Virtual Meetings and Public Engagement: Planning and practice is best

The crisis surrounding COVID-19 has thrown many of us into situations we normally wouldn’t entertain. Unable to connect face-to-face, there’s much more reliance on virtual methods. At Guide Studio, the transition has been relatively smooth. We have the advantage of being familiar with Zoom and other meeting-friendly software, but we’ve transitioned everything to the virtual realm without dramatic changes to our meeting schedules or processes. Morning huddles, team meetings, client workshops are all conducted online now; not to mention our personal use of these platforms to touch base with family, “hang out” with friends, or even keep up with doctor appointments. Now that we, and many others, are regularly using virtual meetings for personal and business use, we believe it’s time for us to fully embrace this technology and use it to improve public engagement by including more people, in more places.

 

In this article, we outline best practices for using online tools and virtual meetings to create broader and more equitable public engagement.

 

Virtual and in-person, planning and practice works best

Best practices used for traditional in-person public engagement are equally important in a virtual setting. We’ve outlined a few methods, tips and tricks to improve accessibility and engagement when switching to an online meeting environment.

 

These tips will help broaden participation and enhance equitable engagement:

  • Know your audience and where to find them: This is the foundation of our work as branding, wayfinding, and communication consultants and it is equally as critical when considering engaging the public online. Conduct the initial research to understand who comprises your audience in a given community/study area and where they find information. Enlist the help of community groups, your chamber of commerce, churches and other civic organizations to gather insights and learn about what has worked for them.
          • Investigate social media channels or groups to identify those most active in your study area.
          • Consider translating project information and surveys when working with a demographic who does not speak English or for whom English is a second language.
          • Make sure engagement platforms are smartphone-friendly for those who do not have a personal computer at home, and distribute a phone number where people can request printed materials and surveys if they do not have access or a level of comfort with virtual meetings.
  • Provide multiple ways to promote and engage virtually: Conduct virtual town halls or roundtables where groups of people can engage on a specific topic or question; develop a webinar that provides the higher-level explanation of the project or issue before deploying a survey; leverage a variety of distribution channels to promote engagement opportunities, such as:
          • Social media: ask community organizations to share information about these meetings on their social media channels and use Facebook ads to further target your audiences geographically.
          • Ads or articles in local newspapers: provide the basic information, including meeting dates and times, a website address, and a phone number to better support people who do not have access to or comfort with online platforms.
          • Email: send email invitations to your database and share the invitations with stakeholders and supporters who can distribute the invitations to their audiences as well.
  • Don’t forget to collect their information! Online engagement allows for continued outreach, collaboration and sharing. Develop forms to collect the pertinent information about participants to inform data sets and follow-up with communications in future.

Those of us who have hosted, facilitated, and/or participated in any form of public engagement know that detailed planning and a lot of trial-and-error have gone into developing the best practices. Shifting to online engagement is no different. Recently, we were caught off guard when we had to exchange a face-to-face steering committee engagement session with a virtual one. While we’ve conducted virtual engagement sessions in the past, we had designed this workshop to be in-person. We hadn’t fully considered how all of the exercises would translate in an online environment. In this setting, you can’t rely on moving around the room or making them move around the room to keep everyone focused and energized. energy levels up and attention focused on . This experience was a wake-up call to rethink online engagement and how we “work the room” virtually.

If you are concerned with conducting engagement sessions online, try these tips to create an organized and engaging online meeting or presentation:

  • Keep it short, clear, and on-task: Virtual public meetings don’t need to resemble the 2-hour meetings/social gatherings that in-person engagement often becomes. Keep these meetings to 1 hour or less, leave time for Q & A, and use polling to keep people engaged real-time. Take it a step further with a quick follow-up survey that captures thoughts and reactions. And don’t forget your audiences; consider how your information is presented to keep them engaged.
          • The general public is not interested and may not even be comfortable with technical jargon, complicated models, or intensive detail.
          • Don’t overload people with information. Identify your top 3 key takeaways and build off of that. You can even develop a separate slide deck or pre-recorded presentation with helpful information prior to the meeting, so they can familiarize themselves beforehand.
          • Focus on what is important and requires feedback.
  • Set the rules for the meeting:Just like in-person meetings, there’s etiquette for online meetings too. You can ask that questions be held until the end and have participants mute themselves during presentations or instructions to reduce background noise. Technology is a beautiful thing and there are affordable options that allow for:
          • Seeing everyone’s smiling faces: Depending on the size of the meeting, if you want people to see you and each other, use software such as ZOOM, GoToMeeting or WebEx that support video. Encourage people to use video and say ‘hello’ when they join the call. Seeing facial expressions can go a long way in facilitating good discussion.
          • Asking questions throughout the meeting: Provide a quick how-to that demonstrates how participants can mute and unmute themselves; how to virtually raise their hands when they have questions; or how to share questions and comments through chat features.
                  • Pro Tip: Assign a moderator to monitor questions to make sure they are answered during Q & A.
          • Keep them on their toes: Great public engagement includes exercises that allow people to participate in a variety of ways. There are great tools and options for more engaging, live virtual sessions. At Guide Studio, we are testing out ZOOM capabilities that allow:
                  • Live polling to vote on concepts or themes and share the results in real-time.
                  • Breakout or small group sessions in separate “rooms” so that smaller groups can discuss multiple topics at once.
                  • Use of a virtual whiteboard to record comments or ideas in real-time. (This may even allow for our beloved post-it notes exercises!)
          • Set-up and stand up: As facilitators, we are responsible for the set-up, energy level, and overall “feel” in the room, whether it’s virtual or in-person. Instead of sitting, try standing and let them see you move a little (within camera range). A few tips to keep your on-camera space presentation ready:
                  • The space behind you should be clean and free of distraction.
                  • Lighting is important. Make sure you are not lit from behind by a light or a window, which will put your face in shadow. A desk lamp directed to the wall behind your monitor helps highlight your face without the glare of a spotlight.
                  • Conduct a test run to make sure audio, screen sharing, chat features, and polls are set-up properly. Test it once more 15 minutes prior to start.
                  • Log-in early so people aren’t waiting for the host.

 

For the record, we still believe public engagement is best when we can gather in-person to share ideas. Next week we will share a curated list of online tools so you can experiment with new ways of engaging people online. Once we can meet again in-person, this technology can enhance our ability to consult with more people in our project discovery, planning, and development processes.

President

 


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