Designing an online memorial service

Designing an online memorial serviceI 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 sessionsIn 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!

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!

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 5

run your peer conference using Zoom

Run your peer conference using Zoom

Part 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom, and Part 2 explained how to prepare for The Three Questions. Part 3 describes how to run them using Zoom breakout rooms, and Part 4 covers how to create an optimum conference program. Read them before diving into this post! This post, Part 5, the last in this series, explains how to run your peer conference using Zoom breakout rooms.

Overview

Once you have developed and distributed your conference program, as described in Parts 1 – 4 of this series, it’s time to run it!

You’ll use the same procedure for every conference time slot. First create breakout rooms for the peer sessions scheduled in the time slot, and then name each room with a number and session topic.

Currently, Zoom has no easy mechanism for participants to move from one session to another. So it’s best to share the conference program with participants in advance, and, for each time slot, ask them to pick the session they want to attend. I’ll describe the simplest (and most common) way to do this below.

Right before each session time slot, participants are assigned to the Zoom breakout room associated with their chosen session. Once this is done, the breakout rooms are opened and the sessions commence.

At the end of each session, participants return to the main Zoom meeting, and indicate their choice for the next set of sessions. After renaming breakout rooms with the next set of session topics, the cycle repeats.

Moving between breakout rooms

At in-person conferences, participants are normally free to leave a breakout session and move to another one.

At an online conference using the Zoom platform, once participants are in a specific breakout room/session, they can only leave the room and return to the main Zoom meeting. They cannot move themselves to another breakout room unless they have been given co-host status in Zoom.

Although one could give all participants co-host status so they could move themselves to different sessions, I don’t recommend it. Co-hosts have a lot of power in a Zoom meeting, and one malicious or careless participant could really mess up your meeting.

One big advantage of peer conferences is that opening with The Three Questions leads to conference programs that are much more likely to reflect participants’ genuine wants and needs. As a result, moving between simultaneous breakouts is relatively rare at in-person events.

Nevertheless, people will occasionally want to move to a different session during a time slot. (The most common reason, in my experience, is that they chose or were assigned to the wrong breakout room by mistake.) As a result, while you’re running sets of peer sessions, you’ll need to keep a staff member stationed in the main Zoom room. This person should have co-host status, so they can reassign participants who return to the main meeting from a breakout room and ask to join a different session.

Preparing participants to choose their desired session

Before each set of sessions begin, one of your staff (a Zoom host or co-host) creates a set of breakout rooms that match the peer sessions about to be held. Since you’re going to assign participants to specific rooms, pick the Manual option when creating the rooms.

run your peer conference using Zoom

While creating breakout rooms, provide participants with a numbered list of the breakout sessions for the time slot (see below). If you’re using Miro, add session room numbers and export or screenshot the relevant portion of the conference program.

run your peer conference using Zoom

To keep everyone in Zoom, I suggest having a host or co-host display the list, using screen sharing in the main Zoom meeting.

Now it’s time for participants to pick the peer session they want to attend. While they’re all present, display the current session choices and explain that to assign them to the correct  session they’ll edit their display name to add the breakout room number in front of their name. Give them an example: e.g., “If I want to attend the Data Security session next, I need to change my name from Adrian Segar to 2 Adrian Segar.”

This is a common technique these days, and many people who are familiar with Zoom know how to change their Zoom meeting name while in the meeting. However, since some participants won’t know how to do this, provide instructions like these:

How to change your screen name on a PC during a Zoom meeting

1: Click on Participants in the Zoom toolbar at the bottom of your screen.

2: Hover the mouse pointer above your name until you see the option to select More.

3: Once you see it, click on it and select Rename.

4: Enter your desired name in the text field and click Rename to confirm your selection.

How to change your screen name on a mobile device during a Zoom meeting

1: If the toolbar isn’t visible, tap on the screen to display it. Tap Participants to bring up the list of meeting participants.

2: Find your name on the list and tap on it.

3: Tap Rename, enter your desired new name, and tap Done.

Have participants choose their peer session breakout rooms

Once participants understand how to change their Zoom name to indicate the breakout session they want, have a staff member monitor the name changes on the Zoom Participants list, and assign them to the correct room. Make sure that session leaders are present and assigned to the correct room before proceeding. Sometimes there are a few people who don’t add their room number to their name. Have another staffer contact them by text chat or directly in the Zoom meeting, to check whether they need help. If there’s anyone who can’t figure out how to change their name, ask them which session they want to join. Pass the participant’s name and desired session to the breakout room assigner.

Explain to participants that if they wish to leave the session they’re in, they should click Leave Room. This will bring them back to the main room meeting, where a staffer can move them into another peer session.

Start a set of peer sessions

Before opening the Zoom breakout rooms, check the Breakout Room Options, which should look like this. (You can change the countdown timer setting if desired.)

You’re ready to start the set of peer sessions! Tell participants they are about to be moved to their desired session, and click Open All Rooms.

Ending a set of peer sessions

Five or ten minutes before the sessions are scheduled to end, let everyone know how much time is left in the session. Do this by clicking Breakout Rooms in the Zoom toolbar. Then click Broadcast a message to all, enter your message and click Broadcast.

A minute before the sessions are over, click Breakout Rooms and then click Close All Rooms. In a minute or less, everyone will be back in the main Zoom meeting.

Do it again!

Repeat the above process for each set of peer sessions until all sessions have been run.

To create a fresh set of breakout rooms, click Recreate and then Recreate All Rooms in the Breakout Rooms window.

That’s how you run your peer conference using Zoom!

Conclusion

In the five posts of this series, I’ve:

A final point. As you know, peer conferences use the conference arc design, which includes closing process that’s tailored to the wants and needs of the meeting stakeholders (here’s an example). I haven’t covered this important conference phase in this series, but you should spend time thinking about and designing appropriate closings for your online event. Perhaps I’ll write more about what this might look like, and how it can be implemented online in a future post.

If you’ve been planning to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom, I hope this series has been helpful. As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, and suggestions in the comments below.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 4

process participant information
Part 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Part 2 explains how to prepare for The Three Questions, and Part 3 explains how to run them using Zoom breakout rooms. Read them before diving into this post! In this post (Part 4) I’ll cover Step #2 — how to process the participant information uncovered in Step #1 to create an optimum conference program. Part 5, the last in this series explains how to run your peer conference using Zoom breakout rooms.

Creating and convening your conference program group

By the end of The Three Questions (see Part 3), your scribed Google document contains a rich list of your participants’ desired and needed topics, issues, and current challenges. Now it’s time for a small conference program group of conference leaders and subject matter experts to use participants’ answers to the Second Question to create an optimum conference program. (Part 1 lays out options for your participants while this is going on.)

Make sure your small group contains someone from each Three Questions breakout group. These people can identify participants in their group who have expertise, experience, or interest in leading or facilitating the sessions you choose.

The conference program group can meet in a variety of ways. Perhaps participants are listening to a presentation while your small group meets in a Zoom breakout room. If attendees are taking a meal break, you can use the current Zoom meeting, and restrict attendance to the conference program group. Or you can simply set up a separate Zoom meeting for the small group to hash out the upcoming conference program.

Building your optimum conference program

The small conference program group needs a tool to review and organize the topics that participants have requested and suggested.

Tools for in-person meetings

At in-person meetings I use the process Post It! for Programs, described in Chapter 22 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. Read Chapter 22 to understand the detailed process I summarize in this post. (You may find Chapter 21, Peer Session Selection and Sign-up useful too.)

The small group starts with a wall of participants’ topics, written on large sticky notes. We clean up, cluster, and consolidate the topics, moving notes around and rewriting them as needed. The small group reviews and rates the results, and chooses the most relevant topics. Finally we find leaders and/or facilitators for these peer sessions, and then schedule them into an optimum conference program.

Tools for online meetings

Two tools that provide the above functions for online meetings are Miro and Mural. You can read a useful comparison of their features and user interface here. Miro has a free limited version, and Mural offers a free limited-time introductory plan. It’s worth upgrading to a paid plan for either of these products if you expect to use them regularly.

In this post, I’ll outline how to use Miro to collaborate remotely with your small group. I don’t know Mural as well, but you should be able to use it in a similar fashion. Even though the basic concepts can be quickly grasped, both Miro and Mural provide a rich variety of functionality. So you and your small group members should practice using them. Before the conference, give small group members a link to a “playground” Miro board where they can freely explore Miro’s frames, sticky notes, and tools.

Importing participant topics into Miro

Miro has a simple, though slightly obscure, way to import the topics from your Google doc into separate sticky notes. If you try the obvious approach —bulk copy all the topics and paste them directly into Miro — they’ll end up in a single block of text. Instead, open any spreadsheet program (e.g. Excel, Numbers, or Google Sheets) and paste the topics into the top left-hand cell. They will fill the left-most column, one topic per row. Now copy all these cells and paste them into Miro. Each topic will be added to a new sticky note, nicely laid out in a grid.

Here’s an example: the topic list shown in Part 3…

…turned into a set of Miro sticky notes via the above copy-paste-copy-paste process.

process participant information

Process participant information: cleaning up and clustering topics

Once you’ve created a board of imported topics, copy it to a new board for the small group to work on. (In Miro, click on the name of the board in the top left-hand corner and click “Duplicate”.) This keeps the original topics available for reference, if needed.

The next task is to review the topics and check that they’re clearly (or clearly enough) expressed. If a topic is unclear, rewrite the note or discard it. As you review the notes, notice themes and create a Miro frame for each one, plus a Miscellaneous frame for isolated ideas. Cluster topics by dragging sticky notes out of the original grid into the appropriate frames, as shown below.

process participant information

The small group should have agreed conventions for working on the topic board and identifying and collecting sticky notes that eventually become peer session topics.  There are many ways to do this. For example, you can:

  • Use a specific sticky note color to indicate a potential or definite peer session topic. (You can change the color of an existing note from its context menu.)
  • Create a separate frame for topics that will become peer sessions.
  • Create frames or a space on the board for topics and frames that have been reviewed and are not going to be incorporated into the conference program.

Process participant information to determine the peer conference program

Use the process described in Chapter 22 of my book Event Crowdsourcing to determine the peer sessions you will offer, pick leaders and/or facilitators for each session, and schedule sessions into your conference program time slots. As you decide on each session, drag its sticky note into a “Peer Sessions” frame, as shown below.

process participant information


In Miro, you can switch the type of a sticky note to a card. I recommend doing this for your chosen peer session sticky notes, since Miro cards provide you with a structured way to add data, like the names of session leaders, a long description, etc.

Distributing your peer conference schedule

As soon as you’ve created your peer conference schedule, distribute it appropriately to all participants. You could publish the schedule on your conference website, email it as a Google Doc, or supply it as a link in Zoom chat.  Remember to also inform session leaders when their sessions will be held, and be available to answer any questions they might have. I also recommend distributing a version of the introductory handouts for peer sessions that are included in two of my books (Appendices 4 & 5 in Conferences That Work, or Appendix 6 in Event Crowdsourcing).

All that remains is to prepare for and run your online peer conference, which I’ll cover in the final post of this series.

Conclusion

First, a big thank you to the super-creative Liz Lathan of Haute Dokimazo for sharing with me how she collects and begins to process participant information online. Liz figured out how to use Mural to do this — the Miro process I’ve described above mirrors hers.

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

The last post (Part 5) will describe how to run your peer conference program using Zoom breakout rooms.

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

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomPart 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Part 2 explains how to prepare for The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms. Read them before diving into this post!

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

Preparing staff to run The Three Questions in Zoom

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

Staff tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Questions facilitator training

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

Three Questions scribe training

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

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

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

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

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

Running The Three Questions in Zoom Breakout Rooms

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

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

Determining who shares next

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

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

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

Individual sharing

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

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

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

When sharing in a Three Questions breakout is complete

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

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

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

At this point:

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Check back on this blog for future posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss the rest of the series, subscribe.

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

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

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

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

What is The Three Questions, and why use it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for The Three Questions in Zoom

Learn about The Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested schedule:

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

Suggested schedule:

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

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

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

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

Staffing an online Zoom peer conference

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

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

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

Preparing attendees for a peer conference

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

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

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

Introducing attendees to The Three Questions

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

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

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

Allocating attendees to Zoom Breakout Rooms for The Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

The next two posts will describe in detail how to:

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

Part 1 (an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom) is available here.
Part 3 (how to run The Three Questions) is now available here.
Part 4 (how to process participants’ sharing to create an optimum conference program) is now available here.

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How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

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

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

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

Why Zoom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll start with an overview.

The big picture

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

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

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

Step #1

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

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

At the end of step #1:

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

Step #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allow attendees free time while the conference program is designed

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

Schedule a presentation for attendees during step #2

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

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

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

Schedule steps #1 and #2 on different days

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

Conclusion

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

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

Schedule breaks during online meetings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why attention span is especially fragile at online meetings

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

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

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

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

Reading the room at online meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to schedule online meeting breaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directions for attendees during breaks

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

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

Conclusion

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