How to host an online event

With many of us working from home for the foreseeable future, assistant education officer Kathleen Jowitt looks at good practice when organising online meetings and events

As COVID-19 shows no signs of leaving our lives anytime soon, we all need to learn to live with it and with different ways of working. And that includes meeting online and not in person.

Virtual meetings have become the norm this year – but are we making the most of them, and do they really work for us and for our members?

What’s the point?

First of all, consider the purpose of your event, because this will influence the form it takes.

If you’re holding a branch meeting, for example, you probably want to be able to see as many faces as possible on screen. If the bulk of your event will feature a guest speaker, you might want to go for a webinar format instead. Will you want participants to break up into small groups? And so on.

Think about your members’ needs. The transition to working online has made it easier for some people to participate in events – and massively more difficult for others.

If you’re not sure what sort of adjustment might help someone take part, the best thing to do is ask them.

This, too, may influence which platform you choose – do you need to enable closed captions, or to pin a particular webcam so that it’s always in the same place on the screen?

UNISON’s equalities unit can provide advice on making virtual events more accessible – email

Also consider any restrictions on technology. If your employer blocks a particular application, you might be best to avoid that one no matter how good it is – particularly if some of your members only have access to IT at work. Alternatively, negotiate with your employer for changes to the IT policy.

Practice (should) make perfect

Practice beforehand. Every video conference package has its own little quirks and your event will go so much better if you know what those are in advance.

If you can only show six webcams at a time, how are you going to deal with your panel of seven? Do those panelists know how to mute and unmute their microphones, or are you going to jump in and do that for them? Is there a presentation and, if so, does the presenter know how to share it? If you’ve invited a speaker from outside your organisation, make sure they’re comfortable and confident using the system too.

Think about any special features you might need. Will there be a vote? If so, can this be done by a show of hands – real or using the ‘raise hand’ feature – by a poll, or perhaps by sending a private message to the chair? Do you want to collect feedback, share a video? Make sure that the platform you’re using can do that – if you discover that it can’t, you’ve got time to think of an alternative way of doing things.

Remember that members may be using all sorts of different devices to participate in this event, so what they see may not be the same as what you see. Your detailed PowerPoint presentation may not be all that useful to someone who’s watching it on their mobile phone, which shrinks the slides to the size of a teabag.

Discuss whether you’ll record the event. You might want to provide a recording to members who couldn’t make the scheduled time.

Or you might feel that it’ll be easier to have an open discussion if everyone’s aware that the event is not being recorded. Either way, make sure your participants know what’s happening.

Also agree the house rules for muting and unmuting, for sharing webcams and for use of the chat. Even if it’s just a social event, it’ll be more enjoyable for everybody if it’s not distorted by feedback or disrupted by people trying to speak over each other.

Some things are more important

Keep to time! You might have been able to get away with overrunning in face-to-face meetings, but your captive audience isn’t so captive any more. If you go on longer than your advertised time, the chances are that people will drift away.

Don’t get too down-hearted over glitches or mistakes. We’ve all learned by now that wi-fi cuts out, cats walk across keyboards, everybody forgets to unmute themselves sooner or later, and it’s fatally easy to share the wrong screen. Apologise, learn the lesson for next time and move on. We all get it.

In short, the key to a successful online event, whether it’s a meeting, a social, a webinar, or anything else, is preparation and communication. Think through what you’re doing, and why, practise before you go live, and make sure your participants know what to expect and what to do.

And have fun, virtually!

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