Tips for Hosting Online Conversation
Looking for an alternative to face-to-face events in the time of Coronavirus? People have been experimenting with synchronous online convening for years and the tools continue to improve. Here are some suggestions based on experiences of the Journalism That Matters team.
The basics apply whether online or in-person.
Set the stage…
Clarify Purpose. What do you hope to accomplish? Expressing it in a possibility-oriented question fosters constructive participation.
Invite the people who care. Complex challenges benefit from multiple perspectives. Do your homework to identify the people who ARE IN — with authority, resources, expertise, information, and need. And consider what demographics are pertinent — race, class, age, gender, geography, political affiliation, religion, or disability.
Create a sense of welcome. People are more willing to speak authentically when they believe they belong. Be a good host. From the invitation forward, use language, images, delivery approaches that make it clear you appreciate their participation.
Use an approach that creates space for people to show up authentically and to connect with others. If you have a speaker, keep their role brief. We call them conversation catalysts to keep the emphasis on participant interaction.
Save a few minutes at the end of the session to discover what people have learned. For example, invite them to write something in a chat box. It gives everyone a sense of what mattered.
Just as in face-to-face convenings, a thank you with highlights of what came from the experience strengthens the connection. And it’s a chance to ask for feedback.
For further information, see Designing for Engagement.
Use a technology that supports interaction.
Choose a technology that supports conversation. Whatever tool you choose, if you want to create conversation, the ability to create small group breakout spaces where people have time together is key. Our best experiences are with Zoom because moving between breakout spaces and the whole group is simple for participants. Plus, the host interface is easy to understand.
Have at least two hosts. One person focuses on the flow of the meeting and the people. The other handles the technology. If you have more than 30 people, having a third person to track comments in chat and bring them into the conversation helps.
Do a dry run. It isn’t hard but if the technology is new to you, it sure helps to experience the process before working with a crowd.
Include information about the platform in the invitation. It helps participants prepare for a new experience. Let them know it’s an experiment. That often creates generosity in case something goes sideways. Invite them to optionally come 15 minutes early for an orientation. Or even a more tech support session prior to the event.
Greet people as they arrive. Opening moments, while waiting for people to join, can be awkward. Be a good host. Music, a greeter, a question to answer in a chat box, are ways to welcome people into the swing of things.
For more ambitious convenings…
Use a digital white board for shared note taking. As simple as a Google Doc with headings as placeholders for different parts of the agenda, a digital tablecloth for notes supports room for multiple voices simultaneously in a way that would be untenable face to face. Plus, it provides a record for later use.
Do some pre-work. Provide participants with background resources. Or have them do a brief survey and even share everyone’s answers.
Employ a graphic recorder. There’s something amazing about watching real-time capture of a meeting in graphic form. Like a digital white board, it leaves a record to share. Visual records tend to reflect the spirit of a meeting as well as the content.
- Facilitators for Coronavirus Response. A discussion group for those who facilitate online (or need to) to learn, share and make offers to the world as the Covid19 virus plays out. (Led by Nancy White, the group has gathered an amazing array of Resources for online meetings, classes and events in a Google Doc. Be aware: They aren’t yet vetted for quality.)
- Unconference Journalism Slack Channel. Created by Heather Bryant to think about moving journalism conferences online, it is a place for journalists to learn, share, and make offers on online engagement.
Sound daunting? Hire an expert.
Many talented people have been working with online convenings for years. Here are some of the ones we know.
- Amy Lenzo, WeDialogue, has been engaged in online communications for over 20 years. She offers workshops on online hosting with a monthly clinic for registrants and alumni.
- Ben Roberts, The Conversation Collaborative, has focused since 2010 on the design and hosting of virtual engagements on behalf of teams, organizations, networks, alliances, and collaborative initiatives.
- Nancy White, Full Circle Associates, co-author of Digital Habitats, Nancy White has also worked online for over 20 years.
- Adi Leigh Brown, 10x Collective
- Carlotta Cataldi, Graphic recording and other stories
- Nitya Wakhlu, Nitya Wakhlu Innovations
- Stacy F.S. Weitzner, stacyfaithinks
- Steven Wright, WrightMarks
- Lucas Cioffi, Qiqo Chat, has developed a set of collaborative tools to make online meetings and between meetings more effective.
- Peter Lee, Video Facilitator, has a mission to the make the digital experience for workshop and conferences better than the in-the-room experience.
Edited to add Ben Roberts and Adi Leigh Brown. Edited 5/20/22 to add demographics to the section on inviting people who care.