Communications / ILRI / ILRIComms / Knowledge and Information / Opinion Piece / Participation

Are you hosting an online conference? Here’s how to make the people online REALLY feel part of your conversation

ILRI staff are increasingly organising virtual meetings to run day-to-day business. But these are not easy meetings. Sometimes they even look as dramatically comical as this:

Most of us at ILRI are probably involved in such meetings on a daily, weekly or at least monthly basis. But nearly none of us seem to apply good practices to create an environment where the people ‘skyped in’ or ‘webexed’ feel included in the conversation that is taking place face-to-face with the largest group.

I recently took part to one of these meetings and I was one of two people not based in Nairobi but invited to the conversation. And more often than not I felt like the face-to-face group did not really care whether I was there or not. And at some point, although the internet connectivity was fine, I kind of gave up on the meeting altogether, even if I had valuable contributions to make…

Here are some ideas for avoiding such scenarios:

  • Provide very clear instructions for online participants about the system used to get connected, ahead of time. And make sure the online participants feel they are connected and understand the system a few hours/ a day before the meeting. The ICT team can provide excellent support in this;
  • Make sure a web camera is set up in both/all locations so the groups can see each other. This creates a more human/e dynamic and engaging space – and it also reminds the people sitting physically together that there are other people;
  • Encourage virtual participants, if they can, to gather physically (e.g. an Addis group invited to join a large Nairobi group) rather than from multiple locations – this also encourages everyone to remember that there is another set of (online) participants;
  • Put the online conferencing device in the centre of the physical meeting room. If the meeting involves many people (e.g. over 8) multiple devices should be set up so that everyone’s voice can be heard by the online participants;
  • Ensure that someone is there in the room to attend to the needs of the virtual participant(s)/group(s) – sometimes they need to just set one thing up and the rest of the group should probably not be held hostage when that happens. A dedicated attendant can see to this;
  • Remind everyone to talk loudly and/or sit next to the online conferencing devices;
  • Remind everyone to talk one at a time – it is notoriously difficult to make anything out of virtual meetings when all physical participants are talking together;
  • In the physical room, regularly check that everyone online is hearing what is going on;
  • If the connectivity is not good enough or for some reason communication is difficult, ensure that there is another way for online participants to follow the conversation. In a lot of online meetings I organise, I also take notes on a MeetingWords pad, it’s super simple to set up and works with low bandwidth. Someone has to dedicate themselves to taking notes throughout the online meeting, however.
  • Remind everyone at the beginning of the meeting about some of these good practices;
  • Try to keep the meeting to about one hour maximum, as it is very difficult to keep an online group engaged for sustained periods of time.


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