How to Host a Cocktail Party on Zoom (and have better classes, conferences and meetings, too)

In lots of gatherings, it’s important for people to be able to fluidly move in and out of small clusters. It’s not easy to do this in Zoom, but it is possible. I’ll show you how.

Misha Glouberman
The Startup

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The origin: It’s my job to think about how to structure social events in ways that help people connect.

I’m a professional facilitator of meetings and conferences, where I try to maximize real human connection. As a teacher, coach, and consultant, I help people learn to communicate better about difficult and important topics. As the Covid-19 pandemic took over our lives, I started doing lots of work online, mostly serious events about hope and despair during the pandemic. But amid all that, I also had a birthday party coming up.

The challenge: A cocktail party is not thirty people in a grid having one conversation.

At a cocktail party, people don’t stand in one big circle and take turns talking. They organize themselves into little clusters that form, change, and dissolve as people follow their interests.

I really wanted to figure out how to do this in Zoom, since that would be a better party. But I also wanted to figure this out because I think those kinds of self-organizing small clusters are vital to good learning environments, conferences, and meetings. (For fellow facilitation geeks reading this: I am a fan of open space meetings, unconferences, and Liberating Structures.)

The partial solution: Zoom Breakout Rooms are great, but inflexible.

One of the many great features of Zoom is “Breakout Rooms”. They allow the host to put meeting participants into separate rooms, of any size, where they can talk to each other. This is great! If you’re doing events on Zoom with more than 8 or so people, I really recommend using breakout rooms.

You don’t have to think of them as “rooms”. If you’re teaching a 40-person class, you can ask everyone to turn to another student and do a short exercise in pairs. Create 20 rooms, click a button, and everyone is paired up. Then you can bring them right back to the main group.

The disappointing part is: Only one person, the Zoom “host”, has the ability to create rooms, assign people to rooms, and move people between them. Everyone else is stuck following the host’s lead.

(As a facilitator, this breaks my heart: so much of my work is about giving people autonomy within groups. Zoom wants one person to be in charge of everyone, no matter how big the meeting is.)

IMPORTANT UPDATE OCT 2020!!

The next few paragraphs of this article are about how to hack zoom into letting people move between groups by making everone a co-host. As of Fall 2020, this is no longer necessary!! Zoom just added a feature that lest participants choose there own breakout rooms!! I’ve left the next few paragraphs in place for historical interest. But you can skip them! THANK YOU ZOOM!!!

The best way around this: Make everyone a “co-host”.

Here is an amazing trick, buried deep in the Zoom documentation: To let participants move between rooms, make them all “co-hosts” of the event. Co-hosts cannot create breakout rooms, or move others between breakout rooms. But they can move themselves between breakout rooms, and see who is in them!

So if you want to host a cocktail party (or any meeting) where you want people to move around, the process is simple. Create a lot of breakout rooms, make everyone a co-host, and let people rearrange themselves however they like.

Warning: Only make everyone a “co-host” if you know and trust everyone. This is critical. Co-hosts have a lot of power in meetings: they can mute and unmute others. They can “spotlight” a video and make it fullscreen. There’s no way to let people move between breakout rooms without also giving them all these powers. You might not want to do this at, say, a large public Zoom event. (There are other, less-great options you can use in these cases — drop me a line or comment if you want to know, and maybe I’ll add it as an addendum to this article.)

Making people co-hosts is easy, and there are two ways to do it:

  1. Hover over the user’s image, click on the three dots and choose Make Co-Host.
  2. Alternately: click Manage Participants in the meeting controls at the bottom of the Zoom window. Hover over the name of the participant and choose More. Click Make Co-Host.

Here’s what happens when you let people move around.

After my birthday, people said it felt “more like a real party” than anything else they’d done on Zoom.

Just like at a real party, people clustered in groups of 2 to 8 — some people stayed with the same folks for the whole time, some moved around. Some people caught up with old friends, some talked to new people. Some talks were serious, some light.

The freedom of movement helped people have more natural conversations, share ideas, and make new connections.

These methods can also work for meetings, conferences, classes, and other gatherings

There are lots of places you might want to let people mingle and mix. Whether you’re hosting a family get-together, group discussion in class, or a weekly check-in with your office, using breakouts in this way makes Zoom feel more natural and flexible. It also grants people the agency needed to feel like participants with a stake in the conversation, to connect with each other, and make it their own.

Want all the details? Read on!

Below, I’m going to explain, in pretty great detail: how I ran this party, why I made these choices, what worked, and what I learned.

Of course, you don’t need to do everything exactly as I did. I thought it might be helpful to include more details rather than less, so you can pick and choose what works for you.

The Agenda

What? You don’t use an agenda for your cocktail parties? I did for this one. That’s partly because, as mentioned earlier, I love this sort of structure. But it’s also because doing things well on Zoom generally requires a greater level of care and attention than real-life gatherings.

Here’s an example:

3:00 — Start. People arrive. Welcome them and do tech set-up.
3:15 — Assign sub-groups to get everyone talking and meeting new people.
3:25 — Get people to identify what sort of conversations they want to have.
3:35 — Make a list of possible conversation rooms.
3:45 — Let people go to rooms! Allow them to mingle, get in groups, etc.
4:15 — Invite people back into the main room to talk together.
4:30 — End of party. (People are welcome to linger after).

The whole party is 90 minutes. That’s short for a real-life party, but pretty long for an online meeting. It’s important to keep your agenda fairly focused, because facilitating each of these steps on Zoom takes longer than it would in real life, and you don’t want to run out of time.

Preparation & Invitation

A few things to know if you want to try something like this:

Be prepared for hosting to be a lot of work. I was “hosting” for pretty much the whole party: taking care of people and making things run. You could try and get someone else to help, but Zoom only allows one person to “host” at a time.

Let people know what to expect, what’s expected of them, and how to prepare. This is an important but often-overlooked rule for any gathering or meeting (think about those terrible work meetings where no one even knows what the agenda is). As the host of this party, you’ll be making requests of your guests that aren’t what they might normally expect. You owe it to them (and yourself!) to make expectations clear.

There are also technical details. If possible, you want guests to use a computer rather than a tablet or phone. Zoom lets them see more people at a time on a bigger screen. More importantly: the feature that lets co-hosts move between rooms does not work on tablets or phones. Any guests who log in using a tablet or a phone will be stuck in a room, and will need your help to move.

Here’s an excerpt from my invitation, summing all that up:

I’m looking forward to seeing you at the party! Here are some details:

This Sunday, April 5, 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm eastern time, Zoom link : XXXXX

If you have a choice, you’ll be better off on a bigger-screen device. (Computer better than tablet; tablet better than phone.)

It’ll be a mix of informal hanging out with some more facilitated/structured stuff. There will be a certain amount of putting people into groups, suggesting topics, that sort of thing.

If you like, here are a couple of questions you can think about before we meet:
1) Is there something you are hoping to talk about, or a kind of conversation you are hoping to have?
2) Is there anything you are hoping not to talk about, or a kind of conversation you are hoping not to have?

If you feel like emailing me answers to those questions, I’m happy to hear them.

You can think differently about who to invite: Since the party was online, I was very excited to invite friends from all over the world, who otherwise would never get to meet. Not only can you invite old, dear friends (as you might at a wedding) you can invite anyone. If you met some random person in another city who you liked and thought “Hey, I like this person, I wish we could stay in touch,” you can now invite them to your 800-miles-from-them cocktail party.

You might want to create a shared Google Doc: This can serve as a central point for you and guests to share information. (More on this later…)

You might want to practice: If you aren’t familiar with the tools, you can play with them beforehand. Zoom won’t let you set up breakout rooms if you don’t have participants in your meeting. So you’ll need to get a few friends together to help you test.

Step-by-step:

3:00 — Start. People arrive. Welcome them and do tech set-up.

As people arrived, I did normal host stuff: I said Hi. I introduced people. I also did a couple of technical things: I asked them to change their screen name to their full name and the city they’re in. I also made each of them a co-host. For around 15 minutes, people filtered in.

3:15 — Assign sub-groups to get everyone talking and meeting new people.

You don’t have to do this, but I think it helped.

First, tell people what you are going to do: “I’m going to invite you into small groups of two or three for five minutes or so, to meet people and talk to each other a bit. If you like, you can ask each other my go-to question for parties which is ‘how do you know the host’, but you can ask whatever you like.”

Next, put them into small, assigned groups: Open the Breakout Room dialog. It will allow you to choose the number of rooms to create. As you change the number, you’ll see the number of guests per room. I’d suggest setting it to “3 guests per room” or “2 to 3 guests per room”. I assigned groups automatically (randomly) because I wanted to move quickly. Click Open All Rooms. The participants will all be invited into their groups.

From the breakout dialog, you can message all the guests. I’d send them a message three minutes in, saying there are two minutes left. Then, a minute later, I’d click the Close All Rooms button, which gives everyone a minute to finish up. After that, they’ll all be bounced back into the main room.

3:25 — Get people to identify what sort of conversations they want to have.

I put people into new random groups of two or three. This time I asked people to think about the questions on the invitation:

Is there a particular thing you are hoping to talk about, or a kind of conversation you are hoping to have? Is there a particular thing you are hoping to not talk about or a kind of conversation you are hoping not to have?

And again, I brought them back after five minutes.

This gets everyone talking a bit more, and meeting a few new people. More importantly, it seeds ideas for the next step…

3:35 — Make a list of possible conversation rooms.

Once people come back, you can point them to a shared Google Doc. My document, which I prepared before the party, originally looked like this:

You want a lot of rooms: At least half as many as you have guests, so that people have a lot of space. You don’t have to give the rooms names, but you should give them numbers because Zoom will number the rooms you create.

When people came back from their discussion, I invited them to put the kinds of conversations they wanted to have into the Google Doc. The result looked like this:

(Actually, my friends filled the blank spaces with smart-ass jokes, which I have deleted for the sake of clarity.)

3:45 — Let people go to rooms! Allow them to mingle, get in groups, etc.

Now you are set to start the cocktail party part of the party! Here’s how to do it:

  • Make sure all your guests have been assigned “co-host” status.
  • Go to the Zoom Breakout Room dialog. Choose the option to assign participants automatically. For the number of rooms: enter whatever number of rooms are listed in your google doc.
  • Explain this weird Zoom thing to your guests: As co-hosts, they can move between breakout rooms. But they can only do this once they have been assigned to a room. So as host you are going to put them all into random rooms. From there, they should move into the room they want to join.
  • Also explain — “You are free to move between rooms as often as you like. Don’t be shy about that. I can send you a prompt halfway through to remind you to move if you like.”
  • Click the “open all rooms” button to assign people randomly to rooms.

That’s it! I left the guests on their own for 25 minutes. (This could probably go a lot longer, and I think people would have been happy.)

Some people stayed in the same group the whole time. Some moved around. Some people spent most of the time in pairs. Some were in groups of up to six or seven. Just like at a real party.

One lovely feature of the breakout rooms is that, while you can’t actually see into a given room from outside, you can see a list of who’s in what room. This means you can see the shape of the party. It also means if there’s someone you want to talk to, you can find them.

4:15 — Invite people back into the main room to talk together.

I used the Broadcast to All button to send warnings when they were halfway through, as well as a reminder that they could move to other groups (as a kind of social permission). I also sent messages when there were 5 minutes left, and when there were 2 minutes left.

When there is a minute left, you can send people a message inviting them to come back to the main breakout room. If you want you can Close the rooms, in which case people are forced to return after a minute. Or you can just invite them. For the party, I wanted to give people the choice to stay in their breakout if they wanted.

In the main room: People can talk about how it went. If I were running a more formal event, I’d probably ask people to reflect on what happened in their groups.

4:30 — End of party. (People are welcome to linger after).

At 4:30 I announced the official end of the party and told people they were also welcome to stay. It’s good to give people permission to leave. Around half the people left, and half stayed. As a host, your hard work is over now. You can hang out with whoever lingers.

Some extra tips:

I ran my party using the least expensive paid Zoom account. As far as I know, all the features I used are available on a free account. However, the free account’s 40-minute time limit would be a challenge. The account I used is $20 a month. $20 strikes me as a pretty reasonable budget for a party.

Watch out for security issues: Zoom has lots of security issues to look out for. You can read about them here and here, or google around for more up-to-date resources.

You may need to set the “co-host” option in your Zoom settings: There is a switch in your zoom setting that determines whether you can have co-hosts in your meetings. You may need to toggle it to allow co-hosts.

BONUS ADDED TIPS: Workarounds if you’re not on Zoom or can’t use the co-host trick

Making everyone a co-host on Zoom is the best way I know to allow people to move between breakouts. But if you can’t do that, here are another couple other options.

a) On Zoom but can’t make everyone a co-host: Have the host move people around.

As I mentioned earlier: You should not make everyone a co-host if you don’t know and trust everyone at the meeting. It gives them a lot of power that you probably don’t want to give to strangers. In this case: you can have one person designated as “host” to move people around when they request it. They can do this by messaging the host or sending the host a “help” request from breakouts.

b) On any platform, even one without breakouts: Run parallel meetings all listed in a shared resource.

If you’re using a platform that doesn’t let you create breakout rooms within a meeting, you can try running each breakout as its own meeting. So if you want ten breakout rooms, create ten separate meetings. Create a shared resource, like a Google Doc, with links to each meeting. (You may need your guests’ help to create the multiple meetings if your platform only allows you to host one meeting at a time.)

These two methods will be trickier and slower than the Zoom-Co-host-Breakout trick. And participants won’t be able to see a list of who’s in each room. But they should still capture some of the functionality. (I have not tried these myself. If you do try, I’d like to hear how it goes.)

Thanks to Nat from ask.metafilter.com for his amazing help with ideas for this article.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you

I’m hoping for this to be a useful document for people who want to run great cocktail parties and other gatherings on Zoom. I’m happy to update it to add any corrections, things readers want to know more about, etc. Feel free to contact me directly through my web site or leave a comment below.

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Misha Glouberman
The Startup

I help people run better meetings and conferences, and have more effective and authentic conversations, both online and face to face. www.mishaglouberman.com