Greetings! I’m Galen Ellis, President of Ellis Planning Associates Inc., which has long specialized in participatory planning and evaluation services. In online meeting spaces, we’ve learned to facilitate group participation that – in the right circumstances – can be even more meaningful than in person. But we had to adapt.
Although I knew deep inside that our clients would benefit from online options, I couldn’t yet imagine creating the magic of a well-designed group process in the virtual environment. Indeed, we stepped carefully through various minefields before reaching gold.
As one pioneer observes,
Just because you’re adept at facilitating face-to-face meetings, don’t assume your skills are easily transportable. The absence of visual cues and the inability to discern the relative level of engagement makes leading great virtual meetings infinitely more complex and challenging. Assume that much of what you know about leading great meetings is actually quite irrelevant, and look for ways to learn and practice needed skills (see Settle-Murphy below).
We can now engage groups online in facilitation best practices such as ToP methods and Appreciative Inquiry and group engagement processes such as logic model development, focus groups, consensus building, and other collaborative planning and evaluation methods (see our video demonstration).
- Everyone participates. Skillfully designed and executed virtual engagement methods can be more effective in engaging the full group than in-person ones. Some may actually prefer this mode: one client noted that a virtual meeting drew out participants who had been typically silent in face-to-face meetings.
- Software platforms come with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. The simpler ones often lack interactive tools; but the ones that do allow interaction tend to be more costly and complex.
- Tame the technical gremlins. Participants without suitable levels of internet speed, technological experience, or hardware—such as microphoned headsets—will require additional preparation. Meeting hosts need to know ahead of time what sorts of devices and internet access participants will be using. Participants should always be invited into the meeting space early for technical troubleshooting.
- Don’t host it alone. One host can produce the meeting (manage layouts, video, etc.) while another facilitates.
- Plan and script it. Virtual meetings require a far more detailed script than a simple agenda. Indicate who will do and say what, and when.
- Practice, practice, practice. Run through successive drafts of the script with the producing team.
- Settle-Murphy, N. (2015). Making Virtual Meetings Come Alive: It’s Everyone’s Job!
- Some great tips from the Virtual Facilitation Collaborative (we have taken their eight-week course)
- Tessie Catsambas and Hallie Preskill’s (AEA members) amazing book “Reframing Evaluation through Appreciative Inquiry” (I refer to this all the time.)
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