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Can you hear me?

Let's admit it, we've all been on calls recently when plaintive cries come across the airwaves. Can you hear me? Can you see my screen? Has xx joined? No wonder there's been a conference call bingo sheet doing the rounds. It's been a more-or-less bumpy transition to the world of virtual meetings, with dodgy camera angles, interruptions from pets/ partners/ children (delete as appropriate), or slow connections. Going online definitely does present some challenges. So here are my tips – gained from my regular jaunts into online meetings and events – that might just help to ease your video-call journey.

Top tip one: Clear the way

It's easy to assume the everyone knows how to use online meeting platforms – or that they all work in the same way – but we need to remember that it's a new skill that needs to be learned. Providing clear instructions on how to create an account, set up a profile, join meetings – and leave them! – is essential to get people started. And giving guidance on how to 'be' whilst in the meeting space is also important. Webcam on or off? Mute or unmute? Virtual background or tidy bookcase? A set of basic do's and don'ts will help in two ways: your meetings will run more smoothly and the attendees will feel much more at ease.

How we've used this tip: Part of the support we provide to a local social enterprise includes organising an annual spoon-carving festival, The Great Scottish Spoon Hoolie. This year, we've moved the festival online! To help nearly 100 trainers and crafters join the event, we developed detailed instructions for how to access the platform and join the festival, including a test call ahead of the main event.

Top tip two: Take control

It's easy to understand the importance of the facilitator role for a face-to-face event, as they help to set the pace, engage participants, and gather feedback, but do you need one for an online meeting? In a word, yes! In fact, it might be even more important for your virtual workshop. An online facilitator can help set out the parameters for your call, manage contributions to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate, coordinate break-out rooms and group discussions, and sum up actions. If you don't have a facilitator, do make sure you have someone who can take the lead. This will avoid those awkward silences and cringe moments that we all dread!

How we've used this tip: At the beginning of the lockdown, we quickly had to move what had been planned as a face-to-face workshop to an online briefing, involving presentations from four speakers and around 70 participants. Following a quick rehearsal to run through the slides, we took charge of moving the meeting along, introducing speakers and taking control of presentations, managing questions by chat and raised hands, and summing up next steps.

Top tip three: Chat away

There are loads of great things about online meetings, not least bringing people together from all around the world with limited impacts on the environment. Another huge benefit is the tools the platforms are developing to help each meeting flow. Break-out rooms – or similar – are available to help with small group discussions, an essential part of many a workshop. Screen sharing helps teams to share documents and develop ideas by working together in real time to build a mind map or plan of action. And the chat function encourages more people to engage. Don't approach your virtual meeting as a phone call with pictures. Instead, be creative about the tools you use to bring people - and their ideas - together.

How we've used this tip: As well as extensive use of breakout rooms to run parallel sessions or have small-group discussions, at the end of a recent workshop we used the chat function to encourage people to share specific actions they'd committed to as a result of the discussions, as well as feedback about the event.

Top tip four: Chunk it up

I'll be honest, lockdown has been hard on my ability to concentrate. There must be others out there suffering the same effects, so think about this when you plan your online events. Keep meetings short, sharp, and to the point. Add in breaks to longer meetings, so people can refill their mugs and get a breath of fresh air. If you're sharing information, think about how to break it down into smaller pieces, instead of a long presentation. And, wherever you can, encourage participation, through questions, polls or other approaches.

How we've used this tip: We were recently due to give a professional development webinar on process review but instead were asked to deliver this as a recorded presentation. Rather than a 60-minute watch with no opportunity to ask questions, we broke down the recording into six shorter pieces. While not quite 'bitesized', our aim was to make these easier to watch and understand amongst the myriad distractions.

Top tip five: Less formal = more fun

Last – but by no means least – is our tip to make these virtual encounters less formal and more fun. Whether in lockdown or not, being on video calls can be a stressful experience. It's also a much more intimate look into colleagues' lives, with many having to work from kitchens, living rooms or bedrooms to make their calls. So focus on putting people at their ease by making the online interactions less formal. We know one company that's used the virtual environment to have quizzes, games and even a live sheep shearing demonstration. You don't need to go this far, but you can encourage a different approach to meetings that explicitly acknowledges the situations we're finding ourselves in. Talk about the pictures on the wall, or the books in the bookcase. Build in different elements to your meeting agenda or workshop programmes. Encourage attendees to find the virtual background that best reflects their personality. Most of all, focus on getting to know the person behind the screen.

How we've used this tip: My informal style has very much guided my approach throughout my career, so making meetings less formal comes quite naturally! For the Great Scottish Spoon Hoolie, we've brought this into the planning by inviting our Fairy Dragon Denis to host an online bar area at night, as well as having separate areas (breakout rooms) for a quiz and a quiet area.

Managing online meetings and workshops will always be tricky, as you're one more step removed than usual from your audience. But – hopefully – using these tips should help you create a plan that works. Let us know how you get on!


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