The group dynamics of an online meeting strongly depends on the number of participants. What works with small groups will result in chaos if applied to a big crowd. If you want it to work, adapt your programme. In this post I share my ideas on how to do that.
A strange thing happens when you prepare an online meeting for eight people, but only four show up. In the past year it happened a few times in my training sessions. This made me think about the group dynamics of online meetings. Once I started to note the differences, I discovered a few tipping points on the group size scale from the one-on-one meetings to webinars with anonymous crowds.
In this post I describe these online group dynamics, its challenges and possible solutions. This is based on the context in which you transmit knowledge and skills to others. For me this is e.g. presenting skills, blogging, or outreach. However, I think, to a certain extent, these lessons also apply to explaining R or the presentation of your last paper.
An online session with one person (e.g. a Veni presentation training) is all about individual needs. If the schedule allows for I, you can take the time to become acquainted with each other and a bit of small talk. Discovering things you have in common (the cold and wet spring, the lockdown, the kids at home) creates a bond you need to facilitate the open conversation. Especially online you need this to make the interaction work. Although you teach the other, the relation is equal. Both sides of the line are responsible for the success of the session.
Also while working one-on-one it is a good idea to prepare a programme. After the ice is broken, you can use some time to explore needs and adapt your plans. I usually explain my idea about the course of the session and ask if the other agrees with that. Depending on the needs you can skip parts, make them shorter or longer. Sometimes you decide to schedule another meeting.
In a small group personal interaction is key. Interaction between you and the participants and the participants between themselves. On most platforms you see everyone. This promotes the feeling of connection and it tells you if the group is still with you. Because of the small group size participants cannot hide in anonymity and they feel a shared responsibility for the quality of the meeting. The threshold to ask a question or share your views is low. It is fine when participants open their microphones and ask the questions when they have them. Application of tools such as polls and the chat can distort the connection and feels a bit awkward.
The smaller the group, the bigger the chance that you run out of time. You receive more input from the group and you want to honour that. It is wise to prepare a clear structure, but it is not set in stone. Build a lot of white space in your programme. This allows you to improvise. Also, be prepared to skip parts of the programme if you discover that needs are different then you thought beforehand. In a small group it is also possible to do an introduction round and a quick scan of learning goals (something you might also do beforehand via email).
In my online training sessions I often use ‘zero measurements’. At the start of a thematic block I test what participants know or think about a topic and I use this input in my explanation. In a small group this can be done oral. I also build in individual exercises. Participants switch of their webcams and microphones and create a core message. It gives them time to reflect on what they heard and go away from their screen for a while. Then they all share their core message, which gives time to give feedback and share common tips and tricks.
The group dynamics change above the limit of five participants. Personal interaction becomes a bit more difficult. On some platforms and small laptop screens, a few participants disappear out of sight. Especially if you share your slides. Participants are more anonymous and the threshold to take part in the conversation is higher. Moreover, it becomes chaotic when everyone ask their questions as they arise. It is wise to communicate clear rules at the beginning of the session. For instance: mute your self by default and ask questions in the chat. There is also the danger of too much focus on the more assertive participants. My trick: I have a list of participants and I mark who has spoken. Then everyone gets their turn.
With this group size, you start to rely more on your slides. Because the group is less responsive and you have to do more at once (your stress level rises slightly) you will go faster. At the same time a round of personal feedback can take too much time. This will hamper your programme downstream. Put a paper scenario in front of you and check it frequently.
Let go of the ambition to give each participant a lot of personal attention. You can outsource it. For example, put people in breakout rooms and let them work together (with a bit of instruction) and give each other feedback. Give enough time. Next to doing the exercise, participants will also use some time to get acquainted. For zero measurements I often use the chat or a poll. A word cloud (I use Menti) can be a good way to get some insight in the diversity of views and a starting point for a conversation. If it is possible, you can alter between group sessions, self-study, and one-one-one feedback sessions in which you deal with individual needs.
11 – 25
It is no longer possible to talk with each individual participant. Here you are the shepherd leading the group through the programme. Interactions with individual participants have a deductive nature. Starting from an individual conversation you arrive at general principles. If you share your slides, the majority of the group disappears out of sight. Participants are rather anonymous and feel much less responsibility to make the session work. Some will stray away, switch of their webcam and start to check their email. Others feel free to distort the process and undermine your leading role. Clear rules, clear structure, and a scenario are very important. Manage expectations. Agree on the programme and purpose of the session beforehand and communicate this to all participants.
Switching between working methods can also engage larger groups. The chat allows participants to ask questions. Create fixed moments in your scenario to take a look at the chat. You can ask people to explain their question orally. Then you are not the only voice people hear. Reacting to what happens in the chat during the presentation is not wise. It creates extra chaos and stress. Moreover, in the chat a parallel conversation might develop and it not always concerns the topic of the meeting. Also in this group size individual exercises and breakout sessions can offer a welcome alternation and foster individual contacts. And, especially because of the group size polls do very well. They generate a lot of data points.
Ideally you address groups with this size together with a co-host. You have to do more at once and probably you experience more nerves. Ask your co-host to deal with e.g. the technical aspects, prepare the breakout rooms, start polls, guard the agenda, and keep track of what happens in the chat. Together you also can split up the group in two breakout rooms so you can give a bit more individual attention. Moreover, you can ask eachother questions and thus promote a group discussion.
This is like tv. Your audience disappears almost entirely. The difference between 25 or 250 people is not that significant. Only the list of people you do not see is longer. Participants are more like spectators. They can (most also want to) hide anonymous in the crowd. Letting people react on a poll works pretty well. You have a lot of data points. Do you see striking answers in a word cloud, you can ask for oral explanations. Mind that not everyone likes it to be put in the spotlight at once.
A water tight scenario is essential. You really run a show. Use the webinar mode if the platform has one. It gives you more control, you can manually put participants live on the stage. A format that really works great is the panel discussion. Put three experts on the stage and let them discuss the topics you would otherwise cover in more interactive ways. Combined with questions from the chat, this can be an entertaining format.
Here you preferable work with two colleagues. As the presenter you present, interview the panel members and interact with participants that appear on the stage. Your director guards the timeline, monitors the chat for relevant questions and remarks). The technician manages the platform, starts polls, prepares breakout sessions. Create a communication channel outside the session to discuss procedural matters. It does not look very professional if this is done en plein public. Use WhatsApp, or the moderator chat. Or even better: be in a physical room together. It makes managing the session much easier and the celebration of its success afterwards much more fun!
Main image: Crowd at Knebworth House, Sérgio Valle Duarte on Wikimedia Commons