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Why hybrid events are often horrible!

Are you thinking of running a hybrid event where you have attendees both online and physically present in one or more venues? You might think it will give you the best of both worlds, but in this episode we will show you why it is often the worst of both worldsand what you might be able to do about that! 

In agriculture our perspective is often that hybrids are usually goodright? Hybrid crops often grow faster and have greater yields while sometimes also being more resistant to pests and diseases. So it might seem like a great idea to run a hybrid eventwhere you have a group of people online and others physically present in one or more venues to make sure that all that want or need to engage can do so. 

The problem is that for the remote participants in particular, hybrid meetings are usually a frustrating experience. And if you are the unlucky event facilitator, hybrid events can be a pain to manage. Firstly we will look at this through the lens of those attending the physical meeting. This is often at the place where the keynote presenter is going to deliver their presentation and the event facilitator will often also be present there, so as to introduce the speaker and handle questions from the audience. Naturally, that venue becomes the focus of everything and the online participants are often forgotten. 

If the speaker is running late, the audience at the venue can usually chat amongst themselves to pass the time. The facilitator might provide quick updates and even run some impromptu discussions with the audience. This can help keep them engaged and less aware of the time. Then, when the speaker finally does arrive, there’s no time for a sound check and they launch into their presentation. 

Now look at this from the perspective of the online participants. They may have joined early, eager to hear what the presenter has to say. Then when things go pear-shaped at the live venue, the online people are often left in the dark. They impatiently wait for the event to begin, but the facilitator is busy placating the crowd in the room with them. Alas, the old adage of ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ becomes true. If the event host is busy running around at the physical event, they are not going to see the growing number of chat messages from the online participants asking for an update. Suddenly, the presenter arrives and in the haste to get them to speak, because no sound check was done, those online discover that they can barely hear the person they have been impatiently waiting for. To make matters worse, the PowerPoint presentation might not be properly shared, so those online may have a lovely view of the presenter, but cannot see the presentation slides. 

Then at the end of the presentation, the facilitator takes questions from the audience and you can guess who gets in first. Yes, the physical audience has only to raise their hands and they have the facilitator’s attention. Meanwhile those online are busily trying to type their question in the chat box, which can take a minute or two. Often the speaker answers a handful of questions and then needs to race off to their next meeting, and the online audience are left hanging. 

It is for these reasons that John says he usually avoids facilitating hybrid meetings, as they often just do not work effectively. Instead, he recommends that it’s better to run two separate eventsone for the audience at the event, and then a separate event as a webinar for those online. If you have a visiting presenter, John suggests you do the live one first and then an hour after it finishes, run the online event. That way it is still fresh in the mind of the presenter and gives them a short break. Also, if anything goes wrong with the presentation, it is usually easier to fix that in the physical meeting where the audience can be distracted with an impromptu activity. Separating it into two events like this allows us to interact with each audience appropriately, so it is a great event for all involved. 

However, if for whatever reason, you do have to facilitate a hybrid event, here are some tips to help make it a better experience. Firstly, do a test run at least a day beforehand using the same room and equipment as you will use for the live performance. Find a few willing colleagues to join online and make sure the audio and visual components are working well. Often you will struggle with the PA system to get the audio to feed into the webinar correctly, especially if you are using a PC up on the stage for the webinar. That’s where it is invaluable to have an AV technician onhand with spare cables and the like. But the good news is that once you have it all figured out, it is much more likely to work properly on the day.

Our caution is – do not rest on your laurels! John recently attended a hybrid event where they did a test just hours before the live event and they thought they had everything sorted. Unfortunately, when the hundreds of online attendees were waiting for the first keynote presentation, we could barely see or hear him. After mucking around for a few minutes the event organisers wisely moved to the next speaker at a different location and came back to the first presenter later in the day when the problems were fixed. 

So what can we do to make hybrid events a better experience for all involved? Think of clever ways to extend what you would do with a physical audience to make it work with an online audience. For instance, we love using human number lines or sociograms, which we talked about in an earlier episode. This can get the audience moving and interacting, which is great after lunch. In the room you can invite people to line up to indicate how much they agree or disagree with a particular statement. To modify this to an online audience, you have only to ask them to provide a rating from one to ten to indicate their agreement. While they could type this in the chat box or in a poll, it can be more fun to get them to indicate it using the number of fingers on their hands. You could then get people in the room to form groups of four or five to discuss why they felt the way they did. You could easily put the online participants into breakout rooms to do the same. So the processes are similar, but tailored for each event format. And get those online to stand up as they do this activity as it gives them the opportunity to stretch their legs and engage physically with what you are doing.

Do not be tempted to stretch yourself too thin by facilitating both the physical and online events yourself. Instead, find some colleagues to facilitate each group of people for you, while you manage the overall event as the MC. It might be handy to have a few technical support people online too, in case some of the participants need a hand with the online environment. 

If you can, it is good to provide a view of the live audience, so those online can gauge the numbers attending and see what the physical event looks like. Are they lined up in auditorium seats or are they at small tables? We think using live polls to engage audiences, using tools such as Poll Everywhere and, which we have also covered in an earlier episode can be useful. To engage everyone at a hybrid event, we could invite everyone to grab their smartphone or tablet and scan the QR code we are displaying in our presentation. That will quickly take them straight to the poll where they can submit their response. That way everyone is involved and can quickly see the overall voting. This is a great way for handing questions towards the end of the event too, as everyone has to type their questions and they can also upvote questions that have already been submitted. This makes it an equal playing field for all involved, and much easier for the presenter too, as the typed questions are often much more succinct than those delivered verbally. Plus, if time is limited, it’s very democratic for the audience to vote on the questions they would most like to hear answered. 

Distance bias is the tendency of our brain to assign greater importance to people that are closer to us in time and space. Like many other cognitive biases, distance bias enables us to make quicker decisions, but at the expense of making better decisions by including everyone’s contributions. As described in this article by Sacha Connor, the best strategy for overcoming distance bias in hybrid meetings is to design them with a virtual-first mentality. This fosters inclusion, giving everyone a voice and role, allowing us to make the most of everyone’s talents, no matter where they’re based. 

Hybrid events can work well if you put the time and effort into designing them properly, and suitably resourcing them with enough team members to help with the facilitation. They can be tricky to run, so do not contemplate them lightly, thinking they are an easy option! We can only think of a few hybrid events we have attended where we enjoyed the experience, compared to all the other online events we have attended. 

Well, you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! You might think we have been a bit harsh towards hybrid meetings, or you may think we have hit the nail on the head! Either way, add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with hybrid meetings, including any tips and further ideas. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. A special thanks to Richard for suggesting this topic to us. As always, remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they can join the conversation!

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Adrian Englefield
Adrian Englefield
2 years ago

Hello John and Denise
Horrible might be a bit strong – However, I have received feedback from a hybrid event where the on-line attendees found engagement difficult. Very similar to the issues you highlighted – However, attendees acknowledged COVID-19 has created many other challenges and they were still happy with the event. Lets hope we can avoid hybrid delivery at the APEN conference and meet face-to-face!!! Great update.

Michelle McClure
Michelle McClure
2 years ago

Hi John and Denise, Hybrid events do take a lot of planning and multiple staff to manage both audiences. Co-facilitation is key and a good audio visual tech with a mixer. I have held 2 major hybrid events that were reasonably successful for both audiences. Having a venue that you can be setup in a separate room without hearing what’s going on in the main room to run the online part is also key. I did struggle when the F2F(Face 2 Face) audience took a break for morning tea and then the return time to the next presenter was slightly… Read more »

Noel Ainsworth
Noel Ainsworth
2 years ago

Agreed Michelle. Oh that first time when you think that you could do both roles!!

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