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.

How old are you?

How old are you“How old are you?” All of us have wondered about the age of someone we’ve met, but asking this question can be awkward, even during a one-to-one conversation. Making public the ages of hundreds of people in a meeting room — well, that’s even more awkward! Body voting (aka human spectrograms) can uncover this information in a few minutes, but because age can be a sensitive subject, I’ve always demurred requests to have participants line up by age at a meeting.

Until last week.

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You can’t make people change. But…

you can't make people change

“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership

Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.

However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.

What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!

Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.

Peer conferences support change

The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 28 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!

Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.

Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.

  • A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
  • The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
  • A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
  • The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.

These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.

Leadership for meetings

Leadership for meetingsWhat might leadership for meetings look like?

Let’s turn to Harold Jarche for inspiration:

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

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Being truly heard and seen at meetings

When we enable people to meaningfully connect at a meeting, something extraordinary happens. We transform a conference from an impersonal forum for information exchange to a place where people feel they matter: their views, their experience, their ability to contribute become seen.

Such a transformation is the essential work needed to build human community around the event. It becomes something special, standing out like a beacon from the humdrum conferences routinely inflicted on attendees.

The meeting feels different, is different, because it allows participants to be truly heard and seen. Because being listened to is a gift. And, as Seth Godin puts it:

“We like to see. But mostly, we’re worried about being seenthe culture of celebrity that came with TV has shifted. It’s no longer about hoping for a glimpse of a star. It’s back to the source–hoping for a glimpse of ourselves, ourselves being seen.”
—Seth Godin, Mirror, mirror

It takes a few minutes at the start of a gathering to create agreements that help make it a safe place for participants to speak their minds, ask appropriate questions, and share possibly intimate yet important information about their work and lives that inform the entire event.

Immediately, the conference is subtly different, full of new possibilities, some of which might have been considered risky or even taboo. Everyone in the room begins to learn about each other in ways that matter. Everyone begins to discover how they can become a part of the gathering, how they can contribute and how they can learn about issues and challenges that personally matter.

Make it easy for participants to be safely and truly heard and seen. Your conferences will be all the better for it.

Image attribution: Flickr user paris_corrupted

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

So you’re holding a conference. How are you going to get your audience tuned in and engaged?

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Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your event

Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your eventWhile stuck in cramped seats during a six-hour Boston to San Francisco flight recently, my wife gently pointed out that I had become quite grumpy. She helped me notice that my lack of body comfort was affecting my mood. Luckily for me, Celia remained solicitous and supportive, reducing my grouchiness. Once we were off the plane my spirits lightened further.

Unfortunately, I tend to be oblivious for a while of the effects of physical discomfort on my feelings. Until I notice what’s really upsetting me, I typically and unfairly blame my irritability on innocent culprits, for example:

  • The tediousness of gardening because insects are swarming around my head.
  • The delay in waiting for my food to arrive in a noisy restaurant.
  • A presenter’s inability to capture my full attention while I’m sitting with my neck twisted permanently towards them in an auditorium.

I suspect I’m not alone in these errors of judgment. Pivoting to the world of events, this means if we want to give attendees the best possible experience, we need to minimize the quantity and severity of physical comfort issues that are under our control.

Here are six common mistakes you’ve probably experienced, together with suggestions for mitigating their impact. (Feel free to add more in the comments below!)

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How to create a safe environment for learning at your event

safety 1446280208_58d3cf0aa2_o

In the events world, the word “safety” has a couple of meanings. The first is objective: the degree of protection from undesirable environmental hazards. At events we maximize the objective safety of attendees by eliminating or minimizing the likelihood of tripping, slipping, falling, falling objects, food poisoning, etc.

The kind of safety covered here is subjective safety: How safe do attendees feel? As the following quote indicates, if we are to optimize learning at a meeting we want participants to be relaxed but alert; in a state I like to call nervous excitement.

“…brain research also suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or environmental press that generates stress as described above to activate emotions and learning. Why? Stress motivates a survival imperative in the brain. Too much and anxiety shuts down opportunities for learning. Too little and the brain becomes too relaxed and comfortable to become actively engaged. The phrase used to describe the brain state for optimal learning is that of relaxed-alertness. Practically speaking, this means as designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also spark some emotional interest through celebrations and rituals.”
—Jeffery A. Lackney, report excerpt from the brain-based workshop track of the CEFPI Midwest Regional Conference

It’s easy to create a meeting environment that feels unsafe for most if not all attendees. Without careful preparation, asking people to walk barefoot over hot coals, dress up in costumes and dance on stage, or give impromptu talks to a large audience will evoke feelings of discomfort and fear in almost everyone.

It’s also easy to create a safe event environment by treating people as a passive audience who are not required to participate in the proceedings in any way. Unfortunately this is often the choice made by many meeting organizers who are themselves afraid of what might happen if attendees are subjected to something “new”.

So, how do we strike a balance between unduly scaring attendees and treating them as inactive spectators?

It’s not easy.

Creating the right amount of nervous excitement for a group of people is challenging, because each of us responds uniquely to different situations. For example, meeting someone new at a social might be easy for John and scary for Jane, while Jane has no problem skydiving from an airplane at 12,000 feet which is a prospect that terrifies John.

Ultimately, we can’t control other people’s feelings (let alone, often, our own)! Consequently, we are unable to guarantee that anyone will feel safe during a meeting session. But there are some things we can do to improve participants’ experience of safety when they are faced with the new challenges invariably associated with learning and connecting.

Create an environment where it’s easier to make mistakes

“Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures.”
—Laura Grace Weldon, Fun Theory

Why is feeling OK about making mistakes important? With traditional broadcast learning, your comprehension of the material presented—or lack of it—is something that happens in your brain and is essentially invisible to everyone but yourself. In a social context, this creates a great deal of safety; no one can easily see that you don’t understand.

But because experiential learning requires us to do something external, like talking to our peers about our understanding or ideas, or physically performing an activity, we lose this invisibility safety net. This brings up the possibility that others may experience us doing something “dumb”, “stupid”, “slow”, etc. (For an example, read the “Graduate student story” on pages 62-64 of my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.)

As someone who was educated in a school where knowing the “right answer” was praised and lack of knowledge or understanding denigrated, I felt ashamed about “making mistakes” in public for many years, and, unfortunately, this is a common experience that almost everyone learns to some degree while attending school as a child.

So how can we create an event environment where it’s easier to make mistakes? Here are three suggestions:

1) Tell participants that it’s impossible to make mistakes
A simple way to create a safe environment for what participants might otherwise feel is risky is to tell them that whatever they do is the right thing.

For example, when I introduce the opening technique The Three Questions at an event, I tell participants that it’s impossible to answer The Three Questions incorrectly. Whatever answers they give are the correct answers. This sounds almost too simple—but it works surprisingly well!

2) Improv exercises
One of the first games used to introduce improvisational theatre (improv) to those with no prior experience is keep the ball in the air, usually shortened to ball. Players stand in the circle and a ~12” diameter hollow rubber ball is tossed into the air. The object of each game is for the group to keep the ball in the air with any part of their body, with the game ending if anyone contacts the ball twice in a row or the ball touches the ground. Holding the ball is not allowed. Each ball touch adds one to the group’s score, which the group shouts in unison after each contact. A game rarely lasts more than a minute or two, so many rounds can be played in a short time.

Games of ball get a group working together on a goal, provide a challenge (reach a higher score than in prior games), include physical movement, and are fun to play. Sooner or later, every game of ball comes to an end because the ball hits the floor or is touched twice in a row by the same person. But because ball is a lighthearted game the thought that the last person who contacted the ball failed in some way never really matters. Everyone just wants to play another game of ball.

There are many improv variants of ball, played with one or more imaginary balls. When you are tossing and receiving multiple imaginary colored balls to people in your circle, everyone will “make mistakes” (if they don’t, the leader just increases the number of balls), and again it doesn’t matter. Everyone making mistakes is simply part of the game.

Improv exercises provide wonderful opportunities for people to get used to making mistakes. That’s why they are increasingly used for leadership development and organizational team building. Games like ball provide an enjoyable transition to environments where making mistakes is the norm, rather than something to be ashamed of.

3) Model being comfortable with messing up
It’s crucial that facilitators and leaders of conference sessions model the behaviors they wish participants to adopt. If I am not comfortable with facilitating new or impromptu approaches which may or may not work, how can I expect my participants to be comfortable attempting them? This doesn’t mean, of course, that I should deliberately mess up, but responding in a relaxed manner when I do provides a reassuring model for participants to adopt and follow.

The right to not participate
It’s important to explicitly give attendees the right not to participate. Clearly state that people do not have to take part in any given activity before it begins. When working with a group, do not put specific individuals on the spot to participate; ask the group as a whole for feedback/ideas/answers/volunteers instead.

At the start of an extended (adult) event I tell participants that I want to treat them like adults. I encourage them to make decisions about how and when they will participate, and explain that they are entitled to take time out from scheduled activities, or devise their own alternatives when desired and appropriate.

However, it’s also fine to set limits on non-participants—a common example would be to ask people who do not want to participate to leave the session for the duration of an activity rather than staying to watch.

Provide clear instructions
I think that one of the hardest things to do well when leading a participatory activity is providing clear instructions. After many years it’s still not unusual for someone to complain that they don’t understand the directions I’ve given. I recommend writing out a narrative for exercises beforehand and practicing until it feels natural and unforced, but this won’t cover ad hoc situations when unexpected circumstances arise and you need to improvise.

Besides sharing instructions verbally, also consider displaying them on a screen or wall posters, or providing a printed copy for each participant. Once you’ve shared your instructions, ask if there are any questions, and then be sure to pause long enough for people to formulate and request clarification of what they don’t understand.

Learn from participant feedback. Remember what was not clear and revise your instructions as soon afterwards as possible, so that the next time you run the exercise you will, hopefully, be better understood. It may take several attempts before you find the right choice of words, so don’t give up!

Consider providing explicit ground rules
Providing explicit ground rules at the start of sessions and events can, in my experience, significantly improve participants’ sense of safety while working together.

Conclusion

“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
—Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

As Keith Johnstone reminds us, people choose to participate or not for their own good reasons. Respect their choice, while making it as easy and safe as possible for them to take the risk of trying something new.

Photo attribution: Flickr user willowpoppy

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

Remember kindergarten? O.K., I barely do either. But when I go into my local elementary school to read to the kids, I see ground rules like these posted on the classroom walls. The teachers create them for the younger classes, and I’m told that the Junior High comes up with their own (probably with some judicious teacher input). So it seems that explicit ground rules are useful in the pre-adult classroom.

Moving to the adult world, professional facilitators who work for more than a few hours with a group or team will usually have the members establish their own ground rules. Why? There are two reasons. First, because group-developed ground rules handle the specific needs of the group. And second, the process of development creates buy-in for the chosen rules.

However, traditional conferences don’t have explicit ground rules!

So perhaps you’re thinking: We’re adults, we know how to behave! or What’s the point, we’re only together for a few days!

Here’s why the right explicit ground rules will improve your conference.

The right ground rules fundamentally change the environment of a conference.
The six ground rules used at Conferences That Work are not about nitpicking issues like turning off cell phones & pagers in sessions (good luck!) Instead they create an intimate and safe conference environment, by sending participants these powerful messages:

“While you are here, you have the right and opportunity to be heard.”
“Your individual needs and desires are important here.”
“You will help to determine what happens at this conference.”
“What happens here will be kept confidential. You can feel safe here.”
“At this conference, you can create, together with others, opportunities to learn and to share.”

Introducing and having attendees commit to the right ground rules at the start of the event sets the stage for a collaborative, participative conference, because the rules give people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other.

And when attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing.

As a result, setting good ground rules at the start of a conference may be the single most transformative change you can make to improve your event!

Two tips on adding ground rules to your conference design
Before you rush to add ground rules to your conferences, bear in mind two points:

  • Don’t attempt to brainstorm and negotiate ground rules amongst attendees at a first-time conference! The time required to do a good job would be prohibitive. Use some time-tested rules, like mine (here are four of them), or the four principals and one law of Open Space events.
  • Think twice before adding ground rules that embody participant empowerment to a traditional event that consists mainly of pre-scheduled presentation-style sessions. Your ground rules and your design are likely to be seen as conflicting!

Do you use explicit ground rules in your events? What has your experience been? Want to know more about using ground rules at conferences? Ask away in the comments below! (If you can’t wait, <shameless plug> you could also buy my books, which describe in detail both the ground rules used at Conferences That Work, and how to successfully introduce them to attendees.)

Image attribution: http://quality.cr.k12.ia.us/Photo_Album/Ground_Rules/groundrules.JPG

A potential drawback to hybrid events

Virtual audience 603737821_e39a2d268d_o

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in the events industry about what are being called hybrid events where there are two audiences: people physically present, the local audience, and people connected to the event remotely, via Twitter, chat, audio, and video streams, the remote audience.

Event planners are excited about this new event model because it has the potential to increase:

  • overall audiences
  • interaction between attendees
  • exposure for the event
  • exposure for event sponsors and the hosting organization
  • the value of attendee experience through new virtual tools
  • the likelihood that a remote attendee will become a face-to-face attendee in the future

Because of these positives, I think it’s likely that events that include local and remote audiences will become more popular over time, as we gain experience about what formats work and become proficient at resolving the technical issues involved in successfully hosting these event environments.

But there’s one thing we may lose if we add a remote audience to our events.

At the face-to-face conferences I run, attendees start by agreeing to a set of ground rules. These ground rules create an environment where participants can speak freely and ask questions without worrying that their individual statements or viewpoints will be revealed outside the event.

It’s hard to convey the difference this assurance makes to the climate at Conferences That Work unless you’ve attended one. The level of intimacy, learning, and community is significantly raised when people feel safe to ask “stupid” questions and share sensitive information with their peers.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to create the same environment of trust when an unseen remote audience joins the local participants. Believing that everyone will adhere to a set of ground rules is risky enough when everyone who agrees is in the same room as you. To sustain the same trust when an invisible remote audience is added is, I think, a significant stretch for many people. If I’m right, the end result of opening up a conference to a remote audience may be a reversion to the more common environment of most conferences today, where asking a question may be more about defining status than a simple request to learn or understand something new.

Do you think that hybrid events can be designed so that they are still safe places for people to ask questions and share around sensitive issues? Or do you think I’m over-blowing the whole issue?