Facilitating effective meetings and events online | Guide

The following is the first in a series of MaRS guides highlighting tactical approaches to running effective virtual meetings and events.

Theses guides are part of the resources MaRS has put together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This first guide outlines three considerations that will help you facilitate your online meeting or event: 

  1. Structure: Prepare and plan your approach with your team. This is key to an effective remote meeting.  
  2. Tools: Check out these recommendations for tools to run your remote experience.
  3. Practice: Take time to learn the tools, to structure your meeting and to experiment with different formats.

Often successful remote experiences come down to how well you prepare and getting the right group of people together. As the facilitator, stay organized with your co-hosts and presenters, and with the amount of preparation and context you can provide to participants in advance.

It’s not uncommon for the most seasoned pros to struggle organizing and hosting remote meetings on their own. It’s helpful to have at least one other co-host to help you plan, structure and facilitate your virtual meeting or event. 

Strategies for a structured remote meeting

For those running remote meetings and events for the first time, consider these strategies to have the best outcomes, engagement and timing. There’s a lot that goes into an effective virtual experiences. It’s not as simple as putting together a webinar presentation.

When you’re developing the plans, use the Purpose, Outcomes and Process (P.O.P.) method (outlined in this blog) to help guide the virtual experience.

  • Purpose: What’s the purpose of the meeting?
  • Outcomes: What are the intended outcomes?
  • Process: What’s your process to effectively plan and run your remote meeting?

This will help shape the overall structure, format, and outcomes/goals you’re looking to achieve. If you are pairing with a co-facilitator, create a shared document and outline the P.O.P. method and share it with guest presenters and other stakeholders.

To get a deeper structure in your agenda process, consider building around these three elements: opening, exploration and closure.

At the beginning of the meeting, take a moment to highlight the following:

  • Purpose of the meeting
  • Intended (specific) outcomes
  • Agenda and order of activities
  • Your role and what you expect from participants
  • Rules or guidelines for the meeting
  • Run time and when the meeting will end

As the facilitator, your role is to steer people through the agenda and activities. You don’t need to have all the answers ready, but come prepared to ask questions and provoke exploration, reflection, learning and engagement.

Experiment with different group size and meeting formats/agendas—you might try a small discussion group with 8-10 people. Keep track of timing as it’s easy to overestimate how long virtual discussion groups need.

Break down your meeting into smaller chunks 

Consider chunking your meeting into five- to 10-minute blocks of time to keep your audience engaged. While welcomes and introductions are important, keep them quick to maximize time for other elements of the meeting.

Often virtual meetings can be more fluid, and not fixed, when facilitating conversations. There are times when the needs and focus of the group can change in a moment. Be flexible and go with what you think is best for your participants. Take a light approach to intervening and keeping the discussion on track.

Tips to kick off your remote meeting

  • Log on 20 minutes in advance to test your audio, video and visuals with your co-hosts and presenters.
  • For remote events, send a survey in advance to your participants to see what they want to get out of the experience.
  • Start meetings with mute on at the start of the call and remind participants to keep themselves on mute until they’re ready to talk and then turn audio on.
  • For larger meetings and events where there might be participants from different locations and time zones, take a moment to acknowledge this to help participants recognize different contexts.
  • Encourage participants to use the chat function to pose questions and to add useful links. If you have a co-host, they can help monitor the chat to pull relevant questions into the discussion.
  • Kick off with a round of quick introductions and use an icebreaker or energizer to get the meeting started.
  • Welcome the group and share the meeting purpose, outcomes, agenda, roles, rules and timing. Make sure to introduce your guests too.

Co-located vs. all-remote 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely you’ll be all-remote. That said, there may be different configurations of the locations for you (the host and main facilitator), your guest presenters and your audience. These include:

  • Hosts and speakers co-located together and split with remote participants
  • Hybrid format with co-location of hosts, speakers and participants, plus remote participants
  • Remote team with no central location (everyone is 100% remote)

Ultimately, the best configuration for virtual meetings and events is where everyone is all-remote. Even if you’re co-located in the same building, it’s more engaging for your participants to have a view of each host and presenter on their own screen.  

Ahead of time, figure out the best configuration for your remote meeting with the goal of balancing interaction between hosts, presenters and participants. Co-location brings unique technical challenges around audio and video. If your meeting has co-located hosts or presenters, take time to map out how the camera will be oriented and test the audio to ensure optimal sound for your meeting. 

As a facilitator, it’s your job to make sure that all of the co-located and remote presenters and participants are part of the experience and don’t feel excluded from the conversation. Avoid a situation where the co-located team inadvertently dominates the meeting. As the facilitator, create open space for remote participants to jump in and join the discussion. 

To reiterate: if possible, go all-remote. Having every participant online makes the meeting much more effective, even in the scenario where your co-hosts or presenters are all in the same workspace.  

Factors to consider: Remote meeting tools 

Video communication platforms are the most critical element in your tool stack for successful virtual meetings, workshops or events. These video-based platforms are increasingly able to help you in other functional areas such as event organization and scheduling, and in sharing visual content. They also feature messaging and connectivity tools to drive engaging and interactive experiences with your participants. 

These platforms share a few commonalities to look for:

  • Ability to have every presenter and participant access video communications tools 
  • Asynchronous communication in the form of text and messaging 
  • Seamless presentation of visuals (presentation decks, images, video) 
  • Browser- or desktop-sharing so you can present product demos, online documents, etc. 
  • Organization and support features such as calendar invites, email reminders and event registration 

It is often best to start with tools that the majority of your team and/or audience are already using and familiar with.

For video communications, start with Zoom, Google Hangouts or MS Teams. The advantage of Zoom is that it has many of the key features built in to organize effective discussions and large meetings and webinars with up to 1,000 participants. Having an all-in-one solution can help keep your audience engaged in a single place without too many tools or steps to head to the next session. If you’re hosting a large conference or event with a main speaker stage and multiple smaller sessions, take a look at HopinLivestorm or Run the World as alternative options.

Sharing visuals during meetings? Use tools you and your co-facilitators are comfortable with, such as Google Slides, PowerPoint or PDFs. If you are sharing accompanying content in advance or during a meeting, Google Drive or Dropbox both have excellent sharing options for both small teams and larger audiences. 

For collaborative discussions and workshops, consider working with Mural or Miro to add a whiteboard or post-it notes to capture ideas and feedback.

Staying organized and starting meetings on-time is critical. Use calendar tools and a project management system (e.g., Asana, Trello) to keep both yourself and your presentation team informed on the upcoming meeting or event. Booking meetings with remote participants is often easier using tools like Calendly (remember to consider a time zone check).

Should you want to pre-record presentations or instructions, try using Loom or Soapbox. And visualizing audience engagement in real-time can create a fun and interactive experience using Mentimeter and Slido.

Practice, practice, practice 

Pulling together online events is often much quicker than it is in person. Use the advantage of speed to try out different approaches to your meetings. But make sure your presenters have enough time to prepare and your participants have enough advance notice to sign up and update their calendars.

Start practicing in small discussion groups on Zoom or lead a working session for your team or community. Always use the P.O.P. method to make sure there’s a purpose, a goal/outcome, and that you and your co-presenters know the process for both organizing and facilitating your virtual meeting or event.

Practice sessions: Tips

  • Take 30 minutes to practice running through your virtual meeting or event with co-hosts and presenters.
  • Make sure you’re up and running on all the tools you need to host your meeting and have created all the necessary accounts. 
  • Practice switching channels from sharing a presentation to documents and back, for instance. 
  • Step up your audio game: Use mic-enabled earbuds or AirPods to have a clear voice and audio channel. 
  • Turn on your webcam: Webcams are good for numerous reasons like non-verbal communication (many helpful guides have been written about good lighting and professional backgrounds). 
  • Develop a plan B: Always have fall-back communication channels and alternatives, such as dialling in using your mobile phone. 

Checklist for your practice session 

  • Do you and your co-presenters have access to the video conferencing tool you’ll be using? 
  • Have you tested all the visuals and tools you’ll be using during your remote meeting? 
  • If your meeting has an audience participation and/or networking component such as break-out rooms, test each interaction. Aim to troubleshoot any logistical issues ahead of time.
  • How do the tools work with each other? Think about which tool best suits different kinds of meetings. 
  • Do you know what needs to happen with the content after the meeting? There are a range of options, including accessing recordings and transcripts. 

Next in this series

Next up in this series is an instructional guide on building great visuals. We’ll discuss how to optimize your audio and video components to create the best possible virtual experience.