What we’ve learned at The Solferino Academy about running virtual meetings

by Heather Leson | May 19, 2020 | Insights and Inspirations, Trends and Transformations

Kendra Allenby/CartoonCollections

The Solferino Academy began convening virtual workshops in Mid-March 2020, connecting people in national societies responding to COVID-19 so they could share insights, experiences and innovations. Two months later, we had run over 10 Virtual Workshops with more than 2,000 people attending (we had one with 700 people!). Our average attendance per virtual workshop was about 150 people. Here’s what we learned along the way:

Express a clear purpose to your audience in your outreach along with logistical details. Our outreach for our virtual workshops expressed our goals and provided all the details needed on how participants could join the meeting in one email.

Keep the tech simple. Have a low-barrier to entry, Don’t let the tech get in the way of people participating. Make sure it will work in low-bandwidth environments and use as few tech tools/platforms as possible. We try to limit the tools in our meetings to no more than two – which for us has mostly been Zoom and a Google Doc.

Make sure people know how to participate from the start. Provide an overview of how the tools function before you start the meeting. Make sure people know how to turn off mute or turn on their camera. For larger meetings with small group breakouts, provide guidelines for interaction (we use ‘be respectful, be inclusive, be fully present’).  

Use video when you can but know when you can’t. Video can make a massive difference to people being able to relate to each other and see their reactions. But if you have people connecting with low bandwidth connections, the video will overwhelm connections. Be prepared to tell people to turn the video off so others can participate. 

Design to build community. Allow participants to connect in small groups.  The idea behind the COVID-19 workshops was that people needed some time to share their experiences and provide peer support. People gained solace and inspiration from being able to talk directly to others who were experiencing similar challenges. Many of them connected beyond the inital meeting. It helped the process to; 

  • Make sure small breakout groups have instructions to refer to (another use for the google doc), and they know where to take notes. 
  • Visit your breakout rooms and make sure that people are on track. Also, do periodic time checks. 

Use more than one zoom room to facilitate small group breakouts. In Zoom, the only person that can administer and then interact with the breakout rooms is ‘The Host’. The easiest way for one person to manage breakout rooms is to set them up automatically, which disperses people randomly. If you need to break people up by language for small group breakouts it can be a lot easier to create another zoom room, have participants move to the other room and then do automatic breakouts there. Once they have finished you can bring them all back to the main Zomm room. 

Use a google doc (or any collaborative doc) to get people-centred, share information and gather input during the meeting. A shared document will help people stay on track and will also become a resource they can refer to later. During our COVID-19 Innovations call, the google doc became the space where we first started collecting stories on learning and innovation that would be published later.

Don’t underestimate the number of people it takes to support a meeting. Have a strong team with clear roles and responsibilities to support the sessions. The teams on our meetings have ranged from 4 to 18, depending on the size and complexity of the meeting. 

Make sure the team can communicate/has a backchannel on a different comms channel than the platform. 

Here are the roles we have had: 

Technical host (s)

  • handles breakout room set up, breakout room Q & A
  • schedules the meeting
  • handles interpretation
  • assigns ‘ cohost’ duties
  • designs participates and coordinates technology and content with the team

Facilitator Host (s)

  • cohost
  • coordinates with business owner on content, format and guests
  • outreach and announcements for the event across networks
  • coordinates event production team
  • books guest speakers
  • runs the public part of the meeting (front of house)
  • relays messages from team
  • designs, participates and coordinates technology and content with team

Community manager/engagement (s)

  • cohost
  • moderates people – shut video, verify users, kicks out potential troublemakers
  • coordinates with business owners on potential problematic participants
  • coordinates questions across breakout and facilitator
  • Shares outreach and announcements for the event across networks
  • provides community engagement training
  • coordinates the back of the house (WhatsApp) and the front of house communications
  • answers questions in the chat
  • provides the collaborative documentation
  • recruits moderation, community helpers for larger events
  • coordinates technical and community teams with facilitators 
  • manages waiting room with business owners (verifies participants when applicable)
  • designs, participates and coordinates technology and content with team

Technical Support 

  • cohost
  • coordinates technical issues with the technical host and team. 
  • direct messages people who need help with sound/setup, verified participants, changes people’s names to identify them correctly


  • provides extra support for technology and community teams
  • cohost
  • can advise if there are potential problem makers


  • review the outputs from the collaborate notes
  • creates summary and insights


  • puts outputs into usable, web or email-based content and formats for easy digesting and dissemination

At times translators were also used, we had multiple of these, including back-ups in case something went wrong.

Test, test, test and prep, prep, prep! Make sure everyone knows what will happen. Do run-throughs, dress rehearsals, etc. Make sure the team knows what they are doing and when and any guests are comfortable with the tech. When we ran a meeting that needed simultaneous translation of four languages, we had eight professional interpreters as part of the team. We did at least three-hour-long run-through sessions to make sure they knew exactly how the technology worked.

Make sure native language speakers speak slowly if non-native language speakers are present. This may seem obvious, but everyone needs a reminder.  

Aim to improve your virtual meeting every time you run one. Get feedback in any way you can. We stay online after our meetings finished and take feedback on what worked and what didn’t. We’ve learned about the quality of the small group breakouts and how bandwidth has impacted participants amongst many other valuable insights we were able to incorporate into our meetings.

Facilitators should provide clear instructions on how to do ‘brief’ report backs. People will want to make sure they are accurately representing all the views and perspectives in their group – but support them to make the report backs brief and valuable to all the participants. Ask that people share the three most important things that came up or three of their main learnings.

Make sure your participants know what will happen next and what will happen with their contributions. Let them know about upcoming blog posts from the content collected and forthcoming meetings.Understand your digital tools security risks and protect your participants. Any platform has security risks. Make sure people can’t share their screen without permission or show their video. The more a link to a meeting is shared, the more likely you will have uninvited guests.

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