Making Videoconferencing Sessions Fun

In the COVID-19 emergency, I’m watching lots of organizations and groups go through technology adjustments to maintain operations, aka “get stuff done.” It would be a struggle, especially if their online life was minimal before. If their technology was focused on the web, social media, and CRM, moving to real-time conferencing can be a challenge.

It’s a perfect storm of solemnity: (1) COVID-19 is somber, (2) their operations are too jeopardized for joking, (3) implementing new tech in a rush is a heavy lift, and (4) some of their most important participants are some of the least tech-confident.

In that serious, stressful environment, it can be hard to see that one of the most transformative elements is fun. It lightens the mood and makes learning easier. (We already knew that!) It also increases engagement. Deviating from a script or slideshow is a signal to all that what’s going on is a human encounter, albeit heavily intermediated. Meetings are more mutual when meeting leaders are seen as more warm and direct.

I’m encouraging the groups I work with to manage their videoconferences with elements that will restore a bit of the humanity of face-to-face meetings, and to help their members to do likewise:

  • Dress up. I’m not just talking about wearing pants (which I genuinely believe are optional). Dig down into that Halloween costume tub. Don’t have one? It’s never too late to start collecting masks, hats, beads, and bangles. Clown makeup may be going too far, but hey.
  • Use props. Take the cover page of that report you’re going over and make a hat out of it. Creatively remake the sign on the office door with your name and title. Use a slide whistle for good news (sliding up) and bad news (sliding down). Kazoos for important announcements (ta-da!).
  • Have ready-made response signs (e.g., “I agree!”) and materials to make signs in real-time. Yes, there are built-in tools for this, but they tend to be limited (handclap, thumbs up), and holding up a sign along with an amplifying expression on your face tells a lot more.
  • Be lively in chat windows. I’m telling people to think of them as thought bubbles ( “Hm, I wonder …”) as well as places for text & links. In terms of the user interface, this is easier if people are on a desktop, where keeping the chat window visible while seeing the video faces is more feasible.
  • Move content from dense slides to faster, rich media. Listening to someone read the words on a 4-paragraph slide in person is terrible. But having someone do it online is toxic because folks will wander or drop off. Replace anything static with anything that moves. Even an animated arrow will draw some attention back; an animated cow or startled baby is so much better. Search for the right GIF or video snippet and add it to the presentation.
  • Use green screens. This is not only fun, but it can also be closely related to session content, of course. It takes a bit of learning and preparation, but not that much. I’ve heard people say that they went on to use it in calls with their families and friends, so there you go. We’re building a powerfully expressive technological culture in record time, under pressure, and as far as I can see, we’re doing great!

I’ll give you an example of something I’m doing.

I log in on a second device, usually my phone, with a macro lens (for closeup magnification) clipped onto the camera. It’s aimed at little dioramas that I make and put on a lazy susan. One is “nuts & bolts” which has actual figurines you can get at a craft store. (Yes, I know that there are stock images of this kind of message, but playing with tiny figurines is much more fun than picking out one of those images with those bulbous critters.) I have customized several of these with Lego, fast food toys, and whatnot. The macro lens provides a great image, and the lazy susan shows it off from different angles, plus you can assemble several dioramas on the same rotating platform.

These ideas tend to move the session towards being a show rather than a meeting. That’s the right mindset, not a mistake. It can be overdone, but all in all, a show is more engaging and more memorable. Think of the best documentary TV show you ever saw — was it a recitation, or a skillful aggregation of facts underscored by dramatic video, emphatic narration, and even music?

To me, it’s undeniable, but there may be pushback from the organizational culture. So hit it with an efficiency argument: a show is tight, never wasting a second. That’s what we love about shows, be it a movie, TV, or stage performance. Time itself is enriched, so attention is offered freely, and enthusiastic commitment is easier to achieve. Isn’t that what an efficient meeting tries to do?

This does not in any way rule out very democratic participation. It just puts participants on notice that their contribution should be useful and concise and even lyrical if they can pull it off. (I was once in an organization whose recording secretary put some of our meeting minutes into verse. Unlike every other organization I’ve been in since everyone read the minutes every month.)

A word on what’s tough

So far, I’ve focused on the upside, it’s only fair to look at the other side. In no way is it easy to transform a culture in this direction. In a way, it’s similar to what happened as organizations struggled over the role of the technology itself. If you’re old enough (I am), you will remember executive officers who refused to use email directly but had their assistants print everything out. Those deserving of replies got hand-written notes on the printouts, sent on by corporate mail. Every migration has its holdouts and friction points.

  • Leadership. As we already know, discrepancies between technical leadership and organization leadership can be … unwholesome. And this new approach would add another dimension: showmanship, or even comedic talent. Some got it and some ain’t (although it is learnable). That super-serious executive is going to have to lighten up, permit others to lighten up, and recognize others for their showmanship. That recognition has to be visible to all. One organization pretty far along this path has chosen to add the role of Producer to the list of roles working to pull together its monthly webinar to its board members. Note: this is not a full-time job! If you think about it, there is probably someone already on staff who would enjoy a chance to show off some of her drama school chops, long lurking beneath tons of accounting reports.
  • Preparation. It’s ironic but obvious: it takes some extra time and sweat to make something fun. Rarely in terms of money — that’s a relief — but no doubt someone is going to have to work on graphics, videos, music, props, jokes, etc. in advance. Sometimes you’ll be pushing the limits of the platform you use, so there may need to be consultations with IT or communications.
  • Managing calls. Running the actual call gets more complicated than deciding whether you’ll take questions after each slide show or only at the end. (And perhaps waiting through the silence.) The person doing the management is now, in TV terms, the Director, picking shots and letting them run their course while getting others lined up. It can be hard to manage broad input when all of a sudden, everyone’s got something to say, but that’s a good problem to have, right? To me, the key is firm but warm facilitation. People appreciate that they will get their chance in the spotlight if they are willing to wait in line, like a talent show.

I’m sure many are already using humor and creativity. I certainly see it on the many online Happy Hours that have popped up from workplaces where folks used to go to a bar after work on Fridays. Why not incorporate some of that fun and camaraderie into your workday?

Jim Tobias
Jim Tobias recently retired from more than 40 years experience in accessible and usable technology in both public and private sectors. He has focused on how technologies are designed and used in education, employment, communication, transportation, commerce, and civic participation, for seniors and people with disabilities. Digital inclusion, broadband adoption and use, and how technologies live in social and economic environments are his main policy arenas.

With a Master’s Degree in Industrial Design, he began his career at Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living, then led initiatives at Bell Labs and Bellcore on enhanced usability and accessibility. His technology analysis consulting firm specialized in accessible information and communication technologies. Clients included AOL, the California Secretary of State’s Office, the California State University system, Cisco Systems, HP, IBM, Microsoft, National Science Foundation, Panasonic, Qualcomm, and Verizon.

He has served on several advisory committees, including co-Chairing the U.S. Access Board’s committee on updating accessibility requirements in Sections 255 and 508. Jim co-directed the accessibility element of California’s review of voting technologies, and led the user testing component.

His favorite projects have been: an innovative telecommunications relay service with integrated speech technologies, a network-based talking productivity toolkit, and “AT Boogie”, an award-winning music video about assistive technology.