Brian McCarthy

The art of gathering online -(Re)designing Meetings, conferences and workshops for online.

Many organisations are being forced to make drastic decisions about meetings, conferences and workshops that had been planned to take place during these months. Should we cancel them? Postpone until the restrictions are lifted? Or should we move them online and "meet" virtually?

As an experience-designer and facilitator, my job is to bring the right people together in a shared space and help them to collectively think, create, debate, envision, and trust each other as they strive for a specific larger purpose. My speciality has been the design of highly-interactive experiences where everyone is physically present, so Covid 19 is presenting me with difficult but exciting challenges.

Unfortunately, many people see Ted talks or online classes as reference points for running meetings online. The problem is that these types of "meeting" consist of unidirectional communication, whereas meetings are about bringing people together for omnidirectional communication. We need to design for discussion, feedback, active listening, ideation and collective decision making.

Too often, event organisers (be it meetings, workshops or conferences) put most of their effort into the logistics of getting people into the same space at the same time, and too little thought into what will the people do when they are together. As Priya Parker says in her book, The Art of Gathering:

"As much as our gatherings disappoint us, though, we tend to keep gathering in the same tired ways. Most of us remain on autopilot when we bring people together, following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting, conference, or party will somehow take care of itself, that thrilling results will magically emerge from the usual staid inputs. It is almost always a vain hope."

The further challenge that online gathering brings is that the chemistry that Parker refers to above is even less likely to happen because those gathered are not physically present in the same space. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han says in this book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects:

"The verbal component of communication is very slight. Nonverbal forms of expression such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language constitute human communication. They lend it tactility. In this context, tactility means not physical contact but the multidimensionality and multilayeredness of human perception, which involves both the visual field and other senses. The digital medium strips communication of tactility and physicality."

But, one might argue, in video conferences we can see the faces of those present. And the face (and eyes in particular) are the most expressive parts of the human body, so shouldn't we able to replicate to some extent this chemistry? However, think about the experiences you've had these last few weeks video conferencing with colleagues and families. What is the difference between seeing a face on a screen talking to you, compared to having them in front of you? Andreas Bernard, in his essay In weiter Ferne, so nah, written on the tenth anniversary of Skype, observed:

"Undoubtedly, the video-telephone creates the illusion of presence...However, the remaining distance still is palpable—and it is felt most clearly, perhaps, in a slight displacement. When Skyping, one cannot exchange glances. If you look into the eyes on the screen, the other party will think you are looking down a little because the camera is installed at the upper edge of the computer. The charming peculiarity of an unmediated encounter—where looking at someone always means being seen, as well—has yielded to asymmetrical gazes. Thanks to Skype, we can be close to each other twenty-four hours a day, but we are constantly staring past one another."

So, what can we do? Is it possible, at least to some extent, to replicate the closeness and chemistry of in-person encounters in a video-conferencing context? I believe that it is, and the solution lies in going back to the basics of designing a meaningful and effective "gathering".

Forget about the wallpaper

Focusing on the software, the lighting in your office, which microphone to use, is equivalent to spending most of your time worrying about the wallpaper in the meeting room where you plan to sit with your attendees. Of course, these things are important - if your microphone sucks then no one will be able to hear you. But once the tech basics are covered, it is far far more important to pay attention to the design of this encounter - the activities, the flow, generating the interpersonal connections and trust among the attendees to reach the objective. 

As Parker says, "Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try." Deciding on structure means first being clear about the reason for this meeting, and a good way to discover that is by starting at the end - what is it that we want the attendees to do, feel and know when the meeting is finished. Note that I've put "know" at the end of that list - too often, meetings only have one objective - to inform the attendees, to speak information AT them. If this is the only objective, then don't waste their time by holding a meeting, email them the information, which is the most efficient way of passing information on. But if you want them to take some action, then you will need to persuade them, and persuasion means going on a journey with them. And you might want to include them in the decision-making process itself leading to that action. Will you ask them to formulate the problem themselves before looking for answers? Or will you formulate the problem for them? Will you look for consensus? If so, how is that achieved? By voting?

You will need to think very carefully about what you want out of this meeting and structure if accordingly. Then you will need to turn your attention to facilitating it. But it is nearly impossible to facilitate a meeting that has no structure.

Remember, before your event starts, it has begun.

Don't invite the world and its mother

Running a meeting is like being a chef. The dish that comes out of the kitchen mainly depends on the ingredients at the chef's disposal. Even the best chef in the world can't make pasta if there is no flour or eggs in the kitchen. The opposite is also true - if the chef is obliged to use too many ingredients the dish is going to come out bland or disgusting - chicken, fish, mango, cream, wine, foie, lemon, chocolate and popcorn all in the same pot? 

Having a meeting online can often lead us to assume that it is ok to invite even more people. Physical space and distance are no longer constraints, so let's invite everyone! However, we need to think- who is this for? Who is it not for? The meeting organiser should be very clear (and it is even a good idea to include this info in the invitation) about why each attendee is being asked to the meeting.

Also, the number of attendees will impact on what you aim to get done. You want to run an ideation session? Then inviting 20 people to the meeting is going to make creativity very difficult to manage, and not everyone is going to get the chance to share their ideas.

This is an exciting time to experiment with new ways of running our meetings. If you need help or advice on designing and/or facilitating an important meeting, please get in touch, and the team at Performing Ideas will be delighted to help.

Checklist of important questions when preparing an online meeting (or any meeting):

  • What is the objective of this meeting? What changes are you hoping to bring about?

  • How do you plan to reach that objective in the time allotted for this meeting? What are the steps? What do you need to do before the meeting even takes place?

  • What are the different roles in this meeting? Who will facilitate? Who will take notes? For online meetings, where there is the possibility for attendees to write in a chatroom (as in Zoom), it can be a good idea for the facilitator to have an assistant who draws their attention to any important questions being posted there.

  • How will ideas be shared, worked on, critiqued in this meeting? One too many? One to one? In small breakout groups/rooms?

  • Who will speak, when will they speak, and who will they speak to?

  • When will attendees be given an opportunity to think and prepare alone before, during and after the meeting? How will you follow-up on these ideas?

  • How will you, the facilitator, gauge the energy in the "room", taking into account that you cannot read their body language, smell hear or sense the energy as you would normally do when they are sitting in front of you?

  • How will you check that they are paying attention? That they haven't been distracted by all the other potential stuff happening on their screen (email, Whatsapp, social media) and by the people in their home interrupting them?

  • How will you ensure that the attendees know how to use the video conferencing software? How will you solve their problems if they cannot connect, hear you or see the shared screen etc.?