The best way to hold a discussion online

best way to hold a discussion online

What’s the best way to hold a discussion online?

For years I’ve been successfully facilitating in-person group discussions at meetings, using the simple fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich processes. These techniques work because at any moment, only a small, clearly defined, (but constantly changing) group of people are involved in the discussion. As a result you can moderate an interesting, orderly discussion with hundreds of people, any of who have an equal opportunity to speak.

Online group discussions bring a new set of challenges.

We have all experienced poorly facilitated online meetings, where people unilaterally turn on their microphones and speak away, colliding aurally with others and monopolizing the conversation. An experienced moderator can minimize this behavior with a starting set of clear agreements that participants will follow during the discussion.

But however good the facilitation, there is far less environmental and body language information available online than in-person. The subtle cues we’ve all learned for moving between listening and speaking in a conversation are largely absent. (Stephen Mugford and Pamela Kinnear go into more detail here.) This makes creating a useful, flowing discussion harder.

Existing solutions and their limitations

Some of the fancier online meeting platforms provide functionality that can support simple fishbowl process quite well. Typically they use the “panel on a stage” model. A moderator moves audience members who raise their hand in some fashion into a panel (speaking) seat. When people have finished speaking, they leave the stage and the moderator can fill their seat with someone else.

Currently, though, such platforms don’t make it easy to move people in and out of pair or trio share groups: a requirement for the “bread” portions of the fishbowl sandwich.

One of the reasons I like to use Zoom for online meetings is its reliable and easy ability to quickly move people into breakout room groups for sharing. Zoom is a great tool for a discussion session’s opening and closing small-group fishbowl sandwich sharing. But how can we moderate discussion amongst a sea of faces during the fishbowl itself?

How to effectively hold a discussion online in Zoom

I’m indebted to Stephen Mugford for suggesting a simple and effective way of moderating fishbowl in Zoom.

In-person fishbowls use “people sitting in the 3 – 5 chairs up front, facing the group” to indicate who can speak at any moment. For a Zoom discussion, the same delineation can be made. Simply ask everyone except the facilitator/moderator to turn off their camera and microphone at the start.

When someone wants to speak, they turn on their camera and microphone. A nice feature of Zoom is that their picture will then jump to the top of Zoom’s speaker or gallery view. This makes them easy to spot.

The moderator guides the order of speaking and discussion with those who are “live” in the usual way. When people have finished sharing for the moment, they turn off their video/microphone and return to listening.

A variation

Sometimes when I run a fishbowl in person there are many who want to speak. I have them queue up in a short line at the side of the chairs. That provides feedback to the folks in the chairs that maybe it’s time to give someone else a turn!

Similarly, you can use Zoom’s text chat to queue up people who wish to enter the fishbowl. This allows:

  • those who are calling in by phone to signal they want to speak; and
  • the facilitator and group to see how many people are waiting to speak.

In practice, I’ve found the suggested live/listening camera/microphone protocol works very well. I only add using text chat as a signaling channel when there are participants who are calling in by phone.

Simple!

This is a simple and successful way to implement fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich discussion process in Zoom. I recommend you try it! And if you have used other platforms to run these processes successfully, please share in the comments below!

How to entwine content and connection during an online conference

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

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

Sharon’s post

Hi all,

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

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

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

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

Playing on…

Sharon Fisher

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

My response

“Hey Sharon,

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

Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Adrian Segar—”

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