Why Online Events Suck – And Can Be Full of Magic

Have you ever been challenged to set up an online event? Here are eight learnings from my experience of organizing an online summer school for over 100 people from 27 countries

We’ve all experienced it: lengthy online events without a spark of inspiration, but strained eyes. Being connected by tech, but not by heart.

Actually, we all know it: online events suck. And in the near future, they will most probably not substitute offline meetings with personal connections.

How dare we reconsidered – and changed perspectives

Yet, there is a this small, almost tiny opportunity: if we dare to change perspectives and reconsider how values are brought into action, online events bare huge potential to be full of magic.

I’m only confident to say this because I experienced it myself in my role as Communications Manager at Mind & Life Europe. Challenged by the current Covid-19 situation, the team took the decision in late spring to move online with one of our most important events: our summer school usually taking place over one week time. With more than one hundred people. In an easy-going atmosphere. In summer at a beautiful lake. Connecting scientists, contemplatives and young scholars through talks and shared experiences. Now online?

‘Crazy sh*t!’ some would say, ‘challenge accepted’ we said.

To be honest, in the beginning, we had no clue how to transform our so called “European Summer Research Institute” (ESRI) into an online event: a  happening characterized by deep human connections (meeting in person), true insights through experiences (e.g. yoga and meditation) and informal breaks in-between (spaces to meet-like minded people in yet another setting).

Be picky. And connect before you connect.

To make a long story short: what follows are eight of my personal learnings from a five-day online event truly connecting people all over the world. From India to Chile, from Denmark to Australia and lots of countries in-between.

  1. An online event is triple the work – and triple the connection.

It’s a given fact: the more easy-going an online event looks like, the more work it is. And those who state that “online events are so easy to organize” have simply not had the chance to do so themselves. For moderation alone, one (even skilled and experienced) person is not enough. It might take up to three persons to take care of questions, timing, communication, etc. to make something a panel discussion look smooth. The good news is: by doing all this extra work, you will get closer to your team members. People will grow more and more into their roles. Communication will be easier because you know the people better. Work flows become smoother because you actually do speak and meet more often (online).

For us, this meant that we could rely on each other even more so. It felt like a soccer team that had practiced different moves over and over again – and once the game started, there simply was a flow.

During our last check-out after the event was over, one team member actually said:“This feels like a family” – although some of us have never met in person.

  1. Connect before you connect.

Invite participants of the event to connect with you beforehand, so they can get used to the virtual environment you have built. We all live in a digital age, but we are all different regarding our experience with and interest in new technologies. Offer attendees a “way-in” and take them by the hand for the first steps. They will be able to walk steadily once the actual event begins.

In our case, we invited participants to an ‘onboarding call’ four days before the summer school officially started. This allowed us to informally welcome them and take them on a virtual tour through the online environment we had created including Zoom, our event website and Slack. Nowadays, there are so many tools available that we can’t be experts in all of them. But all of us can learn and by showing and experiencing them first-hand (e.g. how to raise hands in Zoom or how to comment in Slack), participants felt confident in using them once the event had started.

  1. It takes a team.

If you want to organize an online event and still have a healthy back, a bit of sleep and a healthy mind at the end of it, please don’t start alone. That’s it.

We actually had a Planning Committee (six people), a Hosting Team (two people), and two staff members (including myself) dedicated to transform this challenge into magic. For us, it really helped to have clear responsibilities. Knowing who would reach out to speakers, who would take care of participants’ applications and who’s in for communications (just to name a few things) helped us get organized – and sometimes, these roles had to be refined as the event developed. During the event, daily check-ins in the morning and check-outs after the day had been closed helped to stay up-to-date and tweak things if needed. Moreover, these short meetings opened a space to check in on a personal level, thereby taking care of ourselves.

  1. Dare to be picky.

Be clear about whom you would like to attend your online event – be it speakers, participants or volunteers – and whether these people share your organizations’ values. Because after all, it’s the whole community that creates magic (or not) with their personalities, not the organizers themselves.

For our five-day event, people from all over the world had applied – and were committed to engage online. Attendees from Mexico would literally wake up in the middle of the night to participate in sessions scheduled in European times. Others from France and Italy endured hours of daily screen time despite more than 30°C in their personal spaces. Many participants took the time to share personal introduction videos in our ‘community’ Slack channel.

As organizers, we could open the spaces for all of that, but in the end, it was the dedicated community who filled it with inspiration, openness and curiosity.

  1. Use screen time wisely.

No matter how grateful we can be for our new technologies – at the end of the day, it’s mostly draining to use them. This makes the time actually spent in front of an online event even more precious – your time as well as the other attendees’. Reconsider what parts of the event really need to be live, e.g. open discussions or panels, and what parts could be pre-recorded or presented in a different way (e.g. articles or online forums).

Since our summer school consists of rather content-loaded parts, interactive panels and experiential parts, we decided to ask the speakers for pre-recordings of their talks. These were made available to the participants a few days before the start of the online event, so that it was up to them where, when and how to watch them. On the other hand, it was important to us that interactive sessions like panels and Q&A sessions were done in real-time, so that participants could be actively included. Also, it felt right to offer the experiential sessions like meditation, Qi Gong, and Yoga, as live sessions, so that all attendees got a sense of doing it together – believe it or not, many people did not even turn away from the screen once they started meditating with closed eyes. It seemed that they had been longing for and finding a community they truly wanted to share this experience with.

  1. Engage everyone.

One downside of online events is that active participation of attendees is a lot more difficult to achieve than during onsite events. Yet, it’s exactly those moments of interaction and active participation that can turn an exhausting online session into an exciting experience.

Over the course of our five-day event, we regularly included small exercises where all attendees were asked for their perspective. One way was to use modern tools such as interactive word clouds, that enable everyone to enter one word via a link which then builds up to a word cloud in real-time. It was a fun way to ask for perspectives, but also to make visible how each participant could influence the overall picture. Another way to engage attendees was to formulate a question about a current emotion or a symbol that matters to them in a given context and ask them to write or draw it on paper. Afterwards, participants were asked to hold their own sheet of paper into the camera. What resulted was a kaleidoscope of shared feelings. A plus for both of these exercises: the result can be easily kept through a screenshot and serves as a great memory and/or communication tool for the online event.

  1. There’s always time for a minute of silence.

While our event was characterized by the guidance of contemplatives, this learning appeals to all online events (and offline events, too, for that matter). As in the offline world, we can experience all sorts of reactions during and event. People get really tired or discussions heat up. Some are overwhelmed, while others are distracted.

In any case, one minute of silence can make all the difference: it allowed us regularly to calm down for a moment, take a deep breath, and set our focus anew. During our online event, we had the privilege of very experienced contemplatives with different backgrounds who guided us – sometimes with a poem or a few spoken words, sometimes with the sound of a bell only. Yet, every one of us can initiate a minute every now and then.

  1. Choose humor over annoyance.

We are all humans and we can all learn so much every day. Mistakes happen, smaller ones and bigger ones. While we can’t change that, we can change how we react to that. Choosing humor over annoyance can make a huge difference and loosen up the situation during an online event. Laughing about how all of us (including myself) are trying out and getting used to this new virtual environment also feels better than laughing at someone who didn’t manage to share his screen right away.

Being open to help from others (‘Nina, we only see a black screen, not a beautiful word cloud’) can transform a formal meeting into a joint act of co-creation.

While I must admit that lots of unexpected things happened, not all of them pleasant, I must also say that it was the patience, openness and support of participants that turned these into magical moments.

Taking the opportunity to transform ‘not having performed’ into ‘developing our way together’ left a feeling of connection that stuck with all of us.

I’m sure that there is so much more that can be learned from transforming offline events into deep online experiences – remembering that it can never substitute the depth of personal connection offsite.

Yet, my wish was to make a start and open a new perspective that allows online events turn into opportunities. And let magic emerge from there.

What have you learned so far?