How to Prepare
A prepared host means that everyone can get the most out of a session.
The amount of time you spend preparing may differ according to the duration and content of the session. The design of your session will be informed by its purpose, participant needs, duration, group size, and the tools you choose.
Test your draft plan against the key principles. Will it make for a session that is meaningful, effective, safe and enhanced by technology?
If in doubt, streamline your agenda to focus on those which will meet the participants’ needs the best. Do fewer things or address fewer questions, and allow more time for discussion, thinking and capturing of ideas. This will take just as much time for you to prepare, but will ensure a more effective and meaningful session for participants.
1. Define the session purpose by understanding the participant needs
Knowing what everyone needs and expects will help ensure your session is purposeful. This doesn’t mean that every session will meet all of everyone’s needs. It does mean you’ll be able to be clear about what everyone will get out of the session so they know what to expect.
You should know and be able to easily articulate the purpose of the session.
Who will be in the session and what are their needs?
What is the purpose of the session - for participants, for the client/partner/stakeholder and for you?
What are people’s roles in this session, and in their organisation?
Challenge your assumptions and make sure you know what people need, not just what you think they need. Draw on information from previous sessions, any data you have about participants, and insights from evaluations.
You could also find out more about your participants’ needs in advance through a survey or conversation to inform the design of the agenda. You could ask:
What three things they want to get out of the session
What key question/s they want answered by the session
What they need to know or be able to do by the end of the session
Which digital tools people can access and are confident using so you can choose the best tools for the session
2. Structure your session into time blocks and time out
Prepare your agenda and block out time for each section
People stay energised and engaged in an online session when blocks of time are dedicated to a clear purpose and when they also have time away from the screen. In general, always allow more time for each block of activity than you would in a real world session.
Break up the session into shorter blocks of time with clear items on the agenda for each section, taking into consideration the following ingredients:
The number of people involved in conversations
The things people are talking about
The balance of passive (e.g. listening to presentation) and active (e.g. questions, post-up ideas, annotating) activities
The entire duration of the session
Allowing time for opening (e.g. with introductions and an icebreaker) and closing (e.g. with reflections)
Design for time out
Design breaks into the session to enable people to stay fresh and focused in the session, as well as allowing time for reflection. Consider including:
Comfort breaks every hour of between 5-10 minutes
A full hour for a lunch break so people can step away from the screen
A physical stretch or task which encourages people to move
Quiet time for people to reflect or work individually on a short task
Plan for introductions
When planning your session, allow time for introductions. For example, a group of 10 people in an hour-long session need to make introductions in under 5 minutes unless getting to know each other is the sole purpose of the session.
If necessary, share introductions in advance of the session. For example, ask each participant to share an introductory sentence, some images or a short video, which would be shared with everyone ahead of the session.
Prepare your aftercare
What will you share with participants after the sessions, such as resources, notes or a feedback survey? If you’re wanting to share discussion summaries and notes, consider this in your choice of tools.
Also keep in mind the needs of your participants, who may want to take different types of actions after the session. For example, you could prepare a reading list for those who might want to do a deep dive after the session, or a podcast for those who have time to listen but not read.
If you’re planning to ask people to complete an evaluation survey, you could:
Leave time for this at the end of the session to do a quick poll. Doing this in the session is likely to increase the uptake.
Share an evaluation survey in a follow up email. It’s good to prepare this in advance and keep time in your closing of the session so they know to look out for it.
Alternatively, you could integrate what you’d like to know about people’s experience of the session into a closing activity instead of asking these questions in a survey.
3. Choose the right tools and technology for your session
The technology may change over time but the approach to planning and hosting will stay the same, in line with the key principles.
Choose appropriate digital tools
Think about what you need to get out of the session and then choose the right tools for the outcome.
Consider using tools which people are familiar with or ones that can be introduced easily, and base your choice on the function you need the tool to deliver.
Group discussion in smaller breakout rooms
Video conferencing to share a presentation
Ideas generation in a whiteboard
Polls to get live feedback
Shareable supporting documents, e.g. Google Docs to capture notes
Make sure the session’s purpose and the participants’ engagement is enhanced by the technology you choose and that it will create a level playing field for participation. It’s important to check what technology all participants can access, so you aren’t unintentionally excluding people from engaging fully.
As we make the shift from face to face meet ups to joining together online, the technology should assist us with replicating or reimagining the ideal in-person experience.
Our Resources page provides suggested platforms, tools and resources.
Do a trial run
It’s your job as a host to help people feel calm and at ease with unfamiliar technology, so you need to have used the technology before and understand enough about the features to be able to explain them and do housekeeping.
Think about lighting. For example, a window behind you will mean you are a silhouette and people won’t be able to see you properly. If your session starts in daylight and ends in the evening, then you may need to think about lamps or other lighting to be turned on during the session.
Test your sound - headphones and/or speaker, and microphones.
That said, the technology doesn’t have to work perfectly to be a success. Things do go wrong and people are generally forgiving.
Don’t forget non-digital tools
Bringing physical objects into the session can help emphasise human connection and enable both reflective thinking and practical prototyping.
Consider if there’s anything you could post to people or ask them to prepare in advance to help everyone’s understanding or to increase engagement.
4. Make sure your participants know what to expect
Things to share in an email with the participants ahead of your session:
The agenda, which includes time blocks and the purpose of the session
If you’re using a waiting room, when this will open to enable a prompt start
A reminder for them to test the technology which is going to be used and make sure they have the most up to date version of the software
To set up their space so it’s quiet and undisturbed (if possible!) and lighting is OK e.g. don’t have a window behind you
Have a glass of water or refreshment to hand
Find a notebook and pen (if needed)
Make people feel safe in advance
Be clear about the provisions you have put in place to avoid any unwanted interruptions such as making the session password protected, disabling screen sharing for anyone apart from the host, setting up a waiting room and locking the meeting once everyone is in.
Ask people in advance if they feel comfortable with a session being recorded, if that’s what you would like to do.
5. Design for equal participation
A good online session will enable people to think, learn and share in an environment that is free from judgement.
Think in advance about how you can create an environment where everyone is able to participate equally, making best use of the technology being used in the session.
For example, you might consider:
Curating diverse breakout groups
Allowing more time for discussions or Q&As than you would in a physical session
Using online whiteboard tools and giving everyone a set amount of time to write and add their ideas or thoughts
Using polls to source anonymous feedback from the group
Consider the specific access needs of your participants, and design the session to meet these needs. If you don’t know what these needs are, find out in advance. You may find people have specific needs because of visual impairments or neuro-diversity such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or other hidden disabilities.
Are there any hierarchies at play that you need to take into account when designing the session? These might be known (e.g. job roles) or more subtle (e.g. personality, confidence). Consider how you will design a session that feels safe for all participants and draws out voices which may otherwise be under-represented.
Differing needs are another important reason why you should send out information about the session beforehand (an agenda sent in advance helps those who find it difficult to take notes), ask people what they need when they sign up to the session and follow up promptly with supporting resources, such as a presentation you shared in the session.
Explore and practice using tools and approaches to make your online sessions accessible. This collection of resources from The Space is a great place to start.