Impact Voices | October 19, 2020

10 tips for keeping your Zoomed-out audience engaged in virtual impact forums

Aunnie Patton Power
Guest Author

Aunnie Patton Power

ImpactAlpha, October 19 – This is a big week for the impact investing industry. In non-COVID times, SOCAP convenes in San Francisco, welcoming industry veterans and newcomers alike to one of the largest and longest-running conferences in the impact circuit. The event has consistently been a meeting and breeding ground for knowledge sharing and community building. With the pandemic and its dire global health and economic consequences, SOCAP couldn’t come at a more critical time for fostering, developing and amplifying the values and practices of impact investing. 

This year, SOCAP is still happening of course, but online. Yet, nearly eight months into the pandemic, many of us are suffering screen burnout and Zoom fatigue. How can we keep everyone engaged and welcome new people into the space in a way that is both effective and memorable? 

For my work, I have logged 234 hours of online teaching, workshop facilitation and conference speaking on impact investing and innovative finance since the pandemic forced all of my engagements to move online in March. I’ve hosted nine-person MBA elective courses, 600-participant webinars, and 1,000-attendee conference panels. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned about how to curate an engaging online experience: 

1. Make people feel heard. Online engagement can feel anonymous. People who feel seen and heard are more likely to engage in virtual forums and stay tuned in. There are a number of simple tools, including polls, breakaway rooms and active chats, that can help you reach through the screen when hosting an online session or event. If you’re planning to present slides, for example, I recommend conducting a couple polls to allow the audience to participate in what is otherwise one-way communication. If you’re hosting a lot of participants, seed the chat box with comments, questions and links and resources to encourage others to do the same and engage each other. Breakaway rooms are also a great option for large groups because they foster intimacy. If breakaway-room members don’t know each other, suggest turning videos on for introductions and giving direction to ease awkward self-facilitation. I create a silly rule like “the person with the most women in their immediate family needs to facilitate.” 

2. Make use of pre-recording to focus the conversation on substance. If you can, try to record as much of your material as possible and assign “pre-watching” that your participants can do in their own time. This allows your in-person sessions to be more about interacting with the material through Q&As, case studies, and small group discussions, rather than one-way learning. You don’t need slick videos; Zoom recordings of 10-15 minute slide presentations work fine. 

3. Structure your Q&A. Let participants know what topics that you’ll cover in a Q&A upfront and then spend a set amount of time on each topic. Instead of saying, “We are going to spend 30 minutes discussing Impact measurement and technology,” say, “We are going to spend 10 minutes on using technology for impact data collection, 10 minutes on using tech for impact verification and 10 minutes on using tech for reporting.” This helps participants focus their questions and supports flow. If you have more than 15 participants in the session, ask participants to put questions in the chat window. This will allow the facilitator to succinctly ask the relevant questions. When reading a question, always mention the name of the person who asked it so they feel acknowledged and heard, and if you don’t understand the question, ask the person to unmute themselves to clarify.

4. Build something together. Online functionality allows us to work together in ways that was never possible in person. Something I do regularly is break participants into small groups to create a Google presentation around a specific topic. Pre-design the slides with the questions or exercise you want them to work on. As the convener, you can watch as groups fill these in, and pop in (or send surrogates) to help groups that are struggling. We’ll be doing this in the SOCAP workshop that I’m convening on Tuesday (Pay for Impact: Democratizing Impact Through Digital Interventions,” on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 10:30am PT).

5. Networking. People are hungry for meaningful connections and conversations with others. Self-selecting breakaway rooms on Zoom and other platforms open up many possibilities for networking. Here are a few formats to try out: 

  • Speed networking. Make sure that everyone is online and active (and let people know they can log off at this point in the session if they aren’t keen to participate). Then create breakaway rooms of three people each and tell participants that they each have two minutes to introduce themselves. Add a prompt question to help the introductions get going (i.e. what type of capital, partnerships, or deals are you looking for?). Send reminders every two minutes to switch to the next person. 
  • Themed networking. Create a list of topics and then do a poll of participants to see what they are interested in. (You can do this prior to or during the session). Create breakaway rooms with the selected themes and allow participants to self-select for a set period of time. Allow people to move between groups if they like.
  • Ecosystem-based networking / matchmaking. Ask people to identify their role in the impact ecosystem and/or what type of deals they are looking for. (You’ll want to have a good idea of this before the session.) Then set up breakaway rooms that allow participants looking to engage around these roles and interests. (Hint: You’ll likely want to set a cap to avoid having too many people swamp specific investors.

If you are using Zoom, you’ll need to make sure your participants have the latest version (5.3) and you may need to do a quick tutorial on how to self-select breakaway rooms.

6. Recruit help. It takes at least two people to run a collaborative or interactive online session well: one person to facilitate the chat and another to interact on screen. In a Q&A, the person facilitating the chat can answer some questions in real time and feed other questions to the speaker. If you are hosting breakaway rooms, it helps to have an extra person popping into the small sessions to answer questions and ensure that participants are on the right track. 

  • Enlist live scribers. I regularly recruit live scribes – generally willing MBA students – to compile notes on the session in a shared document for participants to access both during the session and after. Live scribing is particularly valuable if you have breakaway rooms, because it allows participants to catch highlights of the parts of the session they didn’t attend.

7. Less is more. People are being confronted by way too much information; they come to online sessions looking for the information that is most relevant and interesting to them, preferably presented in a way that is compelling. It is important to filter–and in many cases, pare back–what you plan to present. 

8. Assign ‘study groups.’ While not relevant for SOCAP or other impact conferences, if you are hosting a multi-session course or training, designating study groups or cohorts that meet outside of sessions and lectures can be a great way to facilitate group discussion and build relationships. Ideally, these people will be in the same timezone to make (virtual) meeting easier.

9. Be ‘timezone aware.’ If you have a global audience, the golden hours for presentations are 2pm – 4pm London-time. This catches most other timezones (even though some will inevitably require tuning in early or late.)

10. Be authentic and energetic. Participants may be in front of a screen, but they can feel the energy in the “room.” That’s particularly true when facilitators are authentic and engaging, can bring that out in other speakers, and make participants feel heard. It is a big ask, but with the right structure, tools and tricks, virtual formats have the potential to offer a meaningful, as well as a more accessible and inclusive experience to gathering in person. 

Aunnie Patton Power is a university lecturer at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, New York University and the University of Cape Town on innovative finance and impact investing. She is currently writing her first book (ad)venture finance, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2021.