s size, this could cause a problem any time a large number of people try to video chat with each other.

Yotribe’s effort to create a platform that automatically scales to handle varying loads is impressive. The automatic addition of “areas” — each restricted to a maximum of 36 participants in our test last week — as the number of participants grows is an ingenious approach to mitigating the increased demand on the video chat servers they employ. However, such a system needs to fail gracefully when its limits are met. Given that we were able to stress Yotribe with about 100 participants in our test event, currently I’d prefer a platform like Gatherly with known, preset limits that will handle a predetermined load for a production event.

Gatherly versus Yotribe features

There is one minor nomenclature difference between Gatherly and Yotribe. Gatherly calls video chat groups “huddles”, while Yotribe calls them “circles”. Both platforms allow attendees to mute their microphones and turn off their cameras as needed.

Neither platform has much in the way of documentation. That’s probably because the developers are constantly adding new features. Luckily, both interfaces are simple enough that it’s not hard to figure out how they work, though it took me a few minutes, which could disorient and discourage some first-time users. Adding a short, skippable tutorial for attendees to view before entering the room would be a nice addition.

Interface

There are numerous small but sometimes significant differences between the interfaces of the two products. I will concentrate on what I noticed that’s important to me.

Map interface

Gatherly shows individual attendees on the map by name. It displays current huddles as circles with numbers inside, the number representing the count of people in that video chat. Moving your cursor over a huddle shows a list of the names of everyone in it. This is an intuitive interface that makes it quite easy to find specific people in the room: they are either shown by name outside the huddles or one can “search” the huddles by moving your cursor over them.

Yotribe shows individual attendees as pictures, selfies that are taken by the attendee’s webcam before they enter the room. This is great if you recognize most of the people present. If you don’t — my experience at most events — you’ll need to hover your cursor over each image to see their name. This is time consuming if there are many people present. In addition, I didn’t find any way to discover who was in a circle other than joining it and scanning through the participants.

I found Gatherly far easier to use to find specific people, or browse who’s present, than Yotribe.

Yotribe does have one extremely useful feature. The room host can upload an image that replaces the blank room map (see example below).

By creating an appropriate image, you could designate portions of the room as numbered or named breakout rooms, exhibit booths, etc. Gatherly provides this functionality as a service on request. In my opinion, Gatherly should follow Yotribe’s lead and make map customization completely under host control.

Video chat

Gatherly has a Zoom-gallery-style video chat display. As the number of people in the huddle increases, the video windows get smaller, keeping everyone visible. This worked well during our test event.

In addition, Gatherly has what I’d argue is an essential feature that Yotribe lacks: the ability to lock a video chat at any time so no one else can enter. This allows two or more people to have a private conversation. Private conversations like this are impossible in Yotribe, which allows anyone to suddenly join a video chat circle at any time

Yotribe shows circle chatters in a strip at the top of the screen, like Zoom’s webinar view. In practice this means that circles with more than five people can’t display everyone on screen simultaneously. As a result it’s hard to tell who’s speaking in a large circle, and because people can arrive and depart at any time, you’re never quite sure who’s present.

Yotribe does offer an option to share your screen with others in your current circle, which could be useful though there doesn’t seem to be a way to zoom the image to full screen.

Text chat/messaging

Gatherly includes a simple text chat interface that allows you to see the names of everyone present, message another person, or message everyone in your current huddle.
Yotribe text chat includes the above functions, plus a broadcast chat mode that allows attendees to send a message to everyone. Gatherly needs to implement this! Message notifications in Yotribe are easily overlooked though; the only indication is a small yellow circle in the chat window and chat icon.

Pricing

Currently Yotribe is free! (I suspect this won’t last, so enjoy it while you can.)

Gatherly is currently using a $x/head pricing model, where x depends on the size of the event. Right now, I suspect they might be flexible. They were kind enough to offer me a free test event last week.

Quick comparison with Remo

Remo is another platform that offers multi-person, map-based video chat (and a lot more besides). I’ve only seen a brief demo of the product so I don’t feel qualified to provide a review here. The map is much prettier than Gatherly’s and Yotribe’s, and uses a set of various table sizes as a metaphor for conversations. It’s noteworthy that the pricing for Remo is based on the maximum number of attendees, meeting duration, and seats available at a table (currently 4 {$50 – $150/month} or 6 {$400 or $900/month}). This highlights the significant costs for providing the kind of server power needed to support fluid on-the-fly video conferencing.

Security

Gatherly says they use Amazon Web Services servers and end-to end encryption. They do not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access. They offer password protection of rooms, and can include a waiting room (I did not see this) for you to vet attendees before they join. Finally, they provide “Kick and Ban features to ensure troublemakers stay out of your event”, which I didn’t see either.

YoTribe also allows a room password. Only guests who are in your circle can participate in your conversation; no one in the room can be invisible to you. Like Gatherly, Yotribe says it does not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access.

Conclusions

On balance, I prefer the Gatherly experience to Yotribe, though both platforms are useful and solid enough for small events. Yotribe has a more party-like feel, which could be a good fit for a group that mostly knows each other. Gatherly does a better job, in my opinion, of creating an experience closer to that of a friendly conference social.

However, your needs are likely different from mine, so I’ve summarized what I see as the advantages of each platform below.

Gatherly advantages

  • Being able to lock a Gatherly huddle, so you can be sure of a private conversation is a big plus.
  • Gatherly’s Zoom-like video gallery view inside a huddle works well, allowing you to see everyone present. Yotribe’s scrolling strip of video windows only shows a fraction of the people in a large circle, and it’s difficult to figure out who’s there and who’s speaking.
  • Given Yotribe’s unpredictable loss of video chat functionality, I prefer to have Gatherly’s predetermined limits on event and chat size, allowing the platform to provide adequate power to reliably support the meeting.
  • I prefer Gatherly’s map interface to that of Yotribe. Yotribe’s attendee photo icons are great if you recognize most people. But seeing names moving around the map is more helpful in general. In addition, Gatherly’s ability to show you the names of the people in a huddle just by hovering your cursor over it is much more informative.

Yotribe’s advantages

  • For now Yotribe is free, and Gatherly costs $!
  • A Yotribe room can be set up and used without any communication with Yotribe, while Gatherly requires you talk to their sales staff first.
  • Yotribe has broadcast text chat, which Gatherly did not, though I’m told it will be added any day now.
  • Yotribe creates new rooms automatically when the number of attendees in any room exceeds 36. Gatherly says they will soon have a fixed room feature too, with “elevators” that allow you to move to a different floor (see the image below). I think this will likely provide an easier to navigate social meeting than YoTribe’s extra-room-on-the-fly approach.
  • Unlike Gatherly, Yotribe allows the host to upload an image file to replace the blank map where attendees roam. This is a very useful feature. I hope that Gatherly implements it soon.

Final words…

I hope you’ve found this Gatherly versus Yotribe review useful. I know that Gatherly is being constantly updated. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Yotribe developers are hard at work as well. So reviews like this are a moving target. Please share your experience with these platforms, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!