How to Host a Virtual Convening

By: Net Impact staff | March 13, 2020

We already knew virtual convenings, events, and meetings were the way of the future. But with recent events around COVID-19 preparations, it’s more important than ever to take proactive measures in the interest of accessibility, public health, and inclusivity. 

A virtual convening is much like an in-person event in many ways. It matters who’s in the room, what the content will be, and managing important logistical information. But when adding a virtual component, these key elements only become more vital to success, in addition to its own levels of performance indicators. 

Success is hard to measure in virtual convening. It is subjective in that each person has their own definition of success. Participation greatly varies, as it does in most of life. Virtual convenings come in all shapes and sizes. Is it for two people or one hundred? Is the goal action or awareness? What tool do I use? What makes an amazing facilitator? All valid questions.

The same rules for in-person time don’t always apply. It is hard to know if someone is paying attention or dual screening (looking at their phone) from a tiny image. Folks feel that they can get away with not being fully present virtually.  

Best practices for virtual convening

Before 

  1. Timing — Schedule a recurring time each month or a time that the group chooses; typically conversations longer than 90 minutes without a break don’t work well. Don’t be afraid to send out 2-4 reminders (1 month before, 1 week before, 1 day before via email and 1 hour via text). If folks don’t appreciate it, they will tell you. 

  2. Agenda — Share a clear agenda (even high level) and who is attending beforehand and again on the call, and add this information directly to the calendar invitation. 

During 

  1. Norming — Establish norms early on and remind folks of each one (3-5) until they are embedded in the culture during each call. Remind folks of how you like to see them show up (see below).

  2. Confidentiality — This can be a norm but is worth calling out for vulnerable sharing.  If recording, be clear about with whom the recording will be shared and pause the recording if something confidential comes up.

  3. Feedback — Give frequent opportunities for anonymous or attributed feedback via links, personal calls, or in-group conversations. The goal is to understand what value folks are taking away and do more to keep getting the results you are looking for. 

  4. Breakouts — Zoom is amazing for breakout groups and you can teach yourself how to run them so participants get to know each other and have 1:1 interactive theme-based time. 

  5. Facilitation — Check out Conveners.org’s facilitation guide (accessible for members in your portal).  Speak confidently, don’t be afraid of silence, keep time for the group, use the chat feature to encourage others to speak up or ask questions, and respecting everyone’s input are all important facilitation best practices. 

After 

  1. Recap — Send highlights to the group 1-3 days after the virtual convening. Call insights can build towards future conversation topics and engage participants more deeply (especially if they couldn’t attend last minute). 

  2. Action-Orientation — Do the follow up you say you will and be sure to capture and share out action items agreed to on the call. Hold folks accountable kindly. 

  3. Have Fun — Work can be fun! Name that and infuse any convening, virtual or not, with the best parts of life (laughter, love, and learning). 

Tools

Zoom – allows folks to use a computer or cell phone to call in allowing for greater flexibility in how one joins.  Breakout rooms are easy to use and worth it when you want to tackle specific content under a larger theme. 

Doodle – allows folks to find a time that works best for the majority of the group and schedule with ease of tracking.  It also solves for time zone differences, along with tools like World Clock

Skype – specializes in providing video chat and voice calls between computers, tablets, mobile devices; since they were founded in 2003 many people know how to use it already. 

Circl.es – a newer custom-built platform for peer learning, it is pricey but this company cares about learning and collaboration. 

VoiceVoice – is a platform bringing people together in small groups; each group can discuss topics, watch content together, take on activities, or contribute to larger conversations.

As a friendly reminder — here is how we like to show up virtually:

  • Be present and an active listener

  • Challenge your own assumptions

  • Ask open-ended clarifying questions

  • Take away insight and leave judgment behind (of yourself + others)

  • Share feedback (so we can continually improve)

How do we align on differing definitions of virtual convenings? 

Is it the same as a digital pass where you passively watch content or are people bridging into things like Zoom calls for sub-groups?

You get to define why a virtual convening exists and share it far and wide. You really only need alignment with those planning and participating in it. 

What are the ways to ensure equity in access? 

How might we include people who may not have access to internet-connected devices, running events in multiple languages, accessible to deaf and hard of hearing participants

Ask — Who is not here who should be? Contact the Disability Rights Fund for resources on accessibility. Consider which voices are leading; do they represent diverse people and perspectives and the communities we are working to empower?

How can we make virtual convening more interactive and personal?

How might we engage if possible, in a low tech way since participants have varying tech capabilities? What's the best way to engage and hold presence during the whole time? What facilitation techniques work?

Be clear on best practices and norms for the participant group, i.e. multi-tasking while on a call may not be a norm. Take time to prep tech upfront and ensure folks feel set up to use any platform.  Don’t overload an agenda and consider facilitation that allows for 1:1, group, and speaker time to ensure folks are engaged. 

What are ways to encourage 1:1 connection? 

This happens in offline convenings over the food or during breaks; consider planning this time into the agenda, virtual coffee drinking/breakouts or time before or after a scheduled call. We can find overlap in participants and point it out before or after and encourage folks to connect outside of call times. 

Will virtual convening replace in-person convening?

Possibly! The future of work is going more virtual, global, and remote, but nothing can replace in-person time, it can really only supplement and complement it, which is why building in-person, trusting relationships up front among participants allows for much more valuable experiences virtually. 

Are you hosting a virtual meeting or event over the next few weeks? Or did you transition what was previously a live event to go digital? Drop us a line either at @netimpact or media@netimpact.org— we'd love to hear how it went and possibly feature it in our network communications.

Net Impact staff

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