Virtually Perfect: Hosting Engaging Virtual Sessions

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing individuals and organizations to shift to a virtual context — and I see that as a silver lining of the big dark pandemic cloud. I LOVE virtual meetings. I’ve been doing much of my work virtually for a couple of years now, and there are a great many things that I find to be significant advantages compared to live gatherings. 

The advantage that makes me most excited about this shift is that it affords opportunities to include a wider spectrum of people into the gathering, not only geographically but also across physical ability, health status, neurodiversity, and so on. More on that in a later post, but I will just say that I hope that, even after social distancing measures are relaxed, businesses will keep a strong culture of remote and virtual work, if only to include a wider diversity of team members.

Other big wins from leveraging a virtual platform include no commute for meetings, which not only saves me time but can save some carbon footprint as well, and getting to choose the best space to take my meetings — I can be in a meeting AND in my home, able to fully focus on the meeting rather than losing any cognitive load by being in an unfamiliar space. 

And “working virtually,” is much more than just conducting meetings and sharing documents. I have engaged in transformational interactive learning experiences on video conferencing that had MORE of an impact because I was joining through a screen. Done well, a virtual gathering can create a more intimate way to connect and learn than being in a room full of people.

During this time of transition, I’ve heard a lot of fears, concerns, and frustrations about shifting gatherings to online platforms. Having led and participated in a wide spectrum of highly interactive virtual gatherings, here are a few key lessons I have learned about how to keep the magic when you’re not all in the same physical space.

  1. Set The Container: Define the virtual space by the people, context, and expectations
  2. Keep Cameras On: Be visibly human together
  3. Use Visuals: Leverage multiple learning modalities
  4. Combine Individual, Small Group, and Whole Group Activities: Mix different combinations to keep engagement high
  5. Use Chat: Let participants engage with you and each other in real time
  6. Do a Fishbowl: Add some “Show” to your “Tell”

I go into a little more detail on each of these recommendations below to get you started. For more advanced explorations, I recommend Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering for inspiration. It doesn’t specifically describe virtual gatherings, but many of the concepts are very helpful in making decisions in a virtual context. If you want help, please get in touch! I enjoy working with clients to transform live content into a digital space, and will be delighted to help you reach your goals online!

Set The Container
This is a phrase we use a lot in coaching, and can be described as “Build the thing that will house the thing. And work within those constraints.” Said differently, every time a group comes together, there is a unique “space” that is created, and we say that the “container” is what holds that space. Without a physical space, the container is defined by the people, the context, and what you’re gathered to do.

When participants arrive at a gathering, there are a lot of unconscious questions that arise that, if not answered, will either lead to assumptions or uncertainty. In any gathering, I recommend answering them from the top, but this becomes especially important in a virtual context when participants don’t have the cues of a physical space that they’ve arrived somewhere different. These are questions like:

  • What are the rules of engagement here? What are the norms?
  • What do I have in common with the other participants? What brings us together?
  • How are other people showing up in this gathering? How will we interact?
  • How do I need to be to make this gathering a success? What is my role?
  • What will be different as a result of this gathering? How will I be different?

I recommend that you explicitly answer many or all of these questions. Especially for a group that has not come together virtually before, they will not know what to expect, and that uncertainty can range from somewhat to extremely distracting, depending on their personality and relationship to control. Helping participants know, from the beginning, what kind of space this is and how to be in it will kick-start a great and highly engaging meeting!

Keep Cameras On
Participants will have an easier time connecting on a human level if they can see your and one another’s faces. It also helps give and receive non-verbal communication cues. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to see these cues on video conference than it would be in a live room! I specifically recommend using what’s called “Gallery View” (I also sometimes call it “Brady Bunch View”) rather than “Speaker View,” meaning that you can see many smaller tiled faces on the screen at once, rather than only the person who is speaking. 

Use Visuals
Share your screen, create slides/images, and utilize live “whiteboard” style drawing functionality whenever possible/appropriate. This will continue to capture and retain focus on the content of the gathering. In combination with voice-over, it will provide a richer experience of the topic. Feel free to alternate between those visuals and the presenter’s face, giving unconscious cues to the participants of what to pay attention to. 

Combine Individual, Small Group, and Whole Group Activities
No matter how long your gathering will be, it is a good strategy to mix different types of participation and engagement to keep participants accountable and engaged.

  1. Individual – Ask participants to answer questions, work through problems, or reflect on what has been shared individually. This most often looks like asking a question, ideally with that question also shared on the screen, and giving a short amount of time to work on their answer on their own. I recommend letting them know how long they will have to work individually, even better if they can see the timer — I recommend using a sensory timer.
  2. Small Group – Use break-out rooms! You can assign participants, either intentionally or randomly, into smaller groups to collaborate, or share back their answers from individual work. Small groups are a great way to get lots of people talking without taking a lot of time. If you have multiple moderators/facilitators, you can have them join different rooms, as well.
  3. Whole Group – I always try to start and end my gatherings with something that includes the whole group together, if possible. With a larger group, sometimes that’s only sharing one word each to answer questions like “What’s one word that comes to mind when you think about [the session topic/focus]?” or at the end “What’s one word that describes how you’re leaving this session?” Something short like this can have a big impact on group cohesion and having each participant feel like they’re part of the container.

Use Chat
Have folks share their ideas, questions, and reactions in the chat functionality. Some people may worry that that will be distracting, but in fact it boosts engagement in the content. Further, it means that if people have a question or idea, they can write it in the chat which means it won’t be bouncing around in their head taking up processing capacity that they could be using on listening. If you have two facilitators, I recommend having one of them moderate the chat to address any urgent issues, and surface themes or questions that it will be helpful for the facilitator to address for the whole group. 

Do a Fishbowl
Fishbowls or real-time demonstrations are extremely valuable tools for deeper learning. If you are explaining something complex or nuanced to your participants, you can show them how you would do it, either with another facilitator or, even better, with a participant volunteer. A good rule of thumb in any learning context is Teach, Show, Do — explain the concept to the group, show them how it works, and then ask them to apply it themselves. Virtual platforms are extremely well-suited for this. You can even ask observing participants to mute themselves and turn off their videos to make it more of a “stage.” 

What Else?
What else has worked for you? What questions do you have? I would love to keep adding to this and helping as much as possible, so please share!

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Rada Yovovich is an experienced coach, meta-coach, mediator, trainer, and facilitator based in Chicago. She specializes in building leadership competencies that maximize individual and team potential, and aligning goals with values for individuals and teams/organizations to create cultural alignment and collective commitment.