Tips for Hosting an Effective Virtual Meeting
By Nandita Thatte, Ados Velez May, and Åsa Cuzin
More and more of us find ourselves working remotely and connecting online rather than (or in addition to) face-to-face. Our colleagues at the IBP Network share how they successfully convened a regional virtual meeting when the COVID-19 pandemic changed their plans.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen an increased emphasis on virtual meetings. Whether due to efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, the desire to engage a global audience, or more recently, finding ourselves homebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings are becoming more common. We’ve compiled our most practical tips for planning a successful virtual meeting or webinar.
1. Clarify Purpose and Objectives
Make sure meeting organizers and participants are clear on the objectives of the meeting. Different goals and objectives will require different platforms and tools.
- Knowledge sharing and dissemination meetings can benefit from webinar formats where information is shared through panel presentations or lectures.
- Building consensus or decision-making requires more active engagement and may require use of more features like polling or providing ample time for questions and discussion.
- Learning and training can incorporate other features like videos or live streamed demonstrations.
- Networking during virtual meetings can be done through chat functions to communicate in real time or by sharing contact information with participants after the meeting.
2. Learn the Software and Maximize Connectivity
There are many virtual meeting applications available with varying functionalities. Some work better for more complex needs and others might work better for engaging participants from a wider range of countries. Availability in multiple countries, cost, and ability for multiple hosts should be considered. Most have similar basic features, so just choose one that works for you.
- Make sure that both you and your presenters know how to manage the basic features of the software. You can ensure all presenters are familiar with the platform by holding a dry run before the meeting to discuss how to log in, the chat features, how to pose, view, and answer questions, and how to control audio options. Additionally, ask the presenters to join the meeting early on the day of the meeting to test their audio (and video, if necessary).
- If you anticipate internet connection challenges for some participants, try and provide an alternative method to joining the meeting (i.e., through phone).
- Close other existing applications like email, web browsers, Skype, messaging apps, and social media to minimize distractions, popups, and background noise. Also, try and use a solid, wired internet connection rather than Wi-Fi.
3. Invite and Engage with Participants
One of the hard things about virtual meetings is engaging participants in real time and keeping them engaged after the meeting. Ensure that your presenters represent diverse audiences and allow enough time for questions and discussion. Remember, if you must cancel an in-person meeting, a virtual option is a great way to keep the momentum going and continue the conversation with your participants!
- Involving presenters and even potential participants prior to the meeting can help ensure objectives are developed jointly and everyone is invested in the process from the start.
- Share the recording and slides with participants after the meeting so they can view them at their own pace. You can also share any unanswered questions with presenters, so they can respond directly to participants.
- Finally, consider starting a community of practice (CoP) to keep the discussion going after the virtual meeting. You can do this through online platforms, phone applications, or even basic email.
4. Create a Plan for Problems
As with in-person meetings, practicing a presentation can make a big difference. And, as always, even with lots of practice, problems will arise, so make sure to be as prepared as possible.
- Do a dry run! Check the sound set-ups of each presenter and make sure everyone can connect properly. You may need to provide a call-in option, which should be sorted out in advance.
- Provide a timeline or a “run of show” to all presenters so they know the flow of the meeting and keep to their time.
- Ask your presenters to run through their presentations on their own so they don’t go over time. Nothing deflates the energy of a meeting more than a presenter who drags on.
- Connections may fail, and a presenter may drop off or lose volume so identify someone who can step in or have a backup plan to reconnect or move on.
5. Keep the Format Simple
It is tempting to get caught up in the technology and try many features at once (livestreaming, polling, sharing screens, playing videos, etc.). However, keeping the format simple will avoid technical issues and be easier for participants to follow. Remember, your participants are there for the content and the information, not the technology. Invite no more than 4-5 presenters per webinar, including the moderator/facilitator.
- Identify a technical organizer who can manage the application from behind the scenes.
- Ensure the topic is focused and clearly defined so the audience can easily follow.
- Create a master slide deck for presentations so only one person, the technical organizer, can advance the slides rather than moving from screen to screen and wasting time switching controls from one speaker to another. This can potentially derail the flow of the webinar.
- Stick to one language during the meeting but consider offering similar meetings in multiple languages.
Finally, remember to stay positive and have fun! While virtual meetings may not fully replace in-person, face-to-face interactions, they can still be a great way to learn and exchange ideas in an interactive and informative way. A well-run webinar is a great opportunity to connect, engage, and share knowledge!
Tips in Action
In March 2020, we made the difficult decision to postpone our in-person Regional Partner Meeting to be held in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak. Key regional partners had worked with us for months in advance to develop sessions and presentations, and there was a lot of excitement about the meeting. Rather than cancelling entirely and leaving our partners behind, we hosted an interactive webinar series to keep the momentum going. This is how we put our tips into action.
The objective of the interactive webinar series was to reinforce regional partnerships and build consensus to expand family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) priorities beyond 2020. We used GoToWebinar, which we had used previously with partners in West Africa, so we knew it worked well and was relatively simple to use. We also made sure all organizers and panelists were familiar with the software by conducting a dry run and asking them to join ahead of the scheduled start time.
The series included preformed panel presentations where presenters shared field-based experiences from implementing FP/RH programs. Each webinar had a clear topic with 4-5 panelists. The panelists represented a range of speakers from various global organizations, regional networks, and local NGO or CSOs from multiple countries in the region. Each panelist responded to questions and facilitated discussions to build consensus on collaborative activities in the region (including the need for another WAHO Good Practice Forum) with partners from West African Health Organization (WAHO), Ouagadougou Partnership (OP), and other stakeholders.
After the webinar series, we shared the presentations with the wider IBP community, so others could benefit from the sessions. A week after the webinars, we had over 150 views from those who couldn’t participate in the live event. This allowed participants to connect with presenters as needed and sparked interest from potential new member organizations who requested to be added to the IBP global community of practice.
Inevitably, we faced some technology and connection challenges including unstable internet connections of presenters leading to some delays. However, due to advance preparation and quick thinking, we avoided any interruptions as colleagues stepped in to present or moderate as needed.