Updated: Aug 6, 2021
The above statement by Jackie Weaver may be about democracy, but the poignance of courteous behaviour was made so important for her because of an online event which required her mediation.
The infamous recording of the Handforth Parish Council meeting went viral in February 2021 because of the conduct of its participants. Jackie Weaver was told she has “no authority” by chairman Brian Tolver, yelled at, and sworn at.
Before talking at a panel discussing responsible technology usage at the BCS’s (The Chartered Institute for IT) annual Insights conference, Jackie Weaver spoke to the BCS about the effect of that meeting, and how it displayed the importance of etiquette in online meetings. John Higgins, BCS President, stated at the talk that in order to allow digital democracy to reach its potential, “professional, respectful, and universal expectations of behaviour” must be established now.
With online meetings being increasingly commonplace – and Jackie Weaver among the people campaigning to keep council meetings virtual – 2021 is a turning point for ensuring that online events and meetings are held with digital etiquette in mind. The 300 million daily meetings in 2020, and the fatigue ignited by them, culminated in 2021 to lead to this.
Therefore, this article will explain to event professionals the type of etiquette that is starting to be encouraged at such events, to make sure your next event goes down in the memories of your participants as a seamless and fun event, not a viral car crash.
Time Zone Consciousness
One consequence of online meetings being more common, is that timezones are no longer an obstacle for people who need to meet up. It used to be the norm to hold forums and seminars that required travel. Now, it is easier – and therefore expected – for people to attend events no matter where they are in the world.
But do not take advantage of the ease with which you can reach overseas participants. Use tools like Savvy Time to ensure that you’re not meeting at an inconvenient or unsociable time for your participants. If you want a seamless meeting whereby people aren’t feeling tired or grouchy, don’t hold it at a time that happens to be 3am for them and expect them to be on the same energy level as they would be at during the day.
At the start of the pandemic, it was quite common for people to join meetings with their cameras off, due to the awkwardness of such a new style of meeting. For the first time, people had to speak at events with their bedroom being in the background, which they weren’t ready for. Now, people are more used to speaking at such events. They have now figured out the optimal room in their house from which to stream their talks for events. Therefore, there is now more digital etiquette involved. There’s less of an excuse for having cameras off (and going back to the Handforth Parish Council Meeting, we’re seeing less faux-pas whereby “Julies I Pad” and the like will be onscreen).
With cameras on, online event participants are able – and, again, expected – to practice good event etiquette by cultivating active listening. Look at the person speaking, and nod along to show that you are paying attention. This may seem like common sense, but people will often readjust their computer position, pillows, or even check their phone during an online lecture, just because they don’t feel fully at the event. People multi-tasking in this way is one of the biggest pet peeves for virtual meetings, so we have been seeing event participants actively improve their attentiveness at such events. People who don’t pay attention at online lectures and seminars have received such a bad reputation, that they are increasingly making changes to how they present themselves in such meetings.
Letting Everyone Take the Floor
Online events can be very awkward. This is because it’s hard to use vocal cadence as cues to determine when someone has finished speaking, has simply paused due to seeing something else onscreen, or is just buffering because of a technical lag.
Due to this, participants will often accidentally speak over each other, or be unsure when to speak (or - in the case of the Handforth Parish Council meeting – purposefully shout over each other). We have a top tip for digital etiquette in online meetings which is a great way to mitigate this awkwardness: Start the event off on a good foot by asking all speakers (and potentially all attendees, if there is a small seminar group) to introduce themselves. This will break the ice and lessen the possibility of any misunderstandings. Not only this, but it’s a great excuse to guage the speaking pattern or connectivity of the event’s speakers. If someone’s audio cuts out a bit in their introduction, then you can make a note that if they seem to pause later on, it may just be their audio – and not a chance to interrupt. With online events being so common, tricks like this are being commonplace, so don't make your event stick out like a sore thumb by not practicing this.
It can also be a great chance to let people chat, and get comfortable with their face being streamed to your audience. People may feel nervous about having to speak to an online audience, so giving them a moment to speak by themselves, and get used to addressing online attendees, can help them feel comfortable.
Carry this on for the rest of the event – make sure everyone has a chance to speak. Even if attendants prefer to only comment via a live chat or Twitter function, you can still give them the floor. Do this by reading out their live messages or Tweets. Especially if it’s a knowledge event that you are holding, which requires ideas to be shared from everyone. Make sure that everyone’s voices are heard.
The above points can apply to Zoom meetings like Jackie Weaver’s, but also online events that are livestreamed from different locations.
It is integral that you follow such guidelines when hosting your next event because, as Jackie Weaver said, “People who favour kind, inclusive and less adversarial ways of making their points will go elsewhere”.