Tips for leading online workshops without making everyone want to cuss you out (pt. 2)

Last week, I went to a 6-hour (!!) racial equity training workshop through Race Forward, an organization that, according to its website, “brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity.” I arrived 10 minutes late to that training right after having left another masterfully moderated, two-hour racial equity training for my school led by Altagracia Montilla, Chief Equity Officer at the Center for Supportive Schools.

Despite being absolutely zoomed out, I went to the level one training at Race Forward and left the 6 hours of training (after 2 previous hours of training) feeling absolutely invigorated and refreshed. I am the proof: it is possible to lead folx through 9 straight hours of zoom without your participants running screaming through the streets (with a mask on)! You just have to be strategic.

  1. Please make the space feel both comfortable and refreshing.

I can’t believe it, but it still appears to be true: there are still folx out there who insist on leading the saddest, most interminable chalk-and-talk meetings in the world. They are really eager to make boring workshops online feel exactly the same as boring IRL workshops, with nasty coffee, stale, soggy sandwiches, and really repetitive and tentative side conversations. Except they want to import that deeply uncomfortable feeling into your home. Don’t do this anymore!

Instead, try to re-create the loveliest, most wonderful in-person meeting experience you remember from the pre-covid days. Perhaps that meeting was a dinner party, or a wedding, or a movie date with a few buddies. Know what those things tend to have in common? Music! Relaxing, or invigorating; silly, or welcoming, or calming. Feel free to do all the normal meeting stuff, but add in a little more comfort.

Wouldn’t it be nice to log into a zoom and hear the peppy, yet calming, bass intro to Lovely Day by (the late) Bill Withers?

“Just one look at you / And I know it’s gonna be / A lovely day” — Me, when I look at my zoom screen and see a video playing this Bill Withers song.

Rule of thumb: play the music at about 30% of the volume that feels right. It’s louder for the participants than it is for you, if you are using the sharing your computer sound. And check in with participants to find a volume where they can hear the music and hear the voices of the facilitators without strain.

2. Turn the lights off. Metaphorically.

About *cough cough* years ago, when I was 27 years old, living on my own (and not in a dorm) for the first time, I threw my first party. Everyone arrived about an hour late, which I expected–except for a couple of friends from upstate, who didn’t know that parties in NYC DO NOT start on time–and I was excited for an evening of relaxation and fun jabber. But 1.5 hours into the actual party, there was still awkwardness in the air, even though everyone had a beverage, the music was great, and the finger food was really tasty. A friend pulled me aside, and told me the problem: “It’s too bright in here,” he said. “People won’t dance or talk to strangers if it feels like they’re on the subway.” And he was right. Moments after I loosened several light bulbs in my overhead fan (this was several months before I installed dimmers), I could see shoulders relaxing, and conversation getting interesting.

Online meeting shouldn’t feel like a party at a 27-year-old’s house, BUT they should be something that every participant has a chance to ease into. Usually, when you go to an IRL meeting, you have time to prepare yourself mentally for what will happen while you travel there. Maybe you get a moment or two in the elevator, or you head into the bathroom and look in to mirror, or you listen to an audiobook in your car. But you get to arrive there. This is not the case in Zoom. At least not for everyone, especially if your zoom is during the work day. You could have folx popping over to your zoom from a meeting that ended 5 minutes before, or they could have just been frantically searching all their emails to find the one right zoom ink among the thousands of zoom links so many of us receive daily.

Would you rather arrive to a meeting to see 10-100 faces staring at you, or to something lower stakes? I particularly enjoy nature scenes or a welcoming padlet full of the positive greetings of attendees for the few 5-10 minutes of a meeting, while everyone trickles in. Then you can start your meeting. Imagine clicking your zoom link and seeing this loveliness, along with greetings for you in the chat box. Relaxation. Welcome. Stress avoided.

3. Breaks.

Generally, Zoom fatigue sets in after about 1.5 hours. That doesn’t mean that your meeting has to be 1.5 hours, however. Rather, it means that you need to have a substantial break from the screen about every hour. And substantial doesn’t mean 5 minutes. It means 15 minutes away from the screen. There are lots of ways to handle the down time. My favorite way is to pick a good Spotify playlist, let folks know what time to come back, and screenshare a timer or youtube countdown like the one below (beware the alarm though; it’s really annoying):

Okay. That’s enough for installment 2. There is so much more to say. But there’s always more to say, and it’s time for my rest.

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