Updated: Jun 3
I was puzzled by a recent online event that I attended. The one-hour online program was interesting and informative, but the energy in the virtual meeting room was absolutely flat. None of the 60 plus participants cheered on the two honorees, and nobody clapped for the keynote speaker who gave a great presentation and addressed the US audience at 1 AM UK Time. The chat window barely showed any comments, and otherwise, the audience took a comfortable backseat.
This online experience made me think of simple ways to make #virtual events and programs more enjoyable by inviting participants and guests to become co-creators in the virtual space.
After running and hosting virtual programs and events for groups of all backgrounds and ages, I have spent time online with highly engaged participants and groups and navigated attendees who held back and did not get much involved during the virtual gathering. I have wondered why at times, online participants behave so differently.
A variety of factors impact whether online guests lean in, observe, or check out. Aside from the intentionality of the virtual program and the ability of the facilitator, event designer, and host to create an engaging environment, another important factor are the online participants themselves.
Give participants permission and clear instructions
I believe that online participants simply do not recognize how critical and meaningful their contributions are in the virtual environment and how they can take on an active role during the live online event.
As a facilitator, online event designer, and host, I have seen that participants ...
do not know if they have the permission (!) to actively engage in the virtual space and do not receive clear instructions on how to lean in.
have no idea how (!) much they can help energize the virtual room and make the online experience enjoyable.
are unaware (!) of the impact their participation, or lack of it, has on the group dynamics and online experience.
5 tips to unleash the energy in the virtual room
Here are five tips that virtual facilitators and hosts can share with guests and participants - actions everyone can take to unleash the potential of gathering online.
These tips are small but powerful gestures and actions to co-create the virtual event, program, or meeting, whether you work with teenagers, college students, adults, or a multigenerational group, or your guests are professionals, volunteers, members, or donors.
#1-Agree To Co-Create
Always include virtual agreements (ground rules) that detail the code of conduct for the online event and experience - do not skip that step even for groups who gather regularly (yes, I learned it the hard way).
Tip: Craft virtual ground rules that define how online participants can lean in to co-create an inclusive and enjoyable online experience. Be concrete and give examples of how you invite participants to join in. Give your guest permission to engage! Lead with clear instructions. For example, tell your participants what will happen after an award presentation, such as going off mute and sharing a round of applause or giving the honoree a shout-out.
#2-Video With Style
Who is in the virtual room? Sometimes it is hard to know. Did you find yourself facilitating or hosting an online event where participants are hardly recognizable because their faces are only half visible or hidden in the far distance?
Tip: Encourage your participants to be aware of their camera settings and be fully visible. Let them know that facial expressions can have magical powers for the facilitator, host, speaker, and fellow participants.
#3-Feedback With Emojis
How do we know what lands? How do we know our people feel? Unfortunately, it is often hard to understand. And taking the temperature in the virtual room can be a real hit and miss.
Tip: Encourage your guests and participants to use reactions that your meeting platform may offer to express feelings and give input. Show them what some of the reactions and emojis look like and when to use them. For example, emojis can give valuable feedback, invite you to engage with your audience, and create a shared experience among the participants.
Online chat windows either resemble busy highways or empty country roads. They can be filled with comments and questions, and occasional private chat messages that made their way into the main chat channel, or chat windows can be glaringly empty.
Tip: Emphasis in the beginning that the chat window is an opportunity to get to know others, to share ideas, to comment, and to ask questions. Invite your participants to make the experience more personal. Share with them that you want to hear from everyone throughout the online program, that the virtual event is for them, and that you appreciate everyone’s presence in the virtual space.
#5-Cheer And Thank
In-person events have a big advantage for hosts and speakers. They get feedback and reactions directly and immediately. For the participants, laughter or gestures to express thanks come naturally. In the online space, all of this is lost and concealed with the mute button.
Tip: Permit participants to unmute themselves to share words of appreciation or feedback in a few words. Just imagine how powerful it can be to have everyone say “thank you” after a presenter ended or following an interactive activity.
Conclusion: Be intentional
It is correct that we have all become Zoom - and online expert users and participants, but sometimes as virtual hosts, facilitators, and program designers - and participants - we forget the human aspect of coming together in the virtual space. We fail to focus on how to make the online program enjoyable.
And you are correct; not all virtual programs are the same. Virtual programs using webinar platforms limit participation, and some online programs are essentially offered to provide updates rather than fostering participation and engagement.
It all comes back to intentionality:
What are your virtual event goals?
Why are you coming together?
What energy would you like to create?
What should your participants leave with?
And what is your follow-up?
I am ending with a recommendation to share ideas to co-create already in your event messages, invites, and log-in information emails. Give your participants and guests a heads-up and invite them to get ready and excited about the virtual program.
Enjoy the experience. Have fun testing ideas. Discover what works well for your audiences and how you can help your guests and participants become co-creators in the virtual space.
Tanja Sarett, MA, CFRE, CVF, is a global fundraising consultant, facilitator, and executive coach based in New York / New Jersey. She activates team-centered innovation and creative and synergistic solutions for visionary organizations and philanthropies. Tanja is an onsite and virtual facilitator, trainer and executive coach, an AFP Master Trainer and a 21/64 Multigenerational Giving Advisor. She brings to her work a wide range of collaborative and creative techniques from IDEO Design Thinking, Liberating Structures, the Technology of Participation, and the Agile community.