Technical Facilitation: the Geek’s Guide to Flawless Choreography in Online Meetings
In our team at The Hum, we have about 30 years combined experience in group facilitation. In the past year of working entirely online, we’ve been learning how to translate our facilitation skills into the digital environment. In this article I’m going to share our approach. It’ll be a long list of tips, some bigger concepts, and a couple of super helpful tools you can take with you and use right away.
#1: Never host alone
This is an idea we picked up from the Art of Hosting community - “never host alone”. That means we always have at least two people sharing the facilitation role, so there’s always at least one person who is fully present and paying attention to the group, even when one of us needs to fix a technical issue (oh no my wireless keyboard just died!) or to give one of the participants troubleshooting support.
For any workshop, we usually have one person who is dedicated to “technical hosting” and at least one who is hosting the people. This article explains my approach to technical hosting (we'll follow up with Part 2 to explain more about the "people hosting").
We prep for a workshop by writing a detailed runsheet. You can find an example sheet here (just make a copy if you want to edit it). We use Google Sheets because it’s collaborative, meaning all the hosts can access & edit it simultaneously and we have a single source of truth.
There’s a lot of information here, so I’ll explain it column-by-column.
Section: a workshop is broken up into multiple sections, each with their own format. E.g. a section could be a presentation, or an interactive group process.
Host: who is looking after the “people” facilitation
Tech: who is looking after the “technical” facilitation
Method/tech needs: reminders for the tech host, e.g. “prepare breakout rooms for groups of 3 people with a 10-minute timer”
Purpose: what is the objective of this section
Content: reminders for the people-host, e.g. “explain the key concepts and then stop for questions”
Notes to share on chat: whenever there’s an interactive exercise, we explain the instructions verbally, and also paste the text into the group chat. If you’re using Zoom or BigBlueButton (excellent open source videocall platform), participants can refer back to the instructions in the chat, even when they are out in their breakout rooms. This makes it a lot easier for people to understand the instructions, even if they were distracted for a minute, or if they’re not fluent in the primary language of the group. We use emojis to make the notice easy to find in the stream of everyone’s comments, and we make the instructions as concise as possible. (We picked up this tip from a great digital facilitation training from Aprendix.)
Estimated Duration: we estimate how long each section will take. When we’re preparing a two-hour session, we would plan about 1:45 of content, which leaves 15 minutes in the “buffer”. This means if one section runs over time, we don’t have to panic.
Actual Duration: during the workshop, the tech host will note down the actual duration for each section. This helps us know if we are behind schedule.
Calculated end time: we use a formula (hidden in Column J) to continuously update this column with our best estimate of when each section will finish. If we have a lot of time in the buffer, we’ll let some sections run longer. Or if we can see we are running short, we’ll trim some down so we finish the workshop on time.
When we’re working with a new group, we always start with a couple of minutes to talk about the technology. We set expectations (e.g. mute your mic when you’re not speaking; do you want cameras on or off) and have space for questions. This is to create more equitable participation for people who are less “tech savvy”.
If possible, send some of this information ahead of time: let people know what technology you will be using and what are the most important features they need to be familiar with.
If you’re using breakout rooms, be sure you understand how to configure them in the platform you’re using. It can be a bit tricky, so find a friend to practice with beforehand.
Will people be automatically moved to the room, or do they have to manually click something to join? Let them know what to expect, and check for questions before sending people away.
Will you use the built-in timer, or keep time yourself? In Zoom and BigBlueButton (BBB), you can set a countdown timer that is visible to all participants. Zoom allows you to keep the rooms open even after the timer has run out, however this is not an option in BBB.
It can take a bit of time to configure the breakout rooms, so that’s why we have two hosts: the “people host” can introduce the exercise while the “tech host” sets up the rooms.
Consider if you want people to be able to move between different rooms, or to stay where you assign them -- make sure you enable the right settings for this.
In Zoom, you can broadcast messages to the breakout rooms. These notifications show up on their screen for just a few seconds, so keep them brief, e.g. “2 minutes left” or “move to step 3”. Long messages are distracting and easily missed. Alternatively, if you’re using another tool, you may be able to drop in to each group to give them time notices.
The tech is pretty reliable these days, but there are still bugs and problems. So if possible, I like to have backups. I’ll often connect to the videoconference with two devices, so if one of them loses the internet connection, or randomly crashes or freezes, I can switch over to the other one without disrupting the group. This has saved my bacon enough times that I now do it every time we are hosting a high-stakes meeting.
Sometimes it is nice to have music playing in the call, e.g. while people are arriving, or during breaks. (Dance break, anyone?)
In Zoom: click Share Screen, then Advanced, and you’ll see an option to share Computer Audio. This will stream whatever audio is playing on your computer into the Zoom meeting. Volume is set by your computer’s master volume.
In BBB: I don’t think you can share just audio, but you can share a YouTube video which works great.
If you need to record a meeting, leave a reminder for yourself in the runsheet -- I always forget. Check for consent before you record, and let participants know they can revoke consent if they shared anything in the call that they don’t want on the record.
The easiest way to avoid annoying audio issues is to use headphones (this prevents echo & feedback as the microphone is isolated from the speaker). Just be aware that if you have a microphone on your headphone cables, they can brush against clothing and create annoying noise.
I've recently switched from WiFi to Ethernet as my main internet connection and it has made a huge difference! Ethernet is much more reliable, so my audio/video stream is less likely to freeze up and interrupt the meeting.
Other Zoom-specific tips:
If you have a session which is like a panel discussion with a couple of speakers and an audience, you can use the “Spotlight” feature to put up to 9 speakers “on stage” and hide the audience. This reduces distractions.
Zoom has recently enabled automatic live-transcription in meetings, which currently works pretty well for people who speak American English (and less well for everyone else). Participants can switch captions on or off, and the transcript will be included in the recording of the meeting. This is an effortless way to increase the accessibility of meetings, e.g. for people who are not fluent in the language, or are hard of hearing.
You can let participants know there’s an option to “hide self view” if they are tired of seeing themselves on the screen.
One more tip for the facilitation nerds
Before I was a facilitator, I was trained as an engineer, so that makes me an incredible nerd for group process stuff. So I have one more thing to share, which is just for the real geeks.
Say you have a group that meets every week for 6 weeks. In each workshop, you have a few breakout sessions, so people can meet each other in small group conversations. How do you get everyone to meet everyone else?
I’m very proud/embarrassed to share my spreadsheet which solves exactly this problem!
On the “Breakouts” sheet I have a list of all the participants in the group (Column A). Then as we go through the sessions, I’ll note down who met who. E.g. in the first session, Alastair met with Bob and Daniela. In the second session he met with Jess and Kai.
All this information is summarised over on the “Who Met Who” sheet, using an absurdly complicated formula to produce this chart. This shows me how many times each pair has met:
So when I’m setting up the breakout groups for Session 3, I will avoid pairing Flavia with Harshita, and Sanjay with Sara, as they have already met each other twice. This is extremely helpful if your objective is to maximise mixing.
Note: you need to be proficient with using the advanced features of spreadsheet formulas to use this technique, so it’s really just for the geeks. Credit to Matt King for designing the formula 🙏
As you can see, the approach I’ve described here is very details-oriented (some would say perfectionist). I like to spend 3 hours in prep for every hour of facilitation. I get a lot of satisfaction from the “craft” of facilitation, aiming to make a seamless choreography, with perfect timing, clear instructions & smooth interactions. So if you’re a more emergent / flow-based facilitator this might sound quite up-tight or constricting. But for me, all this structure is liberating, especially when working with a team of other facilitators. So just take the tips that feel useful to you and mix-and-match to suit your style 🥰