Let’s make our online events truly engaging

Henry Stewart says that meetups are nothing without conversation.

I have just been attending a webinar on The Future of Learning. One of the three key elements proposed was that it be human-centred and that it involve peer face-to-face engagement.

Yet there was no human connection in the event, there was no peer interaction. Apart from a poll and a Q&A at the end, there was no involvement of the audience. And let’s be clear, a Q&A is not real involvement, as it involves only two or three people – those asking the questions.

We have all had to change our approach over the last three months. But why are we taking the worst elements of live delivery and putting them online? Why are so many organisations assuming that the only way to deliver is an expert-led presentation.

I have attended events over the last few months where there were people from across the world, all interested in the same thing as me. Yet there was no opportunity to meet them, no chance to network or find out what their issues were.

It does not have to be like this.

We held a conference last month using Liberating Structures. These are 33 methods that involve everybody, that give everybody a voice. Over the day, we ran over 40 breakout sessions. The 102 participants would have had conversations with at least half of those taking part.

When you get people together, why would you not get them to discuss and dialogue and talk with each other?

The feedback at the end showed what a great day it had been ‘awesome’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘energising’ were typical comments. In fact it was rated one of our three most engaging conferences we’ve ever held, live or online.

Yes, we can learn from TED videos. We can learn from books. But when you get people together, why would you not get them to discuss and dialogue and talk with each other? That’s how I reach my best thinking. As the saying goes, ‘I only know what I think when I’ve heard myself speak’.

I have been invited to give a lot of talks recently on creating happy workplaces during the crisis. This included using some very limited bits of software. So I have decided that I will only accept future online speaking requests if breakouts are possible.

You can get some element of interaction by creative use of chat, by using polls and Yes/No or hands up. You can make your talk memorable by including great stories. But, generally, the point at which people relate it to their own experience is when they get the chance to talk about it with others.

At the end of July we are moving our annual Happy Workplaces conference online, with 200 people expected. We have some fabulous speakers, who will prompt and challenge the audience.

But what will make it a great event is the interaction. Speakers will be asked to talk for a maximum of nine minutes before posing a question for the audience to discuss in breakouts. We will annotate documents and make creative use of chat.

We may use Slido or other software alongside, to enable crowdsourcing of questions. There will be breakouts for chance meetings, rapid fire sessions on questions we pose and even a virtual pub at the end.

It will be an experience. That is what we need in our new online world. We don’t need more dull presentation-based events. We need actively engaged experiences.

Do you agree?


About the author

Henry Stewart is the founder of Happy


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