Engaging virtual sessions. After close to two years of SO MANY ZOOMS, it’s still the thing many of my clients are looking for.

Because, sadly, “engaging” and “virtual” don’t always go together.

I’ve been working with a client to design and deliver marketing workshops for their new virtual meeting and presentation platform, and I thought you might enjoy some of the tips I’ve been sharing.

Take “Unofficial Starts.”

What the heck are those, you ask?​

I like to think of them as a magical buffer zone — a sort of decompression chamber between whatever else is going on in your participant’s day and the official start of your event.

So what, exactly is an unofficial start, and why do we do them?​

Well, to answer that question, think about the last time you went to an in-person event.

Perhaps you drove there.

If so, you parked your car, then walked to the building.

Maybe you met some fellow participants on the way in.

You chatted as you looked for the right room.

And as you walked in the door, the host welcomed you with a big smile, asked how your day is going, introduced you to some other participants, directed you to the nametag table, and showed you where to get coffee and snacks.​

Over the course of the next five minutes, you found your seat, took off your coat, made a nametag, poured yourself a hot beverage, and met three new people.

​You’ve started connecting, and a culture of engagement is already established, and the event hasn’t officially begun!

This all happens rather naturally when our events are in-person.

​With virtual events, though, we have to be supremely intentional and mindful about building “Unofficial Starts” into the session design, or engagement will fizzle.

You can’t expect people to all log in at exactly the same time, so I like to allow 5 minutes or so at the top of any session as “Unofficial Start” time.

This is a great time for an easy activity that everyone can participate in, that engages curiosity, that sparks delight.

If it ties into the theme of the event, so much the better!

The goal is to ease your participants into your event, and establish that this is going to be an interactive event, where they are expected to engage — not sit back and passively consume content.

This doesn’t have to be complicated!

Let’s look at 9 different types of Unofficial Starts that you can use right away.

Ask a Question in Chat

One easy Unofficial Start is to simply ask a question as folks log in that they can answer in chat.

I love this one, because it works well for any group size, and on any platform — webinar or meeting — whether participants can share video or not.

Here are a few questions you might use:​

“Share a boring fact about yourself.” (hat tip to Shana Merlin for this one)

“Share a worthless skill you have.” (hat tip to Erica Marx for this one)

​”What’s one thing that made you smile recently?” (hat tip to Reginald Harris for this one)

Or a variation I love:

“Write a 6-word story about how your day has gone so far.” (I wish I could give credit to the person I learned this from, but I can’t remember!)

As people share their answers, read a few out loud and comment on them. People love getting validated in that way!

Another tip:

While people are sharing, you might want to display a countdown timer that shows the time remaining before the official start of your event. 3 to 5 minutes is a good amount of time for an Unofficial Start, but play with this and see what works for you!

Renaming

Perhaps you’ve been in a Zoom meeting where the host invited you to rename yourself — whether to add your location, your pronouns, or something else about yourself, or to rename yourself entirely. Sometimes facilitators do this for purposes of sorting large groups into breakout sessions later (adding numbers or letters to the start of your name, for example). But renaming can be a fun activity in itself.

“Change your name to the way you feel right now, and the last thing you ate.” (Hat tip to Erica Marx and Lacy Alana.)

“Change your name to the place on the planet you’d most like to visit.”

“Change your name to the first thing that springs to mind when I say the word… [insert random word here, or word that relates to the topic of your session]” (Hat tip to Robin Fox for this game!)

Renaming in this way serves a similar purpose as typing the same info into chat, but it does it in a more visual manner. Because the information is attached to each participant’s video/face, everyone can get a quick scan of the virtual room to see everyone’s response, rather than having to look over to the chat.

Even if I could accomplish the same goal using the chat box, I like using the rename feature to do things differently for a little variety, because it wakes people up a bit. Which is, of course, exactly what we’re going for!​

Hint: If you choose to try the last example above, I find it works best to start with a few random words before using a word related to the topic of the session. You may even want to bookend your meeting with this exercise, using random words at the start of your meeting [automobile, pickle], and words that relate to the topic of your session [Communication, Leadership] at the end.

Polls

Of course, we’ve all taken our share of polls in virtual sessions.​

One tip on Zoom polls: ask ONE question per poll.

If you have multiple questions that you want to poll people on, create a separate poll for each question.

Why? Because participants will have to answer every single question before they can submit their answer, so you won’t be able to see the results from question 1 until ALL of the poll questions have been answered and submitted.

Trust me on this one: create a separate poll for each question, one question per poll.

Word Clouds & Other Visual Polls

While polls are great to keep in your Unofficial Start toolbox, let’s get more creative!​

Instead of defaulting to the internal polling tool that comes with your virtual meeting or webinar platform, try using something more visual and colorful, like Mentimeter’s many options, which shift and grow as participants vote.​

(Word clouds are especially fun.)


Or go the completely unexpected route.

Name That Tune

How about a game of “Name That Tune”?

Have a playlist cued up with theme songs from TV shows and films, and prompt your participants to type the name of the show/film as soon as they recognize the song. (Hat tip to Jan Keck for this idea.)

I recently used this Unofficial Start activity in a workshop themed around Listening & Awareness, and it was a big hit.​

Trivia

In a similar, albeit nonmusical vein, trivia can be a fun and engaging Unofficial Start activity. Either paste questions into chat as you ask them, or create a slide deck with questions and answers. (Google “trivia questions” to find collections of questions.)

If your platform allows it, it can be fun to ask people to raise their hands if they think they know they answer, and then invite them onscreen to take a guess. If they guess correctly, make sure to celebrate their win! (Zync.ai, a new platform I’ve been designing workshops for, has a fun Trivia feature that makes this super-easy.)

This next section has Unofficial Start activities that may be especially appealing for those who are more visually inclined.

Annotation

The Annotation function in Zoom opens up a wide range of possibilities for interaction and engagement, and using annotation as part of an unofficial start activity happens to work really well, with a few caveats.

Here’s the positive side of annotation:

You can do fun things, like open up a map of the world, and invite folks to put a stamp on their location.

Where are you logging in from? Analog map with digital stamps

The map in the image above happens to be one I drew by hand, and shared on screen using a document camera, but screensharing a map that you found via a Google Image Search works just as well.

(Why do I share a hand-drawn map? I like to go “analog” wherever possible, because it’s unexpected, and sparks delight for participants. Plus, if someone on the call is unable to use the annotation function for whatever reason, they can share their location in the chat, and I use one of the tiny paper “pins” in the lower left hand corner to make sure they’re represented on the map. In this digital day and age, it’s fun for viewers to see my hand moving back and forth over the paper. 😁)

In a similar vein, why not use annotation to find out who’s in the room?

Here’s a page I drew in a bullet journal that I shared via my document camera (with a stash of cut-out check marks set aside that I could place on the page for any participants who couldn’t access the annotation function):

Is there a question you would like to ask of your participants? Instead of defaulting to chat, or a poll, consider how you might use annotation to make your question more visually engaging.

Caveats:

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when using the annotation feature.​

First, many people don’t have experience using annotation tools, and accessing them is not the most obvious thing! So it’s a good idea to be very explicit with your instructions, both verbally, and in writing.

If you create a slide, consider including text directly on the slide that says something like,

“On your Zoom bar, you’ll see a green bar with a button on the right that says VIEW OPTIONS. Click and find ANNOTATE in the drop down menu. Next, click STAMP. Pick the heart, and stamp where you are in the world.” 

Second, as Zoom Host, you’ll need to make sure that annotation is enabled for participants, otherwise that option won’t be available to them. However, be advised that once empowered with the ability to annotate, some groups go a little wild!


Never fear — as host, you have control over the situation.

In the toolbar that appears when you start screensharing, click on the “More” menu item at the far right (the one with three dots above it)

Inside the dropdown menu that appears, you’ll find an option to Disable Annotation for Others.

​And at the far right of the Annotation toolbar itself, you can clear all drawings, your own drawings, or just viewers’ drawings, by clicking on the little trash can icon.

Coloring

One specific use of the annotation tool that I’ve used with great success is to invite people to color (hat tip to Romy Alexandra for this fun idea!)

Since I’m an artist, and I’ve actually designed and published coloring book art, I made my own coloring pages:

…but you can find designs easily enough on the internet if creating your own feels intimidating.

You can see in this example how I’ve included instructions for how to access the annotation tool. I also verbally give these instructions as participants enter the room as well.

Drawing

My last visual unofficial start activity, which also uses the annotation tool, I learned from Debra Schifrin, and that is to invite people to draw something they’re hoping to get out of the meeting/training/event/etc. For psychological safety, it’s important to be explicit that their drawing can be either representational or abstract.

The quick and dirty version of this activity involves simply opening up the white board and typing instructions at top.

I find it easier, though, to create a white image document with the instructions pre-typed, and then simply share that image. That way I don’t have to scramble to type, or copy and paste, the instructions each time.


Because most people have so many creativity scars, and have so much baggage around the idea that they “can’t draw,” it’s crucial that you set this activity up so that people feel successful, and don’t want to run screaming from the room.

I like to emphasize how crazy it is to try to draw with a mouse on a whiteboard, and I also like to make my own crappy drawing as well.

By jumping in and modeling vulnerability, it helps others feel psychologically safe to do the same.

Use the drawing time as an opportunity to chat about the drawings — draw people out (pun only slightly intended 😉), ask questions to see if the colors or shapes have particular meanings.

This activity often results in a lot of nervous laughter as people struggle with the tools, and comment on each others’ drawings.

So there you have it: nine types of Unofficial Start activities, including three specifically visual approaches that use the Annotation function in Zoom, but with different twists.

Let me know which one of these appeals to you most, and if you try any of them, let me know how it goes!

Do you have any activities that weren’t mentioned here that you like to do as Unofficial Starts?

 

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