My reflections on the 2020 RELI Country Convening and 11 best practices for successful virtual conferences.

By Ng’ang’a Kibandi – RELI Kenya Country Lead.

What to say? 

If you are married or have been involved in organising a wedding, then you will be able to relate to my stress over the RELI Kenya convening. You know the day is coming but it almost feels like there is no need to start planning too early until it’s a month to, weeks to, days to then the reality dawns on you that should have started planning a year ago or if possible even hired someone to help with the planning. 

In my opinion, convenings are very similar. You just can’t do enough planning.  

RELI Kenya convening: 

For RELI Kenya, the year 2020 has been extraordinary. Plans were made and big plans they were. We were all looking forward to hosting a convening to be remembered ‘like the Tanzania RELI train that became a flight‘. Then CORONA happened and we have had to embrace the new normal by getting all Zoomed out 

Three months ago, an online convening was proposed. This was soon after our beloved CIES conference was cancelled then re-convened online.  It took a little convincing, but it was agreed upon that we would attempt an online option.  

Before we knew it, June was here and dates were set, responsibilities shared, themes agreed, and the real preparations began. Numerous meetings were held in the wee hours of the morning when most of us prefer to sleep. 

I was tasked to coordinate the second convening themed “Innovation and spaces for participation”. Typical preparations require some planning, coordination and a lot goes on behind the scenes. Online it’s all harder. It involved reaching out to the bigger group, identifying key participants, figuring out the programme for the day and most importantly the outputs and outcomes.   

We kept asking the question, “what do we anticipate being the take home/next steps for this session?” 

It helps to have a few people to brainstorm and, in this instance, we had a strong team to add value to the process and ask all the difficult questions. The programme changed constantly. Presentations tend to fall in place only a few days before the convening when most participants reach out.  

The D-Day is finally here, and just like a wedding there are some early morning disappointments. Texts from presenters who won’t make it for one reason or another, technological challenges you didn’t anticipate… 

I walked into my office and found the ISP had conveniently disconnected the service awaiting payment confirmation. The infamous Kenya Power and Lighting Company was also conspiring against me.I need to hatch a plan B. And quickly. 

Five minutes to the actual start point you are anxious and unsure you are fully prepared.   You haven’t had a chance to touch base with your presenters, co-conveners; you just pray all goes well. It’s time. The first voice calls out your name with a valid logistical question. You answer hoping it’s what they want to hear. The entire morning is saturated with such calls confirming everything is in place, no more presenters have had a change of heart and the unexpected traumatic experience of discovering that given your settings the break out rooms you have meticulously planned are not possible. 

Calls and WhatsApp side messages help a great deal when coordinating with key presenters and generally orchestrating the show. The occasional messages confirming all is going well are a huge source of encouragement. You have to listen in and ensure you are not losing what’s going on while managing the crises that keep coming up.  And even if you get all the logistics right, the question lingers: But is the content sufficient, is it provocative to the audience? What next actions could come from this; will this be a waste of time for my colleagues?  Before you know the 3 hours are up and participants are excited, you can almost hear them whisper: “we want more.”  

The last ten minute of the day are the most exciting especially when the conversation suggests that this was a successful. The mishaps go unnoticed and the conversation made sense. Blown away by just how much individual organisation are doing to support the children of East Africa, you feel inspired to pull up your socks and play the game. That was me on the 15th of July 2020.   

Oh! And before I go, here are my 10 To Do recommendations for potential organisers of virtual convenings, conferences and meetings that I’ve picked up along the way: 

1. Start planning for the convening at least three months in advance with regular preparation meetings for the organisers. When scheduling a time for the convening, do pick a time frame where people are alert and active. Remember sessions that go on for over three (3) hours become counterproductive. Keep it focused and punchy. 

2. Share the agenda and workplan in advance to allow participants time to review and think of how to contribute to conversations during the call. If possible, have a joint session with all participants prior to and have a run through the program. it. 

3. To ensure that no trolls join the virtual meeting, avoid sharing the Zoom link on promotion posters and on social media platforms. Use security features such as passwords or sending the Zoom links to participants directly. 

4. Include an activity that builds trust with participants in the first few minutes of the meeting – some call it an‘ice-breaker’ and it’s quite important to set the tone for the meeting. It participants a chance to know each other and makes them more likely to contribute to the session. 

5. Ask session moderators to make their sessions as engaging as possible. This can be done through different Zoom functionalities for example by keeping PowerPoint presentations short and using the break-out and polling features . Endless scrolling of slides by a moderator causes the audience to zone out and be more susceptible to distractions such as emails and social media. 

6. Every ten minutes change up how you are engaging the audience. Please also show your face (ensure that you have good natural or artificial lighting that is illuminating your face) for most of your presentation and ensure that your background is simple so that it does not distract those who are watching you. 

7. Don’t miss an opportunity to increase participation – Q&A needs to be worked in after every session and encourage comments in the Zoom chat feature, break out rooms or reactions. In addition, make sure you celebrate each other as part of the closing. 

8. The timekeeper should nudge the moderators discreetly using WhatsApp, SMS. It also helps to give the next presenter a nudge that they will be coming in next. 

9. The technical team should remember to pin the video of the moderator and if possible, use the spotlight feature on Zoom to ensure all focus during the Zoom meeting is on the moderator’s screen. 

10. The opening and closing of the virtual meeting sets the tone for the whole event. This should be swift, seamless and well thought out to capture the full attention of audiences. The closing of the meeting should also have a clear call to action. 

11. Use WhatsApp to bring together session organisers and moderators so that communication during the virtual sessions are real time and any problems are discussed and addressed without interfering with the virtual session. 

The list of don’ts is significantly shorter: 

1. Avoid panicking – especially in the middle of a session. Be creative and circumvent the situation with a joke or group activity – and ask for backup or help using the session organiser’s WhatsApp group.  

2. You need a flexible plan – not a rigid one. Surprises are almost guaranteed when running an online convening. Share your plan with two or more people who can jump into your place in the event you have a surprise moment (FYI, power blackout is a real danger). 

To crown it all, celebrate and enjoy the sessions! 

Ng’ang’a Kibandi – Africa Educational Trust Country Manager, and RELI Kenya Country Lead.

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