Top tips for gathering online

IssueOctober 2020 - November 2020
Saints gather in their Zoom room. WITH THANKS TO GIOTTO
Feature by Jeanne Rewa , Daniel Hunter

Here are some nuggets from an excellent, very practical 48-page guide to running online events. Leading Groups Online has just been written (for activists and others) by two people with deep experience and a lot of wisdom.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, educators, trainers, organisers, consultants, and event planners are being asked to do the same things but online. You may find this a delightful challenge or entirely overwhelming. Maybe you have been in online spaces before – or maybe they’re completely new.

As two experienced online facilitators, we rushed writing Leading Groups Online to give you some lessons you can use right away and techniques you can use with any platform (Zoom, jitsi, Google Hangouts and so on).

We want to note right away that there are plenty of things you can’t do online. We get it. It’s not the same. People are more distracted while on a device (multitasking is a real problem!). And the mental load of being in front of a computer is high.

“If it doesn’t work smoothly, lightly laugh at it and note how you could do it differently next time.”

For many reasons, we have some suggestions:

Expect to do much, much less. Racing through things online will cause you to lose more people; and detached people online are harder to track.

Use this precious space to make connection. These may be some of the rare times people will be connected to their peers and friends. Don’t waste that time by assuming it’s just about your content. Create space for human connection – acknowledging this may sometimes result in a change of priority for your lessons or meetings.

Give yourself a break. Laugh at your technology mistakes and be gentle about the inevitable technological snafus.


Be you
Leading online is not entirely unlike teaching or facilitating in person. You can do this.

Practise the technology
If you can, we strongly recommend practising the technology you’ll be using ahead of time.

Set up your video. Make sure your face can be seen. If you’re on a phone, find a place to put it down so it’s stable. Make sure you don’t have strong light coming from behind you. Consider the background, like a plain wall or a semi-tidy view of your house with minimal distractions.

Make sure you can log in. If you’re using headphones (strongly recommended!) or speakers, test them.

Your group will also need to practise – so plan to teach the technology during the sessions. If you don’t spend time developing their skills, the lack of skill will keep hampering your sessions.

Start with the simplest tools. For example, in video conferencing, beginning activities might have people share out loud or in the chat box.

Explain new tools carefully and check for understanding. The first time you use a tool, explain how it will look to them on screen, what they have to do, and how to get help.

Before starting the tool, ask for a thumbs up on camera or an ‘I’m ready’ in the chat box. Try to catch early if some people are having trouble – encourage people in every way possible to speak up if directions are not clear.

Whenever possible, we love to have someone designated as a tech support person. When we don’t have that luxury, we may give out our mobile phone number for people to text if they are having tech problems.

Acknowledge it’s an experiment. ‘I haven’t done this before, but I’m hoping we can try a go-round online….’ [Leading Groups Online shows some ways to do go-rounds online.]

If it doesn’t work smoothly, lightly laugh at it and note how you could do it differently next time.

Track participation
A common challenge in leading online is that we are talking at people, but don’t know whether they agree or disagree, or even if they are still awake!

What you see from people’s video ends up being guesswork – and can be very inaccurate. Is someone looking away because they’re bored, someone walked in, or they’re being thoughtful?

Thankfully, there are other strategies:

Include polls or spectrums to gauge responses. Use a live polling tool or ask people to share in the chat or out loud the answer to a simple question or two.

You could have multiple choice options visible on screen and read out loud so people can answer simply ‘A’, ‘B, ‘C’ and so on.

Use general check-in questions. ‘Take a moment to type in the chat: is this clear so far? What’s still not clear?’

It’s important to pay attention to the people who may get marginalised because of the tech they’re using (like, it’s harder to use a phone and do interactive stuff, or maybe they’re not on video, or…).

In general, we suggest inviting participation from people on the phone up front and at the end of an engagement, and leaving a good pause.

For example: ‘Does anyone have any questions before we move on? You can type in the chat or if you are on the phone or prefer to share out loud, you can come off mute. [Get some responses in the chat.] Okay, I haven’t heard from several people on the phone so I just want to check to see if you have any more questions on the phone before we continue. I’ll pause a few moments so you can come off mute if needed… [pause at least five seconds].’

Engage frequently and in varied ways

The best way to keep people from multi-tasking/being distracted is to keep them engaged with your session.

Ask questions, switch up activities (not just discussions or lectures), have people journal (write a note to themselves). (Leading Groups Online has a variety of tools/activities that work reliably for online sessions.)

As a general rule, we recommend aiming to not have anyone talk for more than 3–5 minutes at a time without pausing for at least a simple engagement of participants.

Make sure you don’t always engage everyone the same way. For example, don’t always ask yes/no chat questions. People will start to lose interest, especially those who don’t prefer that method.

Do your best to use this time only for what is most important to do together live, like supporting each other, practising skills, collaborating, making decisions, social motivation and so on.

Let people know that you ‘see’ them
The more people feel ‘seen’, the more they are likely to engage. Here are a few examples of what you might say:

‘It looks like only about half the group has shared ideas in the chat box. If anyone is having trouble with the chat, let us know, or you can share out loud.’

‘I see [name] that you just came off mute. Is there something you’d like to add?’

‘Everyone has shared except [name] and [name] who are on the phone. Would you like to share, too?’

‘It looks like [name] has stepped away, so we’ll come back to them when they’re back.’

This takes attention but you will be well-rewarded by the effort.