Last night, I felt more alive and connected to others than I have in months. Yes, months. I’m talking pre-quarantine.
I felt this way despite being physically alone in my one-bedroom guest house.
Over two and a half hours, 42 friends from across the country, new and old, came together to learn, connect, and share themselves. Just a few weeks ago, if you had asked me if this would be possible online, I would have laughed and politely said, “most definitely not.”
I have a long and complicated history with technology. I grew up with computers; my dad used to build them from scratch. Dial-up. AOL Instant Messenger. CD burners. Napster. The ability to access a wealth of information or connect with others at the click of a mouse was magical.
In recent years, I have tried to create a healthy relationship with technology. As I learned more about evolutionary psychology, emotional intelligence, and neuroscience, I came to believe that the optimal way to connect with others is face-to-face. I’ve preferred this method over video chat for my entire adult life; just ask my mother, who used to protest my resistance to FaceTiming with her since I live 2,500 miles away.
Given the current circumstances, socializing exclusively over technology has been forced upon us. If you live alone, as I do, doing so is even more crucial for us to maintain our well-being.
Recently, there has been both an inspiring and overwhelming number of social events held online. Happy Hours. Webinars. Virtual Game Nights. We joke about it, but Zoom Fatigue is real. Experts are highlighting problems with virtual communication that can affect us cognitively and emotionally. Not only do we miss out on important social cues over video, but staring at a screen for hours on end isn’t healthy.
Despite drawbacks to video communication, there is some good news. It is possible to create meaningful connections online that rival those made in- person. How?
It takes intention.
Last night, my friends Gretchen, Aria, and I co-hosted an online version of a connection event we held in-person twice last year. Throughout the evening, we rotated between (1) 10-minute talks given by our friends and (2) breakout partner discussions. The framework allowed for a variety of speaker topics while enabling attendees to connect one-on-one with seven other people via the breakout discussions.
We learned a few things about how to host a successful, intimate event online. Here are several takeaways:
Don’t underestimate planning
Gretchen, Aria, and I spent hours over Zoom, text, and email planning for the event. Run-of-show. Talking points. Messaging. In some ways, planning an online event is easier than those conducted in-person — the lack of a venue eliminates many logistical complexities that come with hosting most in-person events.
In other ways, it’s harder — there are more technical considerations, such as who MCs and when, who manages breakout rooms, and how to handle muting participants. It’s a delicate dance that must be orchestrated and rehearsed in advance.
We spent a generous amount of time crafting breakout discussion questions to ensure they were clear and concise. Communication is vital, particularly in an online setting. We also stayed hyper-organized. Thanks, Google Docs.
Create a container
Creating a container means being intentional with the purpose of the event. For us, this started with how we communicated every detail, from the evite to email reminders. We consistently used words like connection, discussion, and curiosity to give attendees a feel for what they were signing up for and to set expectations.
When we opened the evening, we reviewed housekeeping items and ground rules — letting everyone know what to expect, and what we expected of them.
Utilize technology to the fullest
Many video-chat services, including Zoom, have a little-known but powerful feature that can dramatically improve the experience: breakout rooms. Large video calls can be overwhelming. Even in-person, it’s unusual to have a conversation with a large group unless a skilled facilitator is leading the discussion.
We decided to mute attendees for most of the evening, allowing their voices to be heard in two-person breakout rooms instead. This intimate setting enabled deeper conversation and connection. The container we created, paired with discussion questions, allowed everyone to be open and vulnerable with one another.
At the last minute, we used another little-known feature to play music as people “entered” the event. Many are familiar with Zoom’s screen-sharing feature — hidden in the advanced settings is an option to share just computer audio. I was surprised how something as simple as playing music set the mood for the evening. It was fun watching 42 heads bop up and down while participants waited for us to begin. Perhaps this happened because it was unexpected— most Zoom meetings start with a combination of awkward silence and small talk. And “you’re on mute!”
No event is perfect, and we had our share of mistakes. A friend was placed in a room by herself during one of the breakouts. Several transitions were wonky. But in the end, the effort that went into planning paid off, allowing our intention to manifest clearly. Overall, we created a (mostly) frictionless experience for attendees, enabling them to arrive as themselves and connect with others.
The feedback has been touching. One friend said:
“Community events like these remind me of who I am and what I love about human beings… I feel more like myself right now than I have in months.”
Another texted this today:
“I had no idea what I was in store for last night but turns out it’s exactly what I didn’t know I needed.”
We are in the process of creating a distributable framework to allow others to take this concept and make it their own. And, as this was a big experiment, we plan to take what we learned and improve on it with another event in May.
Stay well, and stay connected.