How to Create Truly Engaging Online Conferences

In: BlogDate: Dec 28, 2020By: Henry Stewart

Have you, like me, been to a number of online events where you just have to sit and listen while the speakers talk? There may be people that like this approach and feel they learn well from it, but to be honest, I doubt it. You would probably be better off listening to some TED Talks.

So, what’s the alternative? In this blog, Henry provides a step-by-step account of how to create a truly engaging online conference.

Do you want to make a difference?

My standard presentation is around how to create happy workplaces. And I know, from experience, that if I simply give a speech then people may remember it, but are unlikely to do anything different. However if they get the chance to discuss the ideas and what actions they may take, then some will actually make changes. Of course, real life conferences are no different. A couple of years ago I wrote this piece on a methodology to make in person conferences interactive.

I believe that online conferences can actually be more engaging. Our last virtual event, with 110 people, was rated more engaging than any of the 25 real life conferences we’ve held in the last few years.

“It was astonishing how a day on Zoom could be so energising, interesting and engaging,” said one attendee.

So here are ideas on how to make your conference, or any online event, truly interactive. I’m basing the ideas on Zoom.

Step 1: Use Breakouts

The core of online engagement are breakout rooms, where you get to talk with others. This can be about what you want from the event, a question posed by the speaker or what actions you are taking away.

At real-life events, if you have group discussions, they generally happen at a table with the same people, and often people you already know. Online (as long as you use the Recreate option) you get to meet a whole range of people throughout the day.

I regard breakouts as so essential that I have decided not to speak at events where breakouts are not allowed (though I do have some thoughts on interaction in very large conferences, below).

Online breakouts make for better discussions

Another element that is better is feedback from group discussions. In real life it is so dull to get feedback from each group, and I rarely do it. Online you can get people to type into chat and get everybody’s feedback in less than a minute.

You can then call on a couple of people to explain further. That way you get the most interesting views, rather than those who always speak, and can also encourage a diverse range of views.

That is my core method of engagement: create breakouts, feedback in chat, call on some people – based on what they wrote in chat - to speak more.

I have been asked if you need a facilitator in each breakout. Nope. Indeed it would be incredibly time consuming, as you’d have to manually put the facilitators into groups. If there is a specific outcome you want from the breakout, you could ask each group to appoint a facilitator, to keep them on track, but normally I just leave people to it.

Tip: If you have a question to be answered, put it in chat before you create the breakouts (they won’t see it if you put it in chat once they are in the breakouts) and also transmit it via Broadcast. Warn people to look out for the broadcast message as it’s a bit small and only stays for 20 seconds.

Tip: Encourage people to rename themselves (using the 3 dots at the top-right of their displayed video) to First Name, Organisation, Location. You won’t be able to see all this in the main view but, once people are in breakouts, you will and it provides a good context for discussion. Some also add pronouns.

(Note: Breakouts come with the Pro version of Zoom but have to be turned on in Settings.)

Use Chat

At some online events the organisers cut off the chat. I have no conception of why anybody would think that is a good idea. It’s a great way to engage and, if people are so engaged they are actively discussing with others, that can only be good.

You can use Chat to find people’s responses and experience. If I’m talking about playing to your strengths, I might ask people to think about what they really enjoy doing and are good at and ask them to put in chat “how does that make you feel?”.

Other Interactive Options

Polls: Polls are a great way to find out what your participant are thinking. Eg, I use one to find out the two most important behaviours of managers – then compare the responses to Google’s Project Oxygen research. And you can create a poll on the fly, in the middle of an event.

Yes/No: Find these options in the Participants box, (This morning, on my Productivity Blitz course, I asked “who has heard of the Pomodoro technique?”. Then “who has tried the Pomodoro technique?” and then asked those who answered Yes to the second, to say a bit more.)

Hands/Thumbs up: If you don’t need an exact count, you can simply get people to raise their hands in response to your question.

Oh, and make sure people show their video. The main reason people don’t have their video on (unless its an issue with their technology) is not normally because they are in their pyjamas or having a bad hair day. Its normally because they are doing something else at the same time. Sorry, on my events you don’t get to do your email.

Annotate: You can add text, drawing and shapes to a whiteboard but you can also add them to any slide. So I like to start an event with two maps, one of the UK and one of the world and ask people to mark on where they are located. I might then welcome some of the more far flung people and ask them to say a few words. Or I ask a question like “what % of the time do you find joy at work?” and ask people to mark their answer on a range from 0% to 100%. (Or more recently, put your answer above the line for before COVID and below for during COVID.)

Use Other Software

You can use a whole range of software alongside Zoom, generally by putting a link in the chat for people to click through on – though make sure you’ve made it editable.

Google Docs: Gather a huge range of information quickly by creating a Doc in advance, adding a table and pasting the names of everybody attending into it. Then, normally after a breakout, get them to type in their responses. Eg, “Tell us about what your worst manager did in column 1 and what your best manager did in column 2”. Instantly you get a wealth of information to use.

Another example: Create a table of the names and organisations of those attending, with a blank column for email. Then just before a break, share the link in chat and let people know they can add their email if they want people to contact them. Most do.


Slido: With Slido you can create a Word Cloud from feedback (eg, “what enables you to work at your best?”) and can source questions from the audience, which can then be voted up by people to find the most popular. I often use this to source key principles or values and then find which are most popular. (Mentimeter and Socrative have similar functions.)

Jamboard: From Google, and free, this enables groups to add post-its and move them around. Useful if you’ve assigned a task in breakouts and assign a different board to each group. (Mural and Miro can also be used.)

Chance Encounters

“The trouble with online events is you don’t get the chance encounters, the random conversation with somebody in the coffee queue or in the pub afterwards”, one friend said to me. Oh yes you do! If there are plenty of breakouts, you get a whole bunch of random encounters – far more than in real life.

Also, I encourage people to arrive 15 minutes early if they would like to network. I then create a couple of sets of breakouts for people to introduce themselves and find what they have in common.

We do indeed hold a post-conference social, with breakout rooms renamed as “snug”, “café”, “playroom” etc. (Zoom tip: You can enable people to move between rooms by making each of them a co-host.)

You could also set up networking breakouts in breaks and at lunch though that might be a bit intense. We haven’t done that as we do find people need a rest in a full online day.


Online meetings can be tiring, though less so if people are actively engaged. We generally take a break every hour. But you can also use what my colleague Mikala Ritzau calls “Punctuations”. These are breaks that involve everybody in getting active. Examples:

Exercise: Get people to stand up. Raise one hand and shake it. Raise the other hand and shake it. Now shake your whole body.

Find an object: “Find an object that is yellow and bring it back to the screen” (or blue or round or zipped or something surprising). Repeat several times.

Look out: Go to your window, take a moment to reflect. Come back and type in chat what you can see out of it.

Meditation: Talk people through a short breathing space, letting the mind go blank and counting your breathes.

Dancing: Put on some music, and get people up and dancing. Though do say they can turn off their screen if they prefer.


Use Liberating Structures

Liberating Structures are 33 methods to fully engage everybody. Instead of one or two people dominating meetings, everybody gets an equal voice. And most of them work as well, if not better, online than in real life. This article details the structures covered in our recent Online Immersion Workshop. And here are a couple of examples:

124All: Pose a question and get people to reflect on their own for one minute. Then put them in pairs for two minutes. Then fours for four minutes. (In real life you move two pairs into fours but online you have to create random fours.) Then get feedback in chat and call on people to speak. 

Conversation Café: This is great for the end of a conference, getting people to think about what they’ve learnt and what they are taking away. It consists of four rounds, in three of which each person speaks only once, enabling everybody to get a chance to reflect.

Check out our two hour introduction to Liberating Structures and our full day Online Immersion Workshop.

Avoiding ZoomBombing

For more on how to avoid disruptive people, check out Zoom’s own article on it. But I would emphasize:

  • Never share a Zoom link on social media
  • Use a waiting room
  • Turn screen sharing off (in Settings or on the Security Tab when you are Host)

Also become familiar with how to Mute All, how to Remove somebody and how to lock the room.

Larger Events

The default for Zoom Meeting is 100 people, but it is not limited to that. You can buy a “large meeting” option to go to 300 or 500 or even 1,000 people. I would love to create small breakouts of 5 or 6 people with thousands of participants but, sadly, the maximum number of breakouts on Zoom is currently 50. (If you know of any software that allows more than 50, please let me know.)

The Zoom Webinar option allows you to go way beyond 1,000 people but doesn’t include breakouts. I would avoid using it unless you really have thousands of people and are planning a speech-based non-interactive event.

Some things you can do even with thousands of participants

  • Use polls to find out what people are thinking
  • Use chat to get responses. Most comments will fly past but it will get your participants to actively engage and you will get a feel for people’s views, and can call on one or two.
  • Use software like Slido to source questions, getting people to vote them up and down. 

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Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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