Virtual workshops and conferences – innovating fast and successfully

“Mummy, why can’t your clients come to you?” asked my 10-year old daughter a few years ago. I moderate large and small events at companies, foundations and governments all over the world and I work a lot – so that’s a lot of travel. I explained to my daughter why it was impossible for me to invite 500 people into our home for a large group conference or ask a company board to fly from North Carolina to Heidelberg for a strategy meeting.

Isn’t it strange how the “impossible” can change?

Don’t get me wrong: things are tough. My business and daily life has been totally upturned by the COVID-19 situation. As a self-employed international consultant focussing on dialogue, many contracts have been postponed to when corona’s subsided. Whenever that is.

However, as in all crises, people see opportunities to innovate, adapt and change and I have clients and business partners with whom I’m excited to be doing just that!

We’ve already conducted workshops and small-group events with a cool mixture of Zoom, Slido and other tools and are working on a large-group conference in a few weeks with high-level panels and multi-room break-outs. It works!

But it only works if you completely re-think the format. A simple translation of the real-time event to its online alter-ego will bore, frustrate and (literally) turn people off. It certainly won’t achieve the results we’re after. One thing that strikes me about the sort of virtual meetings we’ve been running is that people can be both more and less efficient and focussed when they’re communicating via a screen. There’s a very fine line between strong engagement and the sort of 4% just about “in” that’s possible between reading a new mail and playing patience.

Timing is crucial: more than 60 minutes flat is unlikely to pay off. Those 60 minutes can be really effective though: start on time and engage with participants holistically from the beginning. Keep presentations that would have taken 30 minutes in the physical work down to at the most half that time and allow participants to engage briefly in small groups (e.g. on Zoom) before coming to conclusions or decisions with a pre-prepared tool like Slido. Our experience: we’re over twice as quick to get to goal. As long as the whole session is over within 90 minutes tops.

Rules of play need to be embraced by all participants too: similarly to the real world, effective dialogue needs people to turn notifications off during the discussion and focus on the issues at hand. Also as in offline reality, human basics such as eye-contact, respect and clear speech are a key parts of whole-person conversations that are meaningful and reach results. Participants at online workshops need to have their cameras on (watch that background and get out of your pyjamas) and a good microphone in place. There are loads of colleagues out there who’ve written about what makes online communication work and I’m grateful to all who’ve shared their experience.

We’ve learned a lot and will be learning a lot more over the next few weeks and that’s another joy of working in a crisis: people are keen to experiment, see what happens, reflect on what works and doesn’t work, show solidarity, criticise constructively and constantly improve. It’s more than a culture of error tolerance. It’s egging the errors on up front, in order to adapt on the fly and become excellent quickly. I’m seeing daring, speed, humour and genuine interest in what’s happening and who’s on board. That’s not recklessness, it’s courage and esteem. I think we really have a chance to conduct meetings and conferences in a more hybrid way after corona without losing our effectiveness.

Maybe my daughter had a point: saving on travel whilst aiming to serve my clients’ needs as well as I always have is a possibility, even though I’ll never give up on the many face-to-face conversations that need physical presence. This hybrid approach would certainly be a more sustainable way to get people engaged in the right dialogues.

Please let me know if you’re unsure as to whether your planned workshop, conference, debate or meeting could be rethought as an online event. I’d be happy to see what would work for you. Not everything has to be postponed. Life needs to go on. But maybe in a somewhat different way!

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