Six lessons from moving public engagement online

Tales from the field: Six lessons from moving public engagement online

Six weeks ago, we posed the question “How do you engage when you can’t gather?” followed by our tips for alternative engagement options. Since then, the Argyle team has been working with clients across the country to design virtual public engagement programs.

What does this mean for the future of public engagement? While nothing is certain, we know that the shift to virtual and online engagement has become a short-term reality, so here are six new lessons we’ve learned throughout the process:

Prepare your participants

Sending out a detailed agenda along with a technology “tips and tricks” sheet before a session ensures participants both understand the meeting’s purpose and can participate with fewer technological barriers or distractions. We always try to share our facilitation plan, and explain the ways participants can have their say. Don’t forget to test your technology; if you can, do a dry run. On the day of your session, log on early and allow extra time for participants to join the meeting.

Adapt your agenda
Recognize that the virtual format calls for shorter bursts of activity. An eight-hour Zoom meeting is inhumane and you won’t get much value past the two-hour mark. Look at how you can break your agenda into shorter segments and find ways to engage people offline beforehand and afterwards. The same applies to the number of attendees. We’ve found that once you hit more than 10-12 people online, the quality of engagement declines. Shorter, more efficient sessions with fewer people might takes more planning, but leads to more meaningful experiences — and outcomes.

Facilitators are more important than ever
When you’re online, it is harder to read body language and pick up on cues in the room. A strong, impartial facilitator will monitor the conversation as well as the chat function, ensure that all voices are being heard, and draw out insights from quieter participants. That’s what we do every day. Understanding your audience and managing their comfort with the platform and this new way of connecting is vital to successful online meetings.

Get everyone involved
Don’t lose the vital human interaction of engagement just because you’ve moved online. There are many resources you can use to make an online session interactive. Collaborative tools such as SharePoint, Google Docs and white boards allow participants to engage and co-create, even through a computer screen. Many traditional in-person engagement activities can also be replicated online, from points on a map to a scrawl wall. We use animated graphics, videos and online resources to help prepare participants in advance, giving everyone the same information, so that they can participate equitably.

Don’t overwhelm them
You may be excited to share your most innovative solutions with your organization and stakeholders, but keep in mind that online and virtual engagement is still unchartered territory for many leaders and communities. They may be hesitant at first. We try to share successes and lessons learned and offer clients a menu of options suited to the participants to avoid overwhelming anyone.

When you get people online, remember that we’re all struggling to navigate the new normal. Don’t assume everyone has had time, or emotional space, to prepare for your session. Take the time to introduce everyone to the session and remember that emotions could be running high – even if they don’t say so.

Keep on experimenting – but don’t forget the fundamentals
While we can be sure this pandemic will end, we don’t know how, when, or what lasting impacts it will have. We do know that public engagement will keep evolving with public norms and expectations. By allowing ourselves to adapt and test new ways of hearing from communities and stakeholders, with approaches that are people-centered and compassionate, we’ll help organizations maintain and improve their relationships.

Empathy, inclusion, strategy, planning and tested execution: These foundational elements haven’t changed, even as we face the challenges of physical distancing. And, while online tools can help bridge the gap for many, we know digital approaches have limitations and raise barriers for those who are too often left out of these conversations. Stay tuned for our upcoming post on considerations and tactics for inclusive and equitable engagement – not just during this unusual time, but anytime.

How can Argyle help you with your next public engagement challenge? Contact us at to start a conversation.

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