Even with the vaccine distribution speeding up, it doesn’t look like virtual events will be going away anytime soon. Recently, I attended a Zoom happy hour for a business group I am a part of and I had a frustrating experience trying to participate. The event kicked off with a room full of friends happily chatting away while I felt more and more awkward and uncomfortable. I exited the meeting and went on with my work.
Later, when reflecting on the experience I wondered, how many people had shared my experience at some point? Since I knew I couldn’t be the only one feeling this way, I did some research. I looked at some really fantastic virtual events I had attended this year and thought about what made them so great. These six tips should help you keep your attendees from feeling the way I did at that event.
1. Set The Tone
As with any gathering you want to set the tone for your audience. Something as simple as creating a welcome slide for guests to view as they are joining the Zoom call can be very helpful. If you can put up a slide with the name of the event, and perhaps a note that the program or event will begin shortly that helps eliminate any awkwardness as attendees are logging in and getting settled. Anything is better than looking at a blank black screen! Another fun touch would be to add background music for guests to enjoy while they are waiting for you to kick things off. If your event is in the afternoon or evening consider something upbeat to boost the energy as people settle in. It goes without saying you should choose. a radio edit or a song that is free from profanity.
2. Create An Agenda
At the beginning of the Zoom call make sure to introduce yourself (and any key speakers) and reiterate the agenda to the group. Even if you are hosting a virtual networking event or something more social you want to remind everyone of the event’s purpose and how you will use your time together. Something as simple as “in our hour together we will hear brief introductions from everyone and then break out into smaller groups for two networking activities” works fine.
If you are hosting a panel discussion or some Q&A it is appropriate to review the format at the beginning of your event. You should even pre-plan with your panel what questions you will ask and who will kick off the responses for each question. This will help you ensure everyone gets somewhat equal air time.
3. Ask About Accommodations
Don’t assume people will tell you if they need some type of accommodation. Be proactive and ask. If attendees have visual impairment they might benefit from larger font on any slides or ensuring that you speak anything they would need to know. Deaf attendees might use the closed captioning functionality to “hear” the meeting and need to be able to use the chat to communicate best. For other attendees with disabilities they might prefer to have their cameras off and participate via talking or using the chat function. You also want to be mindful of the language you use when making a point if you are speaking. An attendee who is blind will feel excluded if you say something like “As you can see on the slide here…”. Try saying “On this slide we’re illustrating the concept of…” or something that feels appropriate to your content.
4. Steer Clear of Gossip and Idle Chit Chat
Be mindful that not everyone on the Zoom call knows one another on a personal level. Do not start a meeting with chit-chat and gossip as it alienates other guests plus it is a huge turn off. One way to avoid this is by having background music playing when guests arrive. I assure you nobody is going to try talking over the music to have a personal conversation with another guest on the call, a win – win situation!
If the purpose of the call is for networking, consider using some discussion prompts so that everyone can participate. As the host or moderator if you feel that someone is trying to speak and can’t get a word in edgewise consider this technique. Say ” We’re going to wrap up with this prompt and move on to the next question, but before we do, I’d like to invite anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to use their voice to respond.” This allows you to give space to anyone you think might want to speak but hasn’t had the opportunity yet. If no one speaks, wrap up the topic and move on to the next one.
5. Make Time For Introductions
Always make time for introductions. It sets a good tone to have everyone introduce themselves to the group. If the group is quite large and you do not have the time to have everyone formally introduce themselves you can let the group know that we will be doing brief introductions just full names and perhaps one-word check-in to break the ice. You can ask participants to drop any additional information into the chat box if they want to share more. Remember to save the chat and send it out of after the meeting if you choose to do this.
As the host you can call on guests individually to do their very brief introduction. This gives everyone the opportunity to speak at least once plus you get to learn the correct pronunciation of everyone’s name.
6 Normalize Using Gender Pronouns
Another way to help everyone feel welcome is to ask participants to share their pronouns along with their name. It might feel uncomfortable to ask people to announce their pronouns to the whole group, so that’s not what you’re going to do. Once everyone is logged into the Zoom room, ask participants to rename themselves using the name they like to be called and their pronouns. When I enter a Zoom room I automatically update my name to Marissa (She/Her) so that others feel comfortable to do the same.
Lead by example
As a host for a virtual event, you want to lead by example. Remember to set your name and pronouns when you come in. If the conversation is taking a turn, people are being excluded or the agenda is being ignored it is your responsibility to bring the meeting back on track. If you are struggling to serve as the host and moderator you can ask another attendee that you trust to share the responsibility. Having someone else keep time and move the agenda along while you’re facilitating can be a huge help.
If you need to, its okay to remind participants of virtual event etiquette. It’s okay to ask someone to mute when they aren’t speaking if they have a lot of noise going on in the background. While many participants can’t control their environment as they have kids, family members and even pets running around in the background, you can control the virtual environment by keeping it distraction free. Asking attendees to mute when not speaking, or turn a camera off if they need to step away is just fine.
This is not a definitive list but I do hope that this blog post has provided you with some useful tips on how to be more inclusive in the new virtual world that we’re living in. What are some of the best things you’ve seen in a virtual meeting? Tell me in the comments below.