Review of Butter, a smooth meeting platform for facilitators

review Butter online meeting facilitation

Companies bombard me with offers to check out online meeting platforms. Sadly, I simply don’t have time to explore most of them. But every once in a while I hear about a platform that intrigues me enough to schedule a demo. Butter is an online meeting platform that is designed to support the facilitation of great interactive meetings. The demo impressed me enough to delve into the platform, and I liked what I found. So here’s my review of Butter, a meeting platform for facilitators to shine.

In this review of Butter, I’ll share a big picture overview, what I think is Butter’s finest feature, an example of how to implement a meeting design in Butter, and my closing thoughts.

The usual caveats

Butter is less than a year old. Like just about every recently introduced online platform, its developers are continually updating it. (In fact, my demo focused on a brand new capability which I think is one of the best features of the product.) So by the time you check it out, some aspects of this review may be inaccurate or incomplete.

In addition, this is not an in-depth shakedown of the product. I haven’t had an opportunity to take Butter through its paces with a full crew of participants and co-facilitators. If you do so and have additional observations, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Butter — the big picture

Butter is a meeting platform designed for planning and running online “workshops”. I’ve written about workshops that aren’t, and I’m happy to report that the Butter design team defines workshop as I do: a meeting that emphasizes the exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques and skills. In other words, workshops involve significant amounts of participation and active learning.

What I like about Butter is that it’s easy to use, has a short learning curve, and, most important, its design provides efficient and effective meeting facilitation. I’ve facilitated in-person meetings for decades and online meetings for the last ten years. And, as facilitators with experience in both environments know, there’s a significant workload difference between these two environments.

The challenges of facilitating online versus in-person

I can normally facilitate an in-person workshop with, say, fifty participants by myself. If there are tools I need — whiteboards, flip charts, a few slides, sticky notes, pens, room layouts, etc. — I can set them up in advance and bring them into play if and when needed. Because these tools are an integral part of the physical environment, introducing them during the session is a natural part of the facilitation process.

I can’t run an online workshop of the same size without additional help. Guiding participants through the session while paying attention to group energy and dynamics takes all my attention. I simply can’t do this well while simultaneously handling the event production. (For example, setting up breakouts, running polls, monitoring chat, noticing that a breakout group has only one member, reading participant energy from a host of tiny windows on multiple screens, etc.)

Butter makes facilitating online workshops easier. I explain why below.

A perfectly serviceable platform for most online meetings

It’s worth mentioning that, while Butter lacks some features available in competing tools, it’s a perfectly serviceable platform for vanilla online meetings with fewer than 200 participants. So it’s reasonable to consider adopting Butter for all kinds of online meetings with a specific group. This can ease the inevitable learning curve issues associated with introducing any new tool.

The finest Butter

[Sorry, but this 1982 commercial sprang to mind.]

I think the best feature of Butter is its recently introduced Session Planner. The Session Planner provides an integrated run of show, called the agenda, which is more than a detailed production agenda. Many production teams use spreadsheet tools like Google Sheets or Excel to create production schedules, though high-end run of show software, like Shoflow, is also available. What’s cool about Butter’s Session Planner is that it integrates any desired combination of Butter’s tools into the run of show agenda, so they become available for use when needed.

The Session Planner allows you to prep your entire workshop beforehand, just like I do at in-person workshops where I set out my tools in advance. You build a Butter agenda with blocks, and each agenda block can be customized to your needs with the tools — whiteboard, breakouts, polls, Miro boards, Google documents, Youtube videos, and more — that you’ll need for that block.

What’s more, the same agenda, minus the production details, is also available to attendees, so they know what’s going on.

Integrating your chosen tools into the production schedule in this way makes it much more feasible to effectively facilitate an online workshop by yourself. (Butter’s paid versions allow you to add co-facilitators.)

How Butter spreads

Butter’s excellent orientation and Handbook provide detailed information on how to use the product.
review Butter online meeting facilitation

Butter rooms

Butter sessions take place in rooms.

You can create and preplan as many meeting rooms as you like. Paid Butter plans allow you to share your room designs with other users.
review Butter online meeting facilitation

Let’s hold a meeting session in Adrian’s workshop room.

review Butter online meeting facilitation

Each room has its own link (which you can customize) and share in various ways with attendees.

Once you’ve created a room, you can add a Waiting room, co-facilitators (paid plan), custom Tools to be used in this room, and the all-important Agenda.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.

Waiting for Butter

review Butter online meeting facilitation

When participants join a meeting, they arrive in a waiting room, like the one above. There they can add their name and a profile image (photo or avatar) if they don’t have a Butter account. Attendees have the opportunity to download the Butter desktop app and can test their camera and microphone while waiting.

You can customize a waiting room can with an image, background color, and optional wait music that an attendee can mute. (Butter has some audio clips or you can upload your own). You can also choose whether attendees can enter a meeting session immediately or must “knock” for the meeting room owner to let them in.

In addition, you can choose to share the meeting agenda with attendees in the waiting room. And a Tips menu informs waiting attendees about how they can react to what’s going on in the meeting and Butter’s hand-raising system for queuing participant comments, questions, or ideas.

Butter tools

Butter includes a comprehensive toolset that you can customize and add, as needed, to a room’s meeting agenda blocks. Each room has its own unique toolbox. A really important feature is that some of the tools — Google Drive: docs/slides/sheets, YouTube, Miro, and Whiteboard) — integrate core resources from other providers directly into Butter. For example, participants can work collaboratively on Miro boards during a session without having to run Miro in a separate app or browser window. Similarly, you can display and work on Google Drive files and watch Youtube videos in a seamless fashion.

Butter breakouts

Importantly, Butter provides breakouts quite similar to those available in Zoom, and with some features that Zoom lacks. You can prebuild two kinds: Rooms and Groups. Participants can move between Rooms, and initial participant assignments can be prechosen or random. With Groups you decide the number of participants you want in each Group, and Butter assigns people automatically when the breakout begins. Participants cannot move between Groups.

In addition, you can assign tasks for breakout groups. Butter shows these tasks in each breakout, and breakout members can mark them complete. This is a nice feature that obviates the need for the session facilitator messaging breakouts to tell them what to do.

What’s especially cool is that you can assign tools to breakout groups! Members can watch a video, or work collaboratively on a Google Doc or Miro board.

While breakouts are going on, a facilitator can monitor what’s happening in each breakout. You can observe a breakout without joining it, and see the tasks they’ve checked off. Participants can ask for help and you’ll be notified and can join their breakout. You can broadcast messages to all breakouts. And you can reassign participants to different breakouts, or reshuffle Groups to get a fresh set of people in each.

Butter breakouts provide a well-designed feature set and user interface that other meeting platforms would do well to adopt!

Polls, timers, and whiteboards

Basic polls are another tool. You can create multiple-choice or open-ended polls, which should be sufficient functionality for most situations. Upvoting is available for open-ended polls.

Buffer’s integrated countdown timers provide a welcome tool for keeping sessions on track or timing a break. You can prep them beforehand and start them with a click. Facilitators can stop the timer, and add an extra minute. Participants see a timer task description and can click a button when done. The facilitator can see how many have finished. I love this feature!

Tool use flexibility

You can preset just the tools you need for each agenda block, ready to use when the time comes. But should you need a different tool during a session you can add one on the fly.

The heart of a Butter session — the Agenda

To give a taste of the heart of Butter, here’s a hypothetical meeting design and how you might implement it in Butter.

Meeting design case

Twenty-one people are meeting for the first time as a group to work together on an issue: increasing governmental and non-profit support for the elderly population in their region. The group will meet regularly over the coming year. Some of the attendees know a few other people in the group. The first desired outcomes for the meeting are that:

  1. Participants get to know each other better;
  2. The group creates a coherent set of initial issues and topics to address at subsequent meetings, and;
  3. The group identifies who is interested and willing to work on the selected issues and topics.

Oh, I nearly forgot, we have just one hour for our initial meeting. Obviously, that’s not enough time to completely address these outcomes, especially #1. But let’s see what we can do in the available time.

A possible design

To begin, after a brief welcome, we’ll use one of my key facilitation techniques: The Three Questions. (See my book Event Crowdsourcing for detailed instructions for designing and running this powerful process.) Because of the limited time, we’ll run The Three Questions in trio shares. This will start to satisfy the first desired outcome, while simultaneously uncovering issues and topics that the group wants to explore. Next, we’ll address #2 using a Miro board for participants to share the issues and topics they think are important and/or want to work on. Participants will also cluster what they share during this block, addressing outcome #2.

Finally, we’ll switch to a facilitated group discussion on what’s been suggested, and work on next steps for future meetings (outcome #3), followed by a short closing.

Agenda example

Here’s a potential Agenda for the one-hour session.

I built this Agenda quite quickly in Butter. It’s built of Blocks, each of which can be given a title, description, duration (with the option to show to participants or not), associated tools (see above), and private notes for the facilitator(s).

In the above example, I’ve added several tools to the relevant session blocks, Google slides to introduce The Three Questions, a Group breakout for trio sharing answers, and a Miro board for sharing, clustering, and reviewing topics.

When I begin this session, each Block’s tools are shown in a sidebar, with a Start button for each tool. A click activates the desired tool. Like this.

I haven’t seen an easier online platform for facilitative process tool integration than Butter.

Check out Butter’s extensive Agenda help to learn more about how it works.

Additional capabilities while spreading Butter

Butter includes a spotlight mode, which you can use to bring one or more participants “on stage”, as shown below.

And Butter includes two well-designed participant interaction tools: Reactions…

…and the especially useful Raise Hand Queue. This is another feature that facilitators will love. Here’s how a participant raises their hand, with an idea, comment, or question.

And here’s how a facilitator chooses who speaks next.

Butter also includes public, private, and facilitator-only chat. Chat can be “popped out” to a separate window, which is handy if you want to read it on a second monitor. Nice!

Butter quality, onboarding, help, and more

I found Butter unusually easy and intuitive to learn. You can run it in a browser (preferably Chrome) or a desktop app. The user interface is simple and logical. I never found myself thinking “now how do I do that?” — a common experience with other online meeting platforms. I think most new users will have little problem getting up to speed.

Though I haven’t used Butter in a demanding environment, I encountered no errors or glitches while investigating its capabilities. The only limitation I found is that I can only access my root Google Drive folder; I can’t see its subfolders. Hopefully, Butter will remove this limitation in the future.

The Butter Handbook succinctly explains how to use the platform. It’s clearly written, available during a session, and includes excellent graphics, animated when appropriate.

When the platform needs a moment to implement what you’ve requested, a lighthearted message appears letting you what’s going on. The whole product has a “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” vibe.

You can invite participants via Google Calendar, a Room link, and even during a live session.

Online support from Butter is built into the platform. It currently states a response time of under two hours. I didn’t hear back in that time period, but, hey, I asked on a Sunday…

Butter’s parent company, MeetButter ApS is based in Denmark and Butter has a clear privacy policy and GDPR.

A review of Butter costs

Butter currently has three pricing plans: one free and two paid. The free plan, which I used for this review, includes up to 50 participants and one facilitator.

The Pro plan ($25/month or $300/year) ups the maximum number of participants to 100, allows up to 2 co-facilitators via shared rooms, and includes the capability to record sessions in the cloud.

Butter’s Legendairy(!) plan ($42/month or $500/year) ups the maximum number of participants to 200, and allows unlimited co-facilitators.

Cheska, my demo partner, told me that Butter is reviewing its pricing and may drop the maximum number of participants in the free plan to 20 in the future. I asked about one-off pricing and she told me the company was considering it.

In my experience, it’s common for new platforms like Butter to adjust their pricing models over time, so check here for current information.

Wrapping up this review of Butter

Butter’s tagline is “Virtual collaboration as smooth as butter“. While I have enjoyed thinking up butter-related phrases to use in this post, I’m not a big fan of the product name. (But I’m not a marketing expert either.)

Want to learn more about Butter? You can:

I hope this review of Butter has been helpful. I’m a fan! I encourage you to add questions, corrections, and your own thoughts in the comments below.

How to stay on time at online meetings

stay on time at online meetingsTired of meetings that don’t end on time? Who isn’t? Things were bad enough when we held our meetings in person. Now so many meetings are online, it’s easy to saddle remote workers with back-to-back meetings. When one overruns, you’re late to the next one. Hey presto, your tardiness snowballs! (And, no, you can’t be on two Zooms at once without going through tortuous hacks.) Sure, sometimes you’re at the mercy of others. But you can stay on time at online meetings when they’re your meetings — if you follow the guidance below!

NOTE: Many of these suggestions are good practice for any meeting!

Before the online meeting starts

Set expectations

Apart from those rare meetings that are ritual courtly dances with every step minutely choreographed, what happens at a meeting is unpredictable to some degree.

Ideally, the only unpredictable parts should be when you’re doing useful work, like sharing ideas, discussing options, making decisions, etc. And setting expectations for the meeting before it starts is key to minimizing the time-wasting behavior that we’ve all experienced during meetings.

You have two tools to set meeting expectations: creating agreements and the meeting agenda.

Creating agreements

I’ve facilitated meetings for decades. In my experience, the best way to reliably improve a meeting is to create and (gently) enforce agreements about how participants act there. Consensual group norms generate powerful motivation to keep meetings running smoothly and productively while discouraging unruly behavior. I’ve found that having an appropriate set of agreements eliminates the vast majority of common problems. And if someone still goes down an irrelevant conversational rabbit hole, interrupts others, or talks too much, it’s much easier to lightly redirect them.

Agreements can either be communicated before the meeting or at the start. While there’s no single set of agreements that’s optimum for every meeting, some base agreements should be familiar to anyone who regularly meets online. For example:

  • Join the meeting on time, ready to participate. (Tip: Here’s how to start online meetings on time.)
  • Mute your microphone unless you wish to speak.
  • Signal via a pre-agreed protocol when you want to say something, e.g., by raising your hand (literally or via a platform mechanism like Zoom’s “Raise Hand”), or via text chat.
  • If you’ve joined by phone, say your name before speaking.
Additional agreements

Additional agreements that are generally helpful include:

  • Commit to being present at the meeting unless an emergency occurs.
  • Don’t interrupt. Instead, use an agreed process to indicate you want to speak.
  • Follow the group’s discussion and decision processes.
  • Respect agreed time limits on speaking.
  • Support the meeting’s scheduled ending time.

Besides meeting-wide agreements, agreements about processes you will use during the meeting are very important. Create agreement and a clear understanding about how participants will:

  • take turns to speak;
  • discuss issues; and
  • make decisions.

The processes to use depend on the meeting’s goals (see agenda) and implicit or explicit power differentials between attendees. For example, you’ll use different procedures if a decision is going to be made by consensus, majority vote, or the presiding CEO. I’ve included some examples below.

Whatever processes you chose, be sure to explain how they work either before or at the start of the meeting. Make sure that all supporting technology, such as an on-screen timer, is available and there’s someone responsible for running it.

Providing an agenda in advance

An agenda is a vital tool for staying on time at online meetings, in fact at any meeting. Providing participants with a clear, detailed agenda in advance is respectful and smart. “In advance” doesn’t mean five minutes before the meeting. It means giving attendees enough time to read and review beforehand. This allows people to formulate questions, ideas, and positions on agenda items beforehand, saving time during the meeting. Whenever possible, include participants’ input into the agenda by distributing a draft with a deadline for questions, corrections, and additions for a final agenda before the meeting.

Timed agendas are very helpful for staying on time. Even if it turns out the written times can’t be fully adhered to, they give attendees an idea of what’s expected and make it easier to reschedule upcoming agenda items on the fly.

Be clear who is running the meeting. Online meetings often need various kinds of support. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities for note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.

Occasionally, an itemized agenda is impracticable because the meeting is preliminary and exploratory: for example, a group meeting for the first time to discuss a possible collaboration. Even under these circumstances, be sure you circulate a brief description of the meeting goals and a start and end time.

During the online meeting

First, start on time! Here’s how to do this.

Check that everyone involved with meeting tasks and support — facilitation, note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc. — is present and ready to do their work. If the meeting is large, a backchannel for these folks to communicate, like Slack, can be very helpful.

Online discussions can often become messy, with people interrupting, taking up too much time, or going off-topic. To avoid this:

  • use one of these procedures to determine who speaks next.
  • gently enforce time limits for speakers. I use an on-screen timer program, ManyCam, but low-tech solutions such as a timekeeper displaying their phone’s countdown timer work too.
  • use an online fishbowl or fishbowl sandwich to control the discussion. (If your meeting is purely discussion, you can employ a dedicated fishbowl platform like Stooa).

Expect to readjust your schedule during the meeting

If you haven’t supplied a timed agenda, it’s important for the meeting leader to share their thoughts on how the group will use the time available. Since it’s rare to precisely follow such plans, regularly recalculate the time allotments as the meeting proceeds, and update/consult with participants on any changes you think you’ll need to make.

If you complete the meeting agenda ahead of schedule, end it early! No one will complain. 😀

Finally, end on time! It sometimes becomes clear during a meeting that the agenda scope was unrealistic. More time is needed to satisfy the meeting’s goals. Asking to extend the meeting duration may be an option, but don’t just keep going. Instead, before the meeting is scheduled to end, estimate how much longer is needed and poll attendees to see if they can stay. Respect their responses and proceed appropriately. Options include:

  • Continue for an additional agreed-upon time (which you may need to negotiate).
  • Continue without one or more participants if you can still achieve your meeting goals despite their absence.
  • Schedule another meeting to finish what’s been started.

Conclusion

It’s important to stay on time at online meetings. Yes, running late inconveniences everyone attending, and some people may have to leave on time, with the consequent loss of their contributions and involvement. In addition, every corporate or community meeting that runs late reinforces the all-too-common dysfunctional cultural norm that all meetings will overrun. The resulting psychological, and emotional burden imposed on attendees who routinely experience losing control of their time is high.

Hopefully, these ideas will help you and your colleagues stay on time at online meetings. Do you have further suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

 

When trio share works better than pair share

trio share pair shareOne of the best and simplest ways to build active learning and connection into any meeting is to regularly use pair share. (See Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation, or Chapter 27 of Event Crowdsourcing for full details.) I’ve recently noticed that in some circumstances, trio share — pair share but with three participants — works better.

Advantages of pair share

Pair share has a lot going for it. It’s the most efficient way to ensure that every participant periodically switches into active learning, which, as explained in The Power of Participation, provides:

Pair share duration is minimal. I commonly allow each partner a minute to share their response. Including instructions, a typical pair share might take around three minutes. Getting every participant to actively think and respond to a question or issue in this time pays rich dividends.

Comparing trio share with pair share

A trio share obviously takes longer than a pair share, given the same sharing time per participant. The example above would require at least an extra minute. I say “‘at least” because it generally takes longer (at least at in-person meetings) to create trios than pairs.

In addition, the conversational directness and intensity may be less in a trio share, since each participant is talking to two people instead of one.

On the other hand, each participant is connecting with two other people, rather than one.

None of these differences is a deal breaker. In the past, I have tended to use pair share, simply because my time with participants is limited and pair shares are quicker.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, I’ve noticed something new.

When trio share works better than pair share

Ultimately, you can’t force adult attendee participation. Nevertheless, at in-person meetings it’s rare to have people sit out pair sharing. The reason, of course, is unspoken social pressure. Anyone choosing not to participate is obvious to the people around them.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced meetings online, I began to see more people avoiding session pair shares. I’d allocate pairs into Zoom breakout rooms, and, quite often, one or two people didn’t join their allocated room but stayed in the Zoom lobby.

As the host, I’d gently check in with those remaining behind. Sometimes they hadn’t accepted the breakout room assignment and would do so. But more often than not, it turned out they were absent (it’s hard to tell when their camera’s off).

Their unfortunate partners who went into the breakout room had no one to talk to!

At in-person meetings, this is easy to handle. I ask anyone without a partner to raise their hand, and then pair up isolated people.

Online, this takes too much time, and those without a partner suffer.

Using trio share instead of pair share online

So I’ve started using trio share for online meetings. There are two reasons.

First, trio share reduces the impact on “orphaned” participants. If one person in a trio doesn’t join, the remaining pair can still reap the benefits of pair share.

And second, trio share gently increases social pressure for attendees to participate. Bowing out of pair share affects one other person. Avoiding a trio share affects two.

To conclude

Whatever you do, some people will opt out of small group work. Their reasons are — their reasons. We need to accept that. Switching to trio share for online work is a small tweak that seems to improve participation. And creating a meeting environment where small group work is more likely to occur is always worthwhile.

What’s your experience of using pair share and/or trio share at in-person and online meetings? Please share in the comments!