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10 tips for a successful online meeting or workshop

In a world where meetings are forced to go online, here are suggestions to make your next meeting — well, infectious.

Welcome to a planet in quarantine. In countries around the world, live meetings and workshops are suddenly out, digital is in. Thanks to COVID-19 (although "thanks" may not be the right word), many of us have had to swiftly — sometimes overnight — rethink our approach to delivering good professional training and meeting experiences.

In the past few days, several people have asked me for tips on how to run good online workshops and meetings. It turns out I have a lot of experience with that.

I first used online learning systems in a university lab in 1979. I ran my first online workshop somewhere around 1990. (The system we used then was extremely crude by today’s standards: You could basically only write, or read, one line of text at a time on your primitive computer screen.) Since then, I’ve designed international corporate online trainings, run long-distance courses for sustainability professionals and facilitated United Nations transatlantic meetings via Skype and other services.

But the principles for success remained amazingly consistent across decades of technical development. Over time, we just added voice and pictures to those lines of text. (Now we call the text "bullet points.")

So, written in all haste as a support to professionals adjusting to the reality of COVID-19 and the new digital Imperative, here’s my quick guide for quickly achieving success — because we all need to get better at this online-facilitation stuff, and fast.

A guide for quickly achieving success — because we all need to get better at this online-facilitation stuff, and fast.
Here are 10 general principles. No particular order. They work.
  1. Be concise. What’s true for a live presentation is doubly true for a presentation online. Keep your messages brisk. Use short sentences. No more than a few bullet points on a slide. Short truly is sweet.
  2. Be lively. Nothing is worse than a dull monotone voice, reading the points on a screen. Modulate your voice more than usual, change your speech rhythms, throw in a silly joke — whatever works with your personality. The key is to be a little unpredictable.
  3. Call on people. It is very easy to check out in an online meeting. Try not to go more than five minutes without asking a question — even if you just ask participants to write quick answers in a chat box. This gets people’s thoughts going. When you do want an answer, call on someone specific. Then people will have to pay attention. They don’t want to be the person who fumbles, isn’t ready to unmute, missed the question, etc.
  4. Require advance reading and preparation. Not always possible, but your event will go so much better if you are not covering information points for the first time, but rather going a bit deeper. Providing nuance. Relating examples and experiences.
  5. Interrupt your own flow. I love it when people ask a question in a chat box or via voice that forces me to take a small detour, tell a story, explain a point that is only sort-of-related. When they don’t do that, I do it myself — come up with a useful digression. This wakes people up and affords you the chance to make interesting new connections. Don’t be a slave to your presentation slides.
  6. Shorten the session. If you would normally have a two-hour live workshop, run a 60-minute online version. Obviously, this goes together with point No. 1 above, but the point here is that live events consist of 50 percent non-verbal and only-social interaction. Not so relevant in the online version. Compress your content, leave people hungry for more, so that they will be motivated to do the reading and assignments afterwards, too.
  7. Avoid technical complication. Be sure the system works, the slides work, the sound works. Always run a test. Avoid movies, sound recordings, etc. Compress the pictures on your presentation slides to reduce file size and bandwidth, thus reducing the risk of freezing or unresponsive connections. Do all you can do to make the technical experience trouble-free.
  8. Big group? Get help. If you are running a session with more than 10 to 15 people online, have a co-facilitator to manage things like incoming chat questions, dealing with anything interactive you have planned and providing technical support for anyone having trouble with the connection.
  9. Be interesting. OK, easier said than done, and yes, this complements "lively" (No. 2). But it’s not the same. Lively is style. This point is about substance. Put the boring facts in the advance reading or follow-up assignment. Focus on the story you are trying to tell, the skill set you are aiming to imbue in the participants. Paint a vivid picture, principally with your words. (Slides are great but substantially overrated.) Doubtful about your or your guest speakers' "interesting-level"? Get a writer or editor to help. It is worth the investment.
  10. Enjoy it. I am not being facetious here. You’ve got to find the fun of connecting with people over the internet, in far-flung homes or workplaces. "Wow, we’ve got people signing on from Texas to Timbuktu!" If you approach your online workshop, event or training with a sense of excitement and promise — and definitely not an Eeyore-like, "Oh, well, it’s Corona-time, we have to do it digital" — your enthusiasm will be catching. You’ll have a good time. Your participants will have a good time. Things will be learned, good stuff will happen, the world will keep spinning. As it most certainly needs to do.

And here’s a bonus No. 11: Add to this list, based on your own experience and what you learn from others.

We are involved in a great acceleration of learning about how to be a digital learning civilization. It is something we needed to do anyway — COVID-19 just gave us an extra big kick. And I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing what we learn!

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