Tips for leading an online workshop without making everyone want to curse you out (pt. 1)

After a summer of attending, literally, countless webinars and workshops and other zoom, go-to-meeting, and Google meet gatherings about trauma, racism, self-care, living as a BIPOC at a PWI, grounding, antiracism, “The Matrix,” How to be an Antiracist, meditation, college counseling, restorative justice, teaching, dating, Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI), microaggressions (or, racial abuse), creative writing, design thinking, starting a business, and any number of other topics, I’ve become a bit of a Zoom gathering snob. Most (not all!) of the workshops and webinars I participated in were expertly moderated, often by several people, and often centered the needs of folx with hearing or visual disabilities, BIPOC folx, and folx with limited attention spans, poor wifi, or bad computer cameras.

They were, in short, truly welcoming spaces.

Feeling welcomed is always important. But it’s even more so now because so many of us are experiencing a loneliness and sense of invisibility that we never have before. At the same time, we’re even more vulnerable tan we ever have been before because the first time you meet someone you might be looking at where they live, their spouse’s legs, the disarray of their home. To add to that discomfort by creating an alienating online space is at best, irritating, at worse, angering, and at worst, cruel.

I’m now going to list for you some of the things I’ve experienced in zoom meetings that I’m going to go ahead and expect in online meetings henceforth (from myself and others):

  1. The moderators must use a laptop or desktop. An iPad or smartphone will not do.

In an ever-so-slightly better world, it would be possible to use all of the functionalities of zoom on an iPad. We are not in that world. One cannot effectively moderate a zoom meeting from an iPad because iPads do not allow a moderator to see multiple participants at once; this means that moderators on iPads will inevitably fail to see someone raising their hands or waiting to be called on, and someone will definitely be ignored. It feels terrible to get ignored. It’s already difficult (for most folks) to be zooming in the first place, so you don’t want to compound that in any way. As Junot Diaz might say if he inexplicably wrote a book of zoom fiction, “this is how you lose them.” Them, of course, being your attendees.

2. Moderators who struggle with multi-tasking must co-moderate OR use 2 computers. (part 1)

Zoom has a lot of great things going for it, but one of the many annoying things about Zoom (and I say this with all the love in the world for this odd and beautiful platform) is the appearing and disappearing controls. Perhaps my crunchy, 44-year-old brain just needs to be more flexible, but it is time consuming and painful to watch a moderator search in vain for a control on a computer. As a moderator who has been in that situation a couple of times, it feels embarrassing. Moderators have to open and close multiple menus and windows to find just right one. Meanwhile the viewing audience is cringing and trying hard to not get annoyed because, frankly, they could be streaming or sleeping, or doing literally anything else in the world (except leave the country, if they are American). Don’t make them annoyed. Don’t make me annoyed. Use two computers. One computer will work as your moderating computer, and the other one will work as your participating computer. And if you have a second moderator, that person can vamp and keep the conversation going while you figure out your tech. Or they can figure out the tech for you if your computer freezes.

3. Moderators who struggle with multi-tasking must co-moderate OR use 2 computers. (part 2)

Co-moderators should have different jobs. One person should be in charge of constantly scanning the zoom room to see if folx look like they want to speak (like IRL meetings, this can look as subtle as adjusting one’s position or as overt as raising a hand), announcing comments or questions that appear in the chat, explaining how to virtually raise hands (this is different than using a “reaction”), and regularly telling folx (when several people want to ask or answer a question) the order in which people will speak. What should NOT happen is that both moderators act as participants and then get confused about how to use the tech or try to decide between them who should speak next. This is irritating.

4. If all you are doing is talking over slides, then please just record it and send it out to folx. Make your zoom interactive or pre-record it for everyone’s sanity.

We’re all busy. We’re all stressed. We all have lives to lead, babies and furbabies to play with, and meditating and/or praying to do. So if you are going to lead a meeting that just involves your just participants listening to you and looking at words or pictures on a screen, then please don’t make them do it synchronously. It’s like being tied to a chair and whipped with words. You absolutely must use the poll or annotation function in zoom or set up a Kahoot, Quizizz, Quizlet, or Gimkit, or engage in a pretty interesting conversation (see points 3 and 5) to keep your participants feeling like their presence is a necessary part of the experience. Otherwise they will either log off the zoom, or they’ll turn off their video and go do something else with you none the wiser (but still suspecting your non-participating “participants” are off kneading dough or changing cat litter or sleeping).

5. Learn how to lead a discussion.

Shoutout to the journalists and the teachers who know the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. There is no quicker way to watch a zoom dissolve into angry, annoyed silence than to ask folks to ask questions and opine about a self-evident thing. I recently attended a Zoom in which the moderator kept saying things like (and I’m exaggerating for effect, here, the moderator never actually said this):

Nighttime is generally darker than daytime. What do folks have to say about this?

Really bad moderator

Literally no adult in the modern world has any comments about or questions regarding this so-called observation. But then! Then! The moderator actually waited for 30 seconds, re-asked the non-question, then waited another minute (!) for someone to respond. The moderator did a zoom “Bueller, Bueller” for the ages. Oh, how I cringed. How I raged! I beat my breast and rent my clothing like someone in an ancient Greek play, all while furiously typing. I’m sure everyone else was texting and privately chatting just as furiously as I was. But I was trapped there because I wanted a certification or credit of some sort or another. I really, really wanted to leave. And from that point forth, I ceased to participate. I was angry.

DO NOT. And I repeat, DO NOT ASK FOR AN INTERPRETATION OF INFORMATION THAT REQUIRES NO INTERPRETATION. People will revolt by pretending you said nothing. And you, bad moderator, will sit there like pancake batter on a cold, cold grill.

More to come...

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