By Eddie Pipkin

Last week we took a look at the different strategies involved in successfully leading virtual gatherings (and how the skill set for leading virtually can be different than the skill set for leading in person).  This week we’ll continue that discussion with a focus, not on overall strategy, but on specific tips for how to manage Zoom calls, Google hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and even good ol’ Skype – whatever your flavor of virtual connection, there are some tips and tricks for how to be an effective host who leads a productive session.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that virtual gatherings have created some unique opportunities to bring people together, and we should be committed to keeping the positive aspects of technological connection going as we take baby steps back towards some semblance of normal.  But there is much that can be left wanting when only gathering virtually, and there are many things that are hard to do in an exclusively virtual setting – schools have been a fascinating look into the strengths and especially the challenges of bringing people together in productive ways: the resulting shortcomings have been regularly documented as in this report, titled “The Crushing Reality of Zoom School.”  It is a reminder that, when we do meet virtually, it is important to maximize our chances of getting it right.

Here are some basics:

  • Know your platform! Whatever virtual conferencing platform you and your institution have decided to use, you (and the people you are leading) will be served well by getting to know as much as you can about the details of how it works.  They are all a little bit different.  Each has strengths and weaknesses, and each has tips and tricks that you can learn through articles and tutorials that help you maximize the features.  I mentioned last week, for instance, about using polls through Zoom.  You can have fun with backgrounds – why not lead from the beach or the mountains or under the sea? – special effects, display features, and the technical aspects of managing the virtual space where the meeting is happening.  This will make you stronger in providing an engaging experience; it will help you troubleshoot with competence when crises arise; and it will help you help others with confidence when they are struggling.
  • Know how to share your screen. Practice sharing content from your screen.  This is a great way to heighten engagement, by sharing text and videos with everyone on the call.  Rather than attaching articles and videos by email, for instance, you can play them on screen for the whole group in the moment.  Learn how to do this and then practice it until you can do it effortlessly, without awkward delays.  You can even build a PowerPoint and use it to display discussion points and questions on screen to which your group can respond.
  • Have “host control” of your platform. Many of the suggestions I mentioned in the two bullet points above rest on your ability to act as an “administrator” who owns the virtual call.  If a church is using a shared virtual conferencing account, it is possible that you do not have this kind of authority in your virtual group.  This is troublesome because it limits what you can do creatively with the group.  It is also a security issue, because you need the ability to mute people and even, in rare cases, to ban someone from participation (if they become belligerent or otherwise offensive).  Make sure you have the necessary authorization to have complete control over any group you’re hosting – even if it means setting up a separate account of your own.
  • Pay attention to your staging technology. We all know the frustration of trying to participate in a call in which the screen keeps freezing, the audio keeps cutting out, or speakers are stuttery, hard to hear, or have a loud dog barking incessantly in the background.  Don’t be that person.  Make the necessary investments in money and time to be sure you are not the distraction that drives people away.  Have a good camera/speaker setup – don’t be afraid to ask help from the tech nerds if you need it – it’s their time to shine.  Try to work from a quiet spot.  Host from a place with fast internet and a rock solid wifi connection.

Those are some of the basics of setting yourself up for success before the virtual gathering even begins.  Here are some ways to increase the likelihood for successful outcomes once you’re in the virtual room.

  • PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE. Okay, technically, this one is something you do before the virtual gathering – it’s essential that it be done thoroughly and professional before the virtual gathering.  I included it in this section because I think that in our busyness and in our confidence that we know how run a meeting/class/session, we lose sight of how critical it is to thoroughly master the content we’ll be presenting.  Bringing sustained focus to the content gives us the flexibility to follow the flow of a conversation without missing a beat (which is the great strength of the dynamic interaction of the virtual gathering).  Don’t neglect prep!
  • Find ways to keep things interesting. As you are doing your prep, think up some ways to flip the script, ask unexpected questions that get to the heart of the matter, throw in interactive exercises.  Challenge people to use their environments to be part of the conversation (by showing you something from the physical space from which they have logged in, for instance: “Here’s something I keep in my work space to inspire me to express gratitude each day.  How about you?”).  Plan a quick game or a role play.  Declare next Tuesday’s meeting “hat day.”  Wear a funny but relevant shirt and see who notices.
  • Know your crew. It is easier and more effective to do the things mentioned in the last bullet point if you have taken time to know as much as possible about the people who are joining you in your virtual gathering.  Obviously, this is a more reasonable goal to achieve if you are meeting with the same folks week to week.  But the principle universally applies.  This idea has extra resonance in the age of virtual get-togethers, because when looking at a screen with a dozen diminutive participant icons, it is hard to read the sort of in-person cues that present themselves when everyone is in the room together.  Knowing more background means you can ask better questions, be more sensitive to the impact of difficult discussions, encourage people to share experiences that are relevant, and have some sense of what sort of interaction will or won’t work.
  • Be clear about your expectations for the purpose of the gathering. Never assume that everyone who logged into your virtual gathering has the same priorities and expectations that you have.  Make these explicit.  Communicate with the group (in preparatory emails or right at the beginning of the first meeting, then with brief, periodic follow-up reminders) what your goals are and how you will proceed towards them.
  • Be in agreement about behavioral expectations. Whether you do so by means of a formal “behavioral covenant” (which is the gold standard in group accountability) or a more casual approach in which there is some discussion about how group members will treat one another – followed by small periodic reminders from the group leader, either calling out inappropriate behavior or even better, celebrating moments of demonstrated respect and deference – things will always flow better if a code of conduct is crystal clear.
  • Actively solicit feedback. Never assume the group is going gangbusters just because you have a great feeling about your leadership performance after you click that “leave meeting” button.  Routinely give the group members an opportunity to give you their feedback, either through a quick survey or just by asking.  The best feedback will come if you give them a way to do it privately (although public response to the same question can lead to some good discussion).  In terms of a private response, it is good to set a precedent that group participants know they can feel comfortable sharing their true feelings without judgment.  If you are not clear about setting such a precedent, many people will hold back.  (You might even fall into that trap in which the inevitable vocal few create a false impression that healthy feedback is happening.)
  • Follow up post-meeting. One of the strongest things we can do to create a deeper sense of connection to any regularly convening virtual gathering is do follow-up outside the virtual meeting space.  Send an email or a text thanking someone for their input, or make a phone call to continue the conversation if someone seems genuinely affected by the morning’s topic.  This is a powerful tool for building personal relationships and directly communication the value that you hold for any individual’s participation.
  • Don’t get frustrated. Everything is not going to go perfectly.  Print this on a sign and post it prominently wherever you host a virtual gathering.  There are going to be glitches.  Don’t beat yourself up about them.  Even with preparation that includes all the steps in this blog followed with diligence, there are going to be glitches.  It is an opportunity to practice the “peace that passeth understanding” available through the presence of the Holy Spirit!
  • Allow some space for chit-chat, but say on task. Groups need to blow off some steam by discussing their current pandemic-related frustration, the amazing steak they grilled for dinner last night, or the latest cute cat video.  Provide room for these healthy group-identity-building moments, but keep them within boundaries (unless that’s the whole purpose of the gathering – in that case, have a blast).
  • Know how to politely interrupt people. People – you know the ones – will go on and on and on.  Practice the fine art of gently interrupting, perhaps summarizing the point they have been making and thus affirming the contribution, but making space for others to participate.  And be self-aware if you are the offender of on and on and on-ness.
  • Know how to politely push people a little. Try to get everyone engaged at some point at some level (without making them feel too uncomfortable).  Don’t be obnoxious, but do solicit their opinion.  Ask specific questions of specific people (which is far easier, as noted above, if you know more about people outside the context of the virtual gathering).  Sometimes, ask a question in such a way that it is clear you are going to poll each person in the group.
  • Train people in the art of the Zoom call pause. Acknowledge the awkwardness of those moments in which six people are trying to talk, followed by a flurry of “no, you go,” “no, you go,” followed by nobody going, then six people talking simultaneously to begin the circle of awkwardness again.  Acknowledge it, have a little fun with it even, train people to use visual cues if they are comfortable with it (like holding up a hand, old school style), and step in when you need to and manage the order of speakers: “Okay, Dave, you go, and then Sally can chime in after.”
  • But don’t be afraid of dead airtime. Nobody saying anything for 30 seconds can feel unbearably awkward, but participants know this and use it as a weapon to keep from contributing!  They are hoping you’ll jump in and fill that space so they won’t have to.  Don’t let them off the hook.  Let the awkwardness hang in place, and most of the time, someone will step up and fill it.

What are some of your favorite tips and tricks for hosting virtual gatherings?  Share them in the comments section so we can all learn from your hard-earned wisdom.  I am willing to let the awkward online silence linger until I hear from you!  Bueller . . . Bueller . . . Bueller?