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The forced switch to online meetings has filled our toolkit with new options.
We have started talking to each other differently and then suddenly it's called 'chatting'. The interesting question is what we have learned from being online when we go back on stage. And where the two worlds - physical and digital - can learn from each other.

Online and on stage both have their pros and cons. Sometimes it’s better to choose one, sometimes it’s best to choose the other or you could make a combination.
And a number of timesyou can also translate the power of one medium to another.

A few thoughts:

The chat
Is this a hinderance or an added value? On the one hand, the online chat gives us ample insight in the undertow, because everyone easily states their unmitigated opinion. As an organisation, speaker or moderator you can take advantage of this and tailor your content accordingliy.
The chat also lowers the threshold. Instead of having to raise your hand in front of hundreds of staring faces, you can now with a degree of anonymity let people know what you think or what you are struggling with.
Because there is more room for everyone to say something, it is a prelude to good conversations, the exchange of ideas or the actual application of the learning points.

But the chat also has disadvantages. For example: it distracts from the content and you are much less focused on what is happening on the virtual stage. When so many people feel the need to speak, it might be that no one is reading anymore and that people are only sending.
Also conversations that start cannot always be completed. Because unlike physical gatherings, the opportunities to spontaneously 'meet up' are less prevalent.
The solution lies in consciously designing your program. Choose when you want to use the chat and how. And also choose if you do not want to open the chat, if only temporary. This way you keep people involved and there is sufficient focus on what is important.
Also make use of breakout rooms, organize separate sharing events with smaller groups or use platforms that specialize in meetings at which there is a lot of discussion.

How can we take what we’ve learnt from the chat into the physical meetings?
To start with, we could give more space to the proven value of the undertow, both in time and in working methods. A logical consequence of this is that you should focus less on the speakers and 'the stage' and that you should place more emphasis on participant involvement. This way people will be more engaged, which offers them a better understanding and application of the content.

In live circumstances, I often find an online chat an unfortunate choice, because it draws people away from real contact. And that is precisely the added value of live meetings.
I usually prefer the live alternative. If you design a meeting well, people will naturally start talking to each other. But you have to invest in that. The correct use of dialogue formats also makes it easier for people to talk to each other in the informal parts of the program. In short: make room for the 'chat' and build on that, then it doesn't often have to be online at all. And that requires less focus on speakers.
Actually give people in the chat the microphone: use what they say purposefully as an enrichment. And look for ways to do that live as well. Offer more variety between stage and hall: facilitate an opportunity for them talk to each other and amongst each other (hall-stage, hall-hall and stage-stage)

If we've learnt anything from online meetings, it's that you have to work hard to maintain participant attention. More interaction, more variety. We would like to take that insight to the stage. Because let's be honest: the fact that participants do not leave the room (log out analogously, so to speak) does not automatically mean that they are actually hooked up.

We have noticed that both organizers and speakers were more willing to search for alternative concepts and more interactive methods online. We would like to maintain that, in the event we organize a live meeting.

No show
Online we had to deal with more no-shows, but also with more spontaneous late registrations. That is an uncertain factor for the organizer; after all, you don't know who will join until the very end.
At the same time, you also know for sure that only those will show up, that really want to be there. And that is a beautiful thing.

You can also translate this into on-stage meetings: maybe there is room for late-bird rates? Maybe people should have more freedom to cancel? Perhaps we can become more flexible in venue seating? An interesting matter to think about.

Cherry picking
Online participants often only attend the parts that really appeal to them. And that is certainly not a disadvantage, because then you only have the participants present who really benefit from it.
In fact, you can specifically invite certain groups to a certain part of the program. And that is also possible live! How nice it would be if participants really only come to the sessions that they have an interest in. That would mean that there is a greater need for workplaces at the location, so that you can do other things in timeslots that have nothing to offer you.

Online events feel good, especially for introverts. And especially if chat, network tools, etc. are being used because you are not immediately faced with a full room. This often results in more input from participants.
Using these tools more often will create a safer environment for those logged in, but you have to be careful not to ‘loose’ them to their mobile phones! So it’s important to combine the tools with in-person interaction with the condition that you also opt for inclusive design for that person-to-person interaction.

Build a program in such a way that everyone feels free to participate. Use more individual working methods or start with smaller groups. Help outsiders to provide their own input, help those already involved open up.

Physical presence
Being physically present often also means being really present: after all, you invest time, you travel, etc. We need to work more consciously towards this online, for example in marketing and in a program that connects.

That insight can also be of value for the physical events: our assumption is that people attending the event are actually participating. And that's a misconception. On stage, you need to invest in making the connection too!

Online we have learned that it often works well to cut an event into pieces. For example, getting together for two hours five days in a row can work better than programming one full day.

We would like to incorporate that more often off-line as a serious alternative: a series of mini-events, different timing, shorter meetings. And of course there are snags, because you don't want people to travel up and down several times. But maybe a combination with Cherry picking (see above) is an option, or maybe alternating between online and physical events does offer possibilities?

Online meetings are less of a burdon on peoples agendas; they can attend more sessions in one day (also see cherry picking). Especially when you consider that online we have proven that if it has to be shorter, it can be shorter.
On the other hand, there is the lack of body language, real human contact and building trust. We have learnt that working in small groups can help with this.

Offline we would like to maintain that it can be shorter, more efficient. And let's keep working in smaller groups, even at large conferences, because this helps to build trust and forge bonds more quickly.

Online we completely dependant on technology. If that didn't work, we were lost. Live events could (to a degree) still go on even when technology hampers.
So let's take technology as a point of attention from online to the physical meetings. Neurology shows that nothing is more deadly to a meeting than poor technique; our brain loses a lot of capacity dealing with that and therefore it will not absorb any other information.

Online events have proven themselves and they are getting better every day. Many people do not want to go back to live events and give high marks for the (weel-designed and executed) online meetings. On the other hand, the need for human contact remains. So let's look for the best of both worlds. Online, when effective. Offline, if that has added value. Or the combination: content online and meeting live

Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Picture by Visuals on Unsplash

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