How to facilitate engaging online meetings with Zoom

Written by
Emily Johnston
July 8, 2020
Digital Facilitation

Right now, more & more events, meetings & trainings are moving online.

As we at Unity Effect have already been running our workshops and programs online for a
while, we have put together this practical guide to share some of the simple tips and tools you
can use to make your online gatherings more engaging and productive. This article focuses on
the platform Zoom – and no, we are not sponsored by them, it’s just what we use and know
best, yet you can also adapt many of these things to other platforms.

Getting started – Zoom best practices
If you want to learn about getting started with Zoom, they have plenty of articles here.Here are some tips for using Zoom which we always share at the beginning of any call.

Turn on your camera
Not everyone will have the option to turn on a camera, but if it is possible and they feel comfortable, ask them to do so. Being able to see each other already increases the feeling of connection and engagement. It also means people are more likely to be present in the call and not work on other things simultaneously.

Gallery view
In Zoom you have the choice between gallery view and speaker view. Gallery view means you can see everyone in the call at once and not only the speaker, which makes you feel like you are part of a group and not only in a lecture. If you are not speaking, put yourself on mute .This makes a HUGE difference to the sound quality. It also means people are less likely to talk over each other throughout the meeting. As the meeting host, you are also able to mute and unmute people. You can also mute and unmute everyone at the same time. Another tip to increase sound quality is to use headphones if possible.

If someone would like to speak, they can either:
– Simply unmute themselves
– Raise their physical hand
– Raise their digital hand
– Write in the chat

It’s up to you as the facilitator to decide how you would like the communication to happen and to make this clear to the group.
If you have a larger group where you cannot see everyone at once, using the digital hand raise is really helpful. As the host you can see the raised hands in the order they were raised and then call on the people to share.

Your name
Sometimes people call in from a phone and their name shows up as a number. Ask everyone to rename themselves with the name they would like to be addressed by. You can also ask them to include other relevant information, such as their organisation or the country they are calling from.

In some cases you might like to record the session for future reference. If this is the case, make sure you communicate that you will be recording the session and let the group know what it will be used for. Especially if you plan to use it publicly, it’s important to ask everyone if they are ok with being recorded. They always have the option to turn off their camera and change their name if they are uncomfortable with being recorded. When you record a session, the recording is downloaded and saved either on your computer or in the Zoom cloud once you’ve finished the session.

Planning your online event or meeting
The first thing to ask yourself is: what is the intention of the meeting or event? What outcome do you want? What information do you want to share, what learnings do you want to enable?Is the intention to share information, enable learning, work on something together, create
connection in a group, or a combination of all of these things?
For meetings, think about which roles you will need in the meeting, for example: a facilitator, time-keeper, minute taker. For teams, consider that the facilitator does not have to be the boss, and in fact it can be good to mix it up.

Overview of session design
Depending on what kind of event you are planning, it is worth putting some thought into the agenda and time plan for your call. Our sessions generally always follow the same basic format.

In the next part we will go deeper into each of these areas:

– Arrival
– Check in
– Content, engagement, exercises, reflection
– Check out

So let’s say you’ve organised a gathering and the people are about to arrive. Now what? For the arrival you have two choices: you can use the Waiting Room function so that everyone enters at the same time, or you can open the Zoom room and wait for people to come in one by
one. Note that if you use the waiting room, people who join the session later will also go to the waiting room until you let them enter the group.
In a smaller group, it’s nice to greet people by name as they join, and invite them to take a few quiet moments to get present while you wait for the others to arrive. Once you’re ready to start, it’s good to go over the ground rules for using Zoom which we shared above, as well as to share the agenda for the session, so that everyone knows what will happen and feels comfortable and ready for the session. It can then be helpful for the atmosphere to invite everyone to take a deep breath, fully arrive and to give themselves the gift of being fully present throughout the session.

Check-ins are a simple tool to open a gathering, which support people to arrive and be present in a group. In an online setting it is especially important to give everyone the chance to have their voice heard at the beginning of the meeting. This can support increased engagement later
The method you use for the check in will depend on the size of the group and the purpose of the meeting. Here are a few methods to get you started, yet you can get creative with how you do it.

Small groups
In smaller groups, it is nice to give everyone the chance to speak. Here it is important to frame the check-in with a question. Examples include:
– How much energy do you have right now on a scale of 1 – 10?
– What brought you here? What are you curious about?
– What is your intention for this meeting/workshop?
– Which animal best represents your mood right now?(Silly questions can be great to break the ice!)
You can then go around the ‘circle’ (as they appear on your screen) and call their names one by one to share. You can also ask the person sharing to then nominate the next person.
If you have limited time, you can also ask people to just share one sentence, or even just one word, or use a method for bigger groups.

Large groups
For larger groups it’s not always possible for everyone’s actual voice to be heard, but you can still give them the chance to share. Examples include:
– Show your energy level on a scale from 1 – 10 using your fingers
– Ask a check-in question and ask them to write their answer in the chat, then read a few of them out
– Use the breakout rooms to put them in pairs or small groups and introduce themselves or answer a check-in question. More on breakout rooms below.

Tip: the check-in is a great opportunity to demonstrate that honest sharing is allowed. So as the facilitator you can also share how you are doing. For example, if you are nervous about the session, say so – often many other people will be nervous if they haven’t joined an online
session before, and this will help them feel more at ease. But only if it’s really how you feel of course!

Methods for creating engagement
Ok so now you’ve set the ground rules for using Zoom, everyone has checked in and your group is ready to go! Now it’s time to create some engagement.

Individual reflection & journaling
Rather than launching straight into a group discussion or activity, it can sometimes be more efficient if you first give people a chance to gather their thoughts and reflect for themselves. The important thing here is to think about the question(s) you want to ask. It is helpful to type the journal question in the chat, then give the participants the chance to ask if it is not clear. If you plan to include a journaling exercise, it’s a good idea to ask everyone to grab a pen and paper when they first arrive. Tell them how long they have to journal (e.g. 2 minutes) and invite them to turn off their cameras if they feel more comfortable.

Don’t forget to keep the time!

Breakout rooms – pairs or smaller groups
Breakout rooms are a great feature of Zoom which make it possible for people to talk in smaller groups. This allows people to connect on a deeper level even in a large group. Before putting people into breakout rooms it’s important to give clear instructions.

How long will they be in the room?
What topic or question should they explore?
Should they decide in the smaller group how to organise the discussion, or will it be timed (e.g. each person has 2 minutes to share)

Listening Circles
Listening Circles are a great method to give everyone in the group the opportunity and time to share their perspectives and ensure that everyone is heard equally. Start by defining a central topic or question. Then you go around the ‘circle’ (as you see them on your screen) one by one and ask each person to share. Ask everyone to only speak when it is their turn. Everyone is allowed to say pass if they don’t want to speak. Depending on the topic and available time, it is possible to have one or more rounds.
An alternative to the facilitator naming the person who will speak next is to ask each person to nominate the next person once they’ve finished sharing. Just make sure you keep an overview so that no one gets left out!

Popcorn essentially means that anyone who would like to share – or go ‘pop’ – can do so. Here it is helpful to use the digital hand raising tool to keep track of who wants to share. This is a good method to use if there is not enough time for everyone to share in a listening circle, or if you want to create a more organic dialogue. Yet it’s still important that people don’t talk over each other and give each other space to share.

Tip: sometimes the conversation can go off topic or one person can talk for a long time. As a facilitator it’s your job to bring the conversation back – while still letting it flow naturally of course. Yet sometimes you need to step in and ask the person or group to come back to the
topic at hand, or to wrap up so that other people have a chance to share. It is also an option to give people a time limit, e.g. 1 minute each to share their thoughts. Timed speaking can be a great practice in getting to the essence of your point.

Shared document
A great way to harvest insights, knowledge or ideas from your meeting or event is to have everyone write into a shared Google document. This has the benefit that everyone can see what everyone else is writing, it creates the feeling of working together, it’s really efficient and
you have something documented for everyone to keep. It works best if you set up the document with the questions you want them to answer beforehand, then post it in the chat. Alternatively for meetings you can use a shared document for the agenda and send it to
everyone beforehand.

Screen share
Sharing your screen with the participants is not a particularly engaging method, but it is a great way to share information in the form of a powerpoint presentation, video, image, or anything else you wish to share. If possible, it is good to limit the input time to 10-15 minutes to keep everyone’s attention.

1 -2 – 4 – All
This is a method from Liberating Structures which taps into the collective wisdom and intelligence in a group in a short amount of time, giving space to everyone’s insights no matter the size of the group. It’s a nice way to combine the methods described so far. This is an
adapted version for an online format, you may adjust the timing depending on the context.
1. Pose a central question
2. Give everyone 1 minute to journal
3. Put people into breakout rooms in pairs and give them 1 minute each to share
4. Move breakout rooms of four and give them 4 minutes (1 minute each, or reflecting together)
5. Bring everyone back into the main room. Then you can either: ask each group of four ‘what is one idea that stood out from your onversation?’, or you can ask everyone to write in a shared document, have a listening circle or invite a few people to share if they

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Further methods
The methods we’ve talked about so far are the basic building blocks we use to create our online sessions. Yet the invitation is to get creative and experiment. For example:
– Explore Zoom’s other features such as whiteboard and polls.
– Use breakout rooms to run peer coaching circles.
– Set up an online Open Space or Bar Camp, where participants bring the topics and choose which break out room to attend.

In the same way check-ins are important to open a session, check-outs help to wrap them up.They give people the chance to share the impact of the gathering on them, to share final thoughts, reflections and take-aways and to close a gathering in an intentional way. You can
use the same methods described for check-ins.

Example questions include:
● How do you feel now?
● Share one word which summarises how you feel now/how the meeting was for you
● How much energy do you have on a scale from 1 – 10?
● What was your take-away or ’aha’ moment from this meeting?
● Share one thing you appreciated in the meeting
Check-ins and check-outs make a big difference in terms of creating a safe space online, so it’s really recommended not to skip them. They are also a great tool to use in in person meetings and workshops.

Tips for facilitation

The role ofthe facilitator
Firstly let’s talk about the role of the facilitator. As a facilitator, your job is to guide the group process. You don’t have to be the ‘expert’ in the topic necessarily. Rather, it’s your role to give the participants clarity about what is happening, take care of the atmosphere, guide the
conversation back if it goes off topic, support all voices to be heard and give the group the chance to reflect, share their knowledge, insights and ideas.

Communication Ground Rules
As a facilitator, you have the opportunity to set the standard for how communication will happen in the session. This not only includes if they should raise their hand or not if they wish to speak, but also how they then communicate. Here are a couple of tips which really support
good communication online (and in real life!)
– When you speak, try to get to the essence of what you want to say (especially in larger groups when there are a lot of voices to be heard).
– When you are not speaking, listen. Often when we listen we are already preparing the next thing we want to say in our head, or are quick to jump in with advice, opinions or ideas. Invite your participants to listen with a lot of openness and curiosity and to not cut each other off. Using the mute button is great to practice listening!
– Use pauses. Invite your participants to take a silent moment sometimes to gather their thoughts, notice what is present for them and calm down if needed.

Dealing with silence
That moment when you ask the group a question and nobody responds… As a facilitator, you will inevitably have to deal with these moments of silence at some point, so you may as well choose to embrace them. Sometimes it is simply a matter of rephrasing a question, or asking a
specific person to share. Yet avoid the urge to immediately fill the gap: sometimes people just need a few moments to collect their thoughts. Sharing with the group how valuable these moments of silence can be is a great way to take away potential awkwardness. If the pressure
is off to start talking simply to fill the space, and they feel it’s ok to slow down the pace of conversation, you often get greater ideas and insights as a result.

Working with questions
You might have noticed that pretty much all the methods mention thinking about the question you want to ask. Questions are a really powerful tool to tap into the knowledge, experience, creativity and insights in groups. Designing questions is a super important skill for facilitators, and they don’t have to be complicated. Try introducing a topic with a question, for example: ‘why do you think knowing your values is important for leaders?’ instead of telling them why you think it’s important straight away. You might be surprised by the level of depth and insight you get, and it breaks down the dynamic of an expert lecturing the audience. For a great article on powerful questions and how to design them, go here.

Reflecting on experiences
As a facilitator, it can be a really powerful tool to ask people to reflect on the experience itself, as well as the content of their discussion. Example questions include: how was the experience of the break out room for you? What did you notice about yourself in this exercise? This gives everyone the chance to step back from their discussion and notice the different layers present – the discussion itself, their personal learnings, the group process, etc.

Practice, practice and more practice!
In the end, the best way to grow as a facilitator is through practice! Pretty much everything we’ve learnt about online facilitation has been through experimenting and trying it out. So the invitation to you is to just give it a go and don’t worry if you don’t feel you know enough to
start, trust in your ability to figure it out as you go! And remember to be yourself and have fun.

Good luck!

If you want to learn more about online facilitation, visit our website for more information about our trainings on this, as well as other topics around leadership and teamwork. Unity Effect provides trainings and tools for leaders, changemakers & communities.

About the author
Co-founder of Unity Effect. Endlessly curious about humans being humans. Passionate about authentic leadership and collaborative teamwork. Experimenting with doing things differently.
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