Likening the recent rush to live online meetings to first-time campers, US-based Caity Belta steps through how to ‘be prepared’ for a successful virtual engagement experience.
As a lifetime lover of the outdoors, my favorite activity is camping. Camping allows the chance to really be in nature. Conveniences of home are abandoned (at least temporarily) and you suddenly need to provide without the aid of typical creature comforts.
Any seasoned camper knows to take some wisdom from the Scouts – Be Prepared! You’ve got to plan ahead by getting all of your gear in order, thinking about safety, do a test pack, have a contingency plan for unexpected weather or fauna that will inevitably disrupt your best-laid plans.
What if you’re a new camper? How do you know what to do, what to bring, what to expect? Taking some time to Be Prepared will not only save you later grief, but it will also actually make your experience more enjoyable. The same can be said for community engagement. Especially online engagement in the time of COVID-19.
Recently, I’ve worked with a few ‘new campers’ who are jumping in headfirst to holding live meetings and Q&A’s online using EngagementHQ in conjunction with various video-based software platforms. This is the equivalent of a new camper taking their first trip into the wilderness solo for several days. Generally, my advice would be to avoid going full-send as a first experience.
There are plenty of other ways to achieve your desired result – whether your goal is to take public comment, have a deliberative dialogue, or inform stakeholders – without jumping straight into live online meetings. In fact, we’ve outlined some reasons why live online public meetings don’t work as well as some practical reasons to consider alternatives.
If you must hold live meetings online, here are a few tips to help you ‘Be Prepared’:
Get Your Gear in Order
Take stock of the resources you already have. Assess how you can leverage those resources to produce the best outcome possible. Does your organization use WebEx or Zoom? Is there a YouTube channel you can utilize? What about other departments – can you borrow some hardware to improve video quality?
Consider the physical space you will occupy when broadcasting live. Is the room acoustically favorable, or will you need a microphone? Will you need to bring in additional lighting? Is there anything distracting in the background? Physical space is absolutely a piece of “gear” – it’s a set, it’s the stage, it provides context.
Getting your gear in order will set you up for success by forcing you to evaluate what the desired outcome and user experience looks like. It will help you set realistic expectations for the meeting and firmly ground you in the reality of what is achievable.
Think About Safety
Once the meeting is underway and assuming you are taking comments, how will you ensure sure this is a safe and accessible space for all participants? If you are hosting your meeting on EngagementHQ, will you require registration in order for someone to make a comment? How will you provide boundaries and context for the discussion, so it does not get out of hand? Will you have someone providing ASL interpretation for those who may be hearing impaired? Will there be another person moderating the online discussion while you are presenting?
Thinking about safety will provide you with a plan of action if anything goes awry. Knowing the limitations of technology, where your weak points are, and how to effectively deal with them in real-time is so very critical to pulling off a live discussion online. You should communicate how you’re accounting for safety and security to the public at the beginning of your meeting and periodically throughout. Set the rules of engagement and remind everyone frequently. It is critical to have another team member moderating the discussion and fielding questions.
Do a Test Pack
You’ve got your plan of action all laid out. You’ve thought about the physical aspects of your live meeting, you’ve addressed safety and security, you’ve picked out software and hardware. But what if it doesn’t work? Are you sure you have everything you need? What if you have forgotten something critical to your success?
Performing a test run is absolutely necessary. As a presenter, the last thing you want to do is look like an amateur. Make sure you test software and hardware so you know what you’re doing and to experience how your participants will interact. For example, I know you can’t embed YouTube live unless the account you’re using has surpassed a certain threshold for followers and/or streamed hours of content. It may look functional – but it’s actually not. If you’re using software to gather questions or comments, make sure the moderator knows how to work the platform and all of your settings are as they should be. Double-check everything!
Have a Contingency Plan
We’ve all been there. The internet stops working. Zoom stops letting people into the meeting. You’re having a really bad hair day. What will you do in the event of a complete monkey wrench? How are you going to communicate with your attendees? Will you reschedule, or simply record the meeting as it would have been and post it online? Where will that content live?
Expect the unexpected. Whether it’s an internet troll, an outage of some sort, or some other immovable object – be prepared for these things to happen. Expecting the unexpected will help you to keep calm if the live event goes south. I’ve personally experienced this on a Zoom call with over 150 people (which should have been attended by over 200; little did I know my Zoom account was capped at 150) when my copresenter’s internet completely quit. Let me tell you – I like to think I pulled it off, but it sure was awkward. You should let your attendees know ahead of time what to expect in the event of a service interruption.
My hope in providing these tips is to help you be successful. We’ve all been recently catapulted into a hyper-digital experience. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with so many new ways to communicate online. Climbing outside your comfort zone is a good thing. That said, it’s not required to embark on a backpacking journey to learn how to camp. If you can ‘Be Prepared’, not only will you survive – but you may end up creating a good experience for you, your team, and the people you are seeking to engage.