Meeting Mentor Magazine

June 2024

3 Ways to Make Your Online Events More Engaging

“Everybody wins when everybody has the opportunity to interact.” So says facilitator and Adrian Segar — and, as becomes all-too-readily apparent to anyone who has had to sit through a one-way, PowerPoint-heavy webinar, this is even more true for online events than it is for the in-person variety. And yet, event organizers still seem to think that people will be willing to sit through these boring digital sessions.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Segar highlights ways that event organizers can use online platforms to incorporate some of the interactivity that he outlines in his books, Conferences That Work, The Power of Participation, and Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. But those techniques were designed for in-person meetings. Do they really translate to the online environment?

Turns out the answer is yes, and in some ways, the engagement and interactivity can actually be better online than in person, says Segar.

A few examples:

• 44Go fish! The fishbowl is a basic technique event organizers can use to keep a conversation under control — even harder to do online when everyone on the Zoom call starts talking at once than in a room where they at least have to go to a mic. In the offline version, you have a facilitator, maybe an expert, and chairs for a couple of people who want to contribute on a stage. People can come up and sit in the chairs to speak their piece, then relinquish their chair for the next person who wants to contribute. “It works really well in person, it’s very fluid and gives everyone an opportunity to speak,” Segar said.

To make it work online, even with something as simple and ubiquitous as Zoom, just substitute people’s individual cameras for the chairs on stage, he added. Ask everyone to first turn their cameras and mics off, then when they have something to say, turn their camera and mic on. If you’re in the gallery view, their video feed will float to the top. As would be the case for an in-person meeting, the facilitator guides the discussion. If you have more people who want to speak than is practical (or participants who are phone-in-only), have them line up via the chat function. Segar said he has used this technique with online meetings of a hundred people on Zoom and it worked just fine. Just be sure to explain the rules ahead of time so people know how to proceed.

• On the spectrum. There’s also the spectrogram, where the facilitator asks people to line up according to where they stand on a specific question. It’s a great way to break the ice, help people connect with others who they have something in common with, and move around to get energy flowing. And it works just fine online, he said. Again, using cameras and mics, the facilitator can ask people to mute/turn off their cameras, then unmute and turn their cameras back on when what the facilitator proposed applies to them. For example, Segar used it for a recent online “wake” he held for a local college that had to shut down its local campus. The participants all were alumni or otherwise had a connection to the college, so he had people do a digital version of the spectrogram based on things like their class year and geographical location.

Participants loved being able to easily find people they hadn’t seen in a donkey’s age, and to connect with others who share a connection to the school who live in their geographical area, he said.

• Facilitate deeper connections. You know when you go to an in-person event with a list of people you want to connect with, but can never manage to be in the same room at the same time with them? This is actually easier to do online, says Segar. You can use simple breakout rooms with platforms like Zoom, where people can find others with similar topical interests.

He also likes Gatherly, which enables participants to enter a virtual room as a dot with a name, full of other named dots. With a simple click, you can join a pubic video chat, or you can ask to have a private conversation. Then you can jump to another room and start joining public or private chats with people there. Short of teleportation, that’s pretty hard to do in a big convention center.

And these are just a few example — if you want to build a participatory, collaborative agenda, instead of having people write topics they’d like to discuss on sticky notes and grouping them on a physical wall, you can have people contribute via Google Docs, then import those contributions into an e-whiteboard such as Miro to begin sorting and clustering the topics that will ultimately be the agenda and match them to those in the room who have expertise in each topic to facilitate the discussions.

Segar also likes to begin conferences with The Three Questions: How did I get here? What do I want to have happen? What experience/expertise do I have that others might find helpful? To translate that to an online environment, break people up into small enough breakout rooms to allow a meaningful conversation to happen, then scribe their responses on a Google Doc that is viewable by all. As Segar said in a post on how to make online conferences better, “From this data we built an inventory of the learning resources at the event.” Then participants went off into Gatherly rooms to share their learning and form deeper connections.

While this all has been possible online for a while, now that digital events are by necessity ubiquitous — until in-person events restart anyway — why not take advantage of the online tools we now have to bring more engagement and interactivity into online events?





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