We recently participated in an excellent webinar hosted by Peter Klebanow from Tendrel with guest Dr. Eva Kedar on Strategies for Hosting Virtual Forums. In this blog post, we share some takeaways.  

Virtual forums can be a tool in our toolbox [for] continuing the journey of supporting each other in global spaces. – Dr. Eva Kedar

First, what is a Forum? 

Forums have served as professional meet-ups or online groups where ideas can be exchanged and projects can be created and launched. These groups usually congregate around a specific theme or idea. Forums usually meet various times throughout the year and they can even meet in different geographic locations. Forums can be private or public depending on the group’s agreed-upon standards for communication and collaboration. 

Advantages of virtual forums 

  • Increased Accessibility: Going virtual means a forum transcends geography, seeing as travel is no longer necessary. 
  • Agile Scheduling: Virtual forums can also bet easier and faster to schedule across multiple participants from all over the globe
  • “Power Spaces” . Working virtually, which for most participants means at home can make virtual forums more comfortable, leading participants to be more open and authentic in their engagements. (Note that home is not always a “power space” for participants, and being sensitive to this dynamic is essential for effective virtual facilitation)


Disadvantages of virtual forums

  • Energy Drop: Overall, energy held in a virtual space simply can not 100% replicate the same feeling one gets from being in-person with others. Virtual platforms also preclude physical contact; hugs, high-fives, shaking of hands, and other greetings which are a key form of bonding. 
  • Communication Barriers: Dr. Kedar also noted that we as human beings are social creatures and we communicate best when we are in physical proximity. We rely more heavily than we realize on nonverbals like, body language and facial expressions – all of which are diminished or lost during virtual interactions. 
  • Tech Challenges: Going virtual also means that we are at the mercy of our tech limitations and internet connection based on where we are and what we have access to. 


Key elements for hosting virtual forums

  • PREPARATION & ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Ensure everyone (moderators & participants) is comfortable accessing the virtual platform in advance. Depending on your audience, you may need to share detailed instructions and do test-runs for tech issues days, if not weeks, before the actual forum takes place. 
  • ASSIGN ROLES: Having an experienced moderator who can assign pre-work and different roles to people in the forum will help your virtual community show up prepared and feel clear about what their individual roles and responsibilities are. Some of the roles that Dr. Kedar suggested assigning to participants in the forum:
    • Tech Wizard: This is a participant who is agile with technology and can help in getting everything set up and test it beforehand as well as help troubleshoot tech issues during the meeting
    • Time Keeper: Helps the moderator to keep time so everyone has a chance to speak and the meeting does not run over
    • Processor/Observer: This participant helps in processing the team’s discussions and helps the moderator to see who is focused or not. 
  • CREATE GROUP AGREEMENTS/NORMS: Co-creating this with the group, the moderator holds space for agreeing upon forum rules and norms for safe space within the group. This can include agreements on confidentiality, creating a private space, no phones, etc. Virtual norms; like arriving to the forum muted and raising one’s hand to speak, are also things that the group should create together with the moderator’s assistance. 


How to customize group exercises for virtual forums

Virtual meetings should generally be shorter than in-person forum meetings – about 2.5 hours to a maximum of 3 hours. You need to have breaks throughout (we recommend at least every 90 minutes) and allow people to stand up and stretch to keep energy up. Especially now that everyone is dealing with COVID-19, it is crucial to hold space for dialogue that will help the group deal with the issues they are facing during this time of crisis

  • Examples: Icebreaker/Conversation Starter: Remember a time in your life when you were in crisis: how did you find balance? The Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of characters for both Danger and Opportunity – are there any opportunities or silver linings that you are getting from this crisis?
  • Updates: Since the last time we met, what brings you energy and what takes your energy away: personal, family, organizational. How does COVID-19 impact you on all levels? Be sure to adjust the rest of the meeting based on what came up. 

Creating an agenda for a virtual forum

It’s like having a meal. First, you set the table and make sure everyone is present and focused, and then come the courses:

  • Setting the table: centering exercise for the group, norm-setting, check-in, etc
  • Soup: Conversation starter – warming up, sparking connection
  • Salad: Choosing a topic to work on, designing time together
  • Main course: Deep dive presentations by forum members – share experiences and wisdom. Diversity in the group encourages new ways of thinking and idea generation. 
  • Dessert/Energizer: Sharing between colleagues helps participants gain confidence and reminds them about their strengths & leadership skills 
  • Closing/Planning for the next meeting: Reminders of the commitment they have made to each other. 

Thanks again to Tendrel and Dr. Kedar for hosting this valuable webinar. If you have a resource or webinar you would like us to share or promote, please contact our Program Catalyst at Sarah@conveners.org