The devil is in the details:
Tips for hosting smooth online gatherings using Zoom

Raychel Santo, Karen Bassarab, and Anne Palmer

COVID-19 is requiring many of us to rapidly adjust our professional and personal lives to new norms of working and socializing from home. For many, this involves exploring new technologies such as Zoom, a video conferencing and webinar platform, to host virtual meetings, presentations, worship services, exercise classes, and other online gatherings.

Zoom is fairly straightforward to learn, especially with the robust set of tutorials and help lines that exist out there. That said, some of the nuanced and seemingly minute decisions that the host must make during scheduling, facilitating, and ending a meeting or webinar can actually make a big impact on how smoothly the whole thing goes (and how flustered you get along the way!). As staff of the Food Policy Networks project — a network of food policy councils and other advocates of local, state, regional and tribal food policies — we’ve spent three years organizing hundreds of Zoom calls and webinars, and making lots of mistakes along the way. Here are a few tried-and-true tips we’ve learned.

Scheduling

· Schedule a meeting or webinar using the Zoom website, rather than the desktop application. You’ll get more options to tweak the meeting, such as requiring registration and adding special questions and branding to the registration page.

· If you have a paid Zoom account that allows you to host a meeting OR webinar, think about which features would work best for your virtual gathering:

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· If you plan to save a recording of the webinar or meeting, select “Record to the Cloud” rather than “Locally” (ie, on the host’s computer). That way, if the host gets kicked off due to an unstable internet connection, the recording will remain complete and you won’t have to piece together segments of the recording from different hosts’ computers.

· If you want to pre-game with a few meeting attendees right before the start of the meeting, check “enable waiting room” when setting up the meeting so all those attendees who are super eager to join 15 minutes early can’t hear your last-minute discussion!

Hosting

· Plan ahead for non-computer attendees. There will almost always be someone who can only join your meeting or webinar by phone. Particularly for meetings in which you’re hoping participants can ask questions or share their experiences, we try to open the meeting by reminding phone attendees that they can chime by using *6 to unmute, *9 to raise their hand. It is also helpful to send presentation materials to attendees ahead of the meeting and ask for questions in advance.

· If you’re hosting a webinar, it’s always a good idea to check in with panelists in advance to make sure their internet connection, audio and slide setup work. Sometimes panelists hope to use the “notes” feature on their PowerPoint slides, but they can’t do this without sharing their entire screen (including the notes) unless they have a dual monitor system set up.

· It can be difficult to monitor mute/unmute/waiting room features while simultaneously facilitating a conversation or presentation. We recommend sharing host capabilities with another member of your team to keep the conversation running smoothly.

· We recommend doing audio checks ahead of time. If presenters or participants are having audio problems — e.g. sound muffled, can’t hear, etc. — they can use their phone for audio and have their screens on so they can see and be seen.

· If you’re hosting a brainstorming meeting, you can make a simple “white board” or interactive board by screensharing a blank Powerpoint slide. People can then use the “annotate” features to “write” on the board. There is also a whiteboard feature in Zoom.

Concluding a meeting or webinar

· All attendees of a meeting or webinar can download a record of the chat before they sign off, by clicking the tiny ellipsis at the bottom of the chat box (right next to the file attachment button). This is particularly useful if you are having private chats with other participants that you would like to save, as only the chats sent to all registrants will be saved in the overall webinar or meeting chat history.

· If you think you may want to access your list of registrants, chat file, and other resources post-meeting or post-webinar (for instance, in writing up an annual report about the number of people you reached during the year), be sure to download and save them to your hard drive or other virtual storage drives. Zoom deletes records six months after a meeting has finished. You can download them from the “Recordings” (video, chat file, audio files) and “Reports” (registration and attendee lists) folders on the Zoom website.

Food systems researcher, public transit advocate, community gardener, and board game enthusiast

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