Can we connect meaningfully online? We think so (good thing, because that’s kind of our whole raison d’être)—and we’re here to make that a reality for you, too.
Even before the internet existed, tech played a role in our gatherings. Remember your parents' old video camera or your teacher's slide projector? They weren't distractions; they were important tools that captured memories and led to great conversations.
So, how do we use tech to facilitate meaningful gatherings? Perhaps an even tougher question: how do we create a space for real human connection without actually being physically present with one another? How do we make tech the room, rather than the elephant in the room?
We’re listening to group conflict resolution facilitator and author of Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters author Priya Parker. We can’t sum it up more brilliantly than the queen of quality gatherings herself, so here are tips from her latest guide, The Art of Gathering: Virtual Gathering in the Time of Corona.
Be Intentional from the Start
If you’re planning an event or gathering, start by asking yourself some important questions:
- Why am I bringing this particular group of people together? Clarify the purpose of your virtual gathering. If you’re creating a virtual event in lieu of a canceled in-person tradeshow, for example, your purpose may be to create more opportunities for businesses to network with one another. Simple as that.
- What is our collective need? Food and water? Check. Roof over our heads? Check. Okay, let’s look a little higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs now. Employment, resources, prosperity, belonging, and recognition are all possible motivations for bringing your audience together. Businesses may need help generating new leads if they’re experiencing a sales slump, or they may need help fixing broken supply chains or personnel shortages. If you’re not sure, don’t guess. Consider taking a pre-event poll to gauge the highest priority needs of your group.
- How can I design the experience to match that need? Once you’ve determined the primary need of your attendees, be thoughtful and intentional about creating experiences that directly address that need. For example, create virtual matchmaking rooms to pair potential vendors with businesses experiencing supply chain issues or job seekers with HR professionals seeking new staff.
Once you have your blueprint, it’s time to lay the foundation.
Design an Opening Ritual
“The beginning of a gathering—how you open, how you enter—is incredibly important to the success of the gathering,” says Parker. “So, how do you create the psychological entryway when people’s doorways are now pushing a red button to enter a room?”
Here are some of her tips for opening the virtual doors to your event:
- Orient guests with an opening slide. Consider opening with a basic slide to give guests a few minutes to settle in and get oriented. Include a positive message or welcome note on the slide or provide short instructions, like “You’ll notice you’re currently on mute. We’ll start with a brief overview and unmute you shortly to join the conversation.” You can even add some jaunty background music to immediately set the mood upon arrival to the room.
- Ask everyone to speak early on. Studies show that if everyone has an opportunity to speak within the first 5% of a meeting, they’re more likely to speak up later. Start with a fun icebreaker question or just ask everyone to introduce themselves right at the beginning of the gathering to encourage engagement throughout the event.
Set the Stage for Human Interaction to Occur Naturally
Paving the way for meaningful human connection starts by thoughtfully setting the stage to allow natural human interaction to occur. Although certain conversational cues, like touch or body language, are lost in virtual interactions, real human connection can occur just as naturally in the virtual realm as it can in the real world.
- Give mute control to your guests. You heard that right, unmute your guests. Why? Muting all participants during an event creates a sterile, uninspired environment. Social cues, like laughter and one-off comments, are missed if everyone is muted. The spontaneity of these quips and asides stimulate conversation naturally. Embrace the background noise and interruptions; that’s just the real world talking.
- Ask meaningful questions. Meaningful conversations start with thoughtful questions. Kick off the event with an interesting icebreaker question or keep a few questions handy in your back pocket for lulls in the conversation throughout the event. You could even consider asking a meaningful question at the end of your event -- sort of like a homework assignment -- to keep your attendees engaged long after the event is over. A few ideas:
- Who was the last person you had a meaningful conversation with?
- Who is a colleague who did something extraordinary?
- What is something new that you tried or learned recently?
- Keep groups small and mobile. According to memory expert Ed Cooke, people are better at recalling specific moments of an evening when they occur in different rooms.
If you’re hosting a large event, break up participants into different spaces, areas, and circles. Give people the ability to move easily from conversation to conversation or session to session, just like they would in the real world.
Don’t let individuals lose their spark just because they’re behind a screen. By giving your guests the space to be spontaneous, honest, and even unpredictable, you’re allowing them to be authentic and get closer to one another in meaningful ways. No matter the distance between us, we can bring people closer together.
“Gathering matters because it is through each other that we figure out what we believe.” - Priya Parker