Using digital tools

Take the boring out of multi-day online meetings, events, and conferences

By 29/09/2020

Like many other students, I have recently spent days and days and days in online meetings. September marks the beginning of my academic year, which for a PhD student involves countless annual general meetings, conferences, and workshops to review projects, update previous years’ outcomes, and plan for the coming year.

Many of these meetings last for days and involve the same people, and due to the current COVID-19 situation, it is likely this routine will continue for a while. Online meetings do have their benefits of course – not least accessibly allowing people across different time zones and continents to meet in real time without astronomically increasing their carbon footprint!

Spending so many days looking at tiny on-screen boxes containing people’s faces has led me to reflect on what a good, engaging, and exciting online meeting looks like. Here are my Top 5 tips, tricks, and tools to help you plan your multi-day virtual extravaganza!

Limit meetings to no more than 4 hours per day, and encourage people to turn their cameras on only when they’re speaking

Online meetings are exhausting! Our brains just aren’t wired to constantly look at people’s faces, guess distant body language, or be relentlessly aware of how we look ourselves. We aren’t able to concentrate for as long during video meetings, and get tired a lot more quickly.

If you’re planning a full-day online meeting, why not break it into two consecutive mornings? This will give people a break, and an opportunity to come back refreshed, having processed the previous day’s content. I definitely found that meetings that were split over 3 or 4 mornings or afternoons were much more enjoyable and engaging than those that were 2 or 3 full days.

Another great trick to keep attendees fresh is to encourage them to keep their camera off unless they are speaking. This will give their brain a bit of a sub-conscious break. Of course, everyone should have their camera on during a coffee break to show off their fave mugs!

Pick a platform that allows for side meetings, and then PLAN many smaller ones

The list of options for hosting online conferences is almost endless, with positives and negatives for each platform. When choosing your platform make sure it has the option to add side meetings or rooms. Many people don’t like speaking in large groups, especially during video conferences, because it can feel intimidating. Planning breakout sessions, where pairs can talk about what has been discussed in the larger group, encourages reflection and sharing, and participants can be chosen carefully to create new connections between people who have never spoken to each other before.

This was highly effective during one of my online meetings, as it encouraged me to pay more attention during the plenary as I knew I would be sharing my thoughts one-to-one with a (potentially new!) person. It also encouraged more varied interaction when we broke out into groups of 4–6 people for 10-minute roundtable discussions before returning to the plenary and sharing our thoughts.

Ask presenters to pre-record their presentations

Getting presenters to keep to time is hard enough when you’re in the same room, gamely brandishing pieces of paper telling them how much time they have left and flashing red lights begging them to stop. Online, it’s an entirely mammoth task. Asking presenters to pre-record their presentations will prompt them to plan more carefully, and ensures that they will be succinct, keep to time, and are more likely to stay on focus. It will also give attendees an accurate indication of how long they need to pay attention to the presentation, making things a bit easier for them.

There are countless tools that you can recommend to your presenters to help them record their presentation, group talk, or speech. The presenters can still be in the meeting whilst the pre-recorded presentation is being shown, and then live Q+A sessions can take place. I found this really effective throughout our online meetings.

Use as many methods as possible to allow attendees to participate, and to collate ideas and feedback

Participation is key for multi-day online meetings and conferences. As already discussed, planning multiple side meetings for pairs or smaller groups is a great way to encourage participation. But participation doesn’t stop there.

Use shared documents, online whiteboards, and real-time polls to collate opinions, questions, and ideas from those in the meeting. Create moments where the host shares their screen while attendees participate in these activities so that everyone sees the contributions as they flow in, and can bounce ideas off of each other. Take time to discuss what is written, asked, drawn, or otherwise shared.

Regularly encourage attendees to use the chat function, and think about fun ways for them to answer questions. One meeting facilitator asked us to turn our cameras on, and asked us a series of yes or no questions, and we had to hold up a blue item for yes and a red item for no. Some of my colleagues chose great items – socks, books and even potted plants. It was a bit of fun that helped to break up the meeting a bit!

Create an online repository of all the presentations, posters, notes, questions, and any other content related to your meeting

Share all of the content from your meetings with your participants in real time – from the agenda to the presentations to the feedback forms – through an online repository. I highly recommend online ‘corkboards’ like Padlet or one of these similar tools.

Having a place to go and browse all of the presentations, posters, and discussions once the meeting was over helped me to process what had taken place during the meeting. It also provided a space for attendees to continue the meeting outside of the actual meeting environment, by commenting on posters, answering questions, and sharing contact details.