Beyond the checklist: what made ICSW/virtual events special?

By Bistra Kumbaroska

Let me start this blog post with a personal confession: I love organising events, any kind of events - workshops, conferences, hackathons, week-long summits, team building activities, celebrations and anniversaries. From experience, I can say that part of the success when organising in-person events is to pay as much attention to delivering great content as to curating the venue and ambiance: having a great welcome desk, a nice coffee corner, providing spaces for people to make connections, keeping the goodie bag exciting, the garbage bins regularly empty and making sure the “behind-the-scenes” team is visible and approachable at any time.

Reflecting on our experience organising the ICSW 2020 virtual series, I realised that in virtual events, the screen is the only thing we have to deliver a full event experience, to try and keep the audience's attention and to meet their scrutiny and expectations. And that screen is home to hundreds of other apps, messages, and inboxes that you cannot control. Plus, behind that screen the pets might be having loud fun, the kids might be dancing or the neighbours might be ringing the bell right at the time of the event. So, without coffee breaks, networking spaces and happy unexpected hugs from colleagues - what can one do to offer a good event experience through the screen? I want to share three things that I think made ICSW virtual events especially valuable for our participants, which go beyond all the customary preparations and steps on our checklists.

  1. We made sure our speakers felt as if they were stars (or at least, we tried)

We were very used to preparing speakers for previous ICSW physical events, but preparing speakers for online events is a very different task. Even the best and most experienced speakers can feel uncomfortable online. It takes more time and preparation to help speakers and hosts feel comfortable “on-air”. We found out that regular check-ins and preparations calls before, sometimes quite ahead of the event, help a lot. During these calls we figured out if the speakers needed another microphone, a room with better light, if they could share their screen and if their presentation would be engaging enough for an online audience. Bringing a wide diversity of voices, backgrounds and opinions into our conversations also required many context-based preparations and individual calls. This time dedicated to the speakers was key to helping them show the best version of themselves during the live event and to connect with the participants in authentic ways! From our first fishbowl discussion to our last engaging panel with 10 speakers - we tried to serve our speakers the best way I hope that they felt like stars, at least for a few minutes.

2. The backstage team was the heartbeat of every event

Always and forever: teams and people matter! But in online events, they matter a tiny little bit more. Each of our ICSW/virtual events was hosted with different CIVICUS clusters, teams, partners and members, and the happier and more organised our team was, the easier it was to have a positive energy shining through the screen. Virtual events take lots of online coordination, checklists, emails, documents, chats and meetings - it took us an average of 50 emails, 16 calls and 19 people to organise each event! During all those sometimes messy steps, our team came up with the most brilliant ideas and solutions. Why? Because we consciously created the conditions and designated the time needed to discuss every detail of every event and we made sure everyone’s voice was heard and followed through. Providing and protecting a space for honesty and creativity for the coordination team was a key element, the heartbeat of each event. Whenever a speaker, moderator, interpreter or any other person joined us, they felt that backstage heartbeat and energy and strengthened it.

ICSW Team 2020

                                                                                             The lead team behind ICSW 2020 virtual events

 3. We are building a community, not an audience

ICSW 2020-21 was designed as a one-year journey including virtual events, in-person local and regional events, and a global event. To us, all the people following this journey are more than an audience, they are our community, and we tried to engage with them in that way event after event. We tried checking what resonated with them and what didn’t to adjust our global conversation. We cherished all chat comments and received every individual email from our attendees with great pride and care, responding in the most honest and open way possible every time. We tried to allow spaces for people to connect with each other beyond the livestream and tracked five connections that led to meaningful partnerships thanks to ICSW virtual events! During our fourth ICSW event one participant wrote, “this event made me feel more connected to people than I have during the pandemic.” Knowing that we helped create that sense of connection and community is one of the most valuable results of our virtual journey together.