Before COVID-19, our ecosystem’s packed, year-round convening cycle always had us bouncing around the globe to meet, connect, and network with strangers, who became colleagues, who often became dear friends. Now that our convening venues have shrunk to the size of our computer monitors,, many conveners who have hosted vibrant annual in-person events are falling into the trap of ‘replicating’ their in-person convening with what turns out to be a giant webinar; a series of sage-on-a-stage presentations…with the stage replaced by cluttered/noisy/poorly lit living rooms and offices around the world.
We at Conveners.org have been helping conveners think beyond the knee-jerk reaction to replicate an in-person event in a virtual setting, and ultimately wrestling with an even deeper, more important question: should you be convening virtually at all? Below, we argue that not all in-person convenings are suited to translation to a virtual format, and explain how you as a convener can avoid the common pitfalls of that translation.
Define your purpose first. Before you start researching platforms, before you start designing an agenda, ask yourself what you’re hoping to accomplish through this virtual engagement. What do you hope will be different for your participants because they participated? What will they think, feel, and do as a result? Your purpose will help you define the type of interaction to create for your participants; is your convening primarily about building knowledge together, identifying resources, or deeply collaborating? Without identifying your own North Star, it will be impossible to try and re-create the in-person experience virtually for your community.
Build your agenda from there. Once you’ve honed in on your core purpose and the value your convening has to offer your participants, you can start to build the foundation for your virtual convening. This is when you start to ask what session formats, timeline, and facilitation styles will best support your purpose. .Doing this exercise will help you to determine what kind of virtual platform you will need to use, if you need facilitators if you want to do small breakout groups, etc. Whatever you do, don’t just load your agenda with keynotes, panels, and PowerPoint presentations. Unless your purpose is truly pure information sharing, don’t just create a webinar. Try and incorporate more interactive sessions (small group discussions, working sessions, ask-me-anything) or inviting your participants to engage during presentations using tools like Sli.do.
Remember that virtual convening is fundamentally different from in-person convening. There’s a reason that, even with the best intentions, many of the virtual convenings popping up these days just seem to devolve into webinars. With few exceptions (link here to the article about interactive platforms), that’s what the technology is built for. Aiming for the “higher-order” convening objectives with virtual tools is hard work, and there are very real limitations. Connecting through a screen automatically pushes us into a more passive state of interaction–seeing someone on a mainstage, surrounded by other people, is quite a different experience from sitting at home in front of your laptop listening to someone go on for an hour while also competing with the distractions of your device itself.
As conveners in this time of transition, we need to stop settling for the default (or trying to be everything to everyone), focus in on what truly made our in-person convenings great, and be uncompromising in our quest for the interaction design and the tools that will get us as close to that experience in the virtual world as possible.