How to reduce friction in virtual events

By Meg Nakahara

May 17, 2022


Minute Read


Many challenges with virtual engagement come back to one thing—friction. Friction is that draggy, slow feeling when people talk over each other, or no one speaks at all, or everyone feels lost, and our brains take a vacation. Most folks are exhausted by endless Zoom meetings and (very reasonably) check out.

The good news is that friction isn’t a foregone conclusion! As a facilitator, you can make strategic choices and deliver your event in ways that work with participants’ ebb and flow of energy and attention, keeping them engaged and getting things done.

You can set yourself up for success by keeping these five rules in mind:

1. Know your purpose

Why are you holding this event? What do you hope to accomplish? Does your audience know the purpose of the meeting and what role you want them to play?

A clear purpose will help you make intentional decisions about your event, from the time needed to accomplish your goal to the number of participants. We always err on the side of doing less to keep our purpose in focus. And don’t forget to share your purpose with your audience! People respond better when they have clear expectations and those expectations are met.

If you’re having trouble clarifying your purpose, check out the “Seven Types of Meetings” for help.

2. Know your tools

Virtual engagements come with a new set of learning curves, many of which we’ve stumbled upon (hello, mute button!), but many remain largely unknown. The ever-evolving tools and features can be intimidating, but you can get more comfortable if you prioritize learning new techniques and practicing regularly. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly makes better. Take the time to know your tools and do a dress rehearsal, especially for larger events, where you walk through transitions and features with all front-of-room and behind-the-scenes staff present.

When tech inevitably throws you for a loop, let your audience know what’s going on, and approach fixing it with a positive attitude. And have your backup ready— know who or where to go for help. We keep a quick guide to help us troubleshoot common issues and a contact list should we need more help.

3. Know your audience(‘s tech skills)

Knowing your audience is key for effective communication, but with virtual events, you also have to consider their familiarity with technology. Be thoughtful about everyone’s learning curves and make time and space to guide the group through how to use tech tools when planning your agenda. We let participants know what tech tools we’ll be using in our workshops ahead of time so they know what to expect and have the opportunity to play around with the software beforehand.

4. Keep them engaged!

Choosing virtual should not mean participants stare at a screen while on mute. In our workshops, we intersperse bits of lecture with interactive activities and small group discussions every 15 to 20 minutes. Switching gears helps hold your audience’s attention and provides variety, but also requires practice and skill to keep transitions smooth. You are most likely to lose your audience when switching between activities—either through tech issues or because they fail to follow you. Be thoughtful in what transitions you make and how you lead your audience through them.

Use features like chat functions, and companion programs like whiteboard software, to give participants more options to show up in ways that feel comfortable and authentic to who they are. Some of us feel comfortable jumping in and sharing thoughts out loud as soon as they strike, but others need more time. The more voices you can hear in a room, the richer and more nuanced the dialogue, and the better the outcomes of your work will be.

5. Embrace the benefits of virtual spaces

Two years after the pandemic forced many of us to pivot to virtual meetings, it’s clear that virtual connection is here to stay, but many of us still treat it as a consolation prize. Participants feed off your energy, your enthusiasm, and your approach. If you’re bummed to be gathering virtually, they’ll feel that way, too. At COMPASS we open events by sharing what a great opportunity it is that we can gather virtually, highlighting ways that it can be even better than an in-person gathering. It’s a gift to be able to connect with colleagues and diverse experts from across the globe in the afternoon, then sign off to have dinner with your family.

COMPASS doesn’t intend for our work to be solely virtual in the future, but we’ve learned so much about how it can be useful that many of our events will stay virtual. Like so many other aspects of communication, successfully running virtual engagements is a skill that takes time and energy to build, but doing it well puts you heads and shoulders above everyone else in the (virtual) room.

Want more guidance and practice designing your event? Check out our upcoming workshop, “Building Better Virtual Events,” on May 25.

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