Submitted by: Lorie Smith, Georgian Central Regional Communication Coordinator
When the lock-down occurred in mid-March, face to face contact was interrupted, and meetings and events as we knew them in the “before time” were cancelled. Since we were staying in place in our homes, apps that facilitated staying in touch became key to our lives. According to Eventbrite, online events increased 1,100% in April 2020 compared to April 2019. COVID has certainly pressed the accelerator on the pivot to virtual events with the Outdoor Farm Show, the Royal Winter Fair, SouthWest Ag Conference, Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week (GBFW), and many others announcing the use of this new format.
Following social distancing guidelines means that we are months away from going back to mass gatherings. In our Soil and Crop regions, members have been scratching their heads as they determine how to conduct crop walks, and meetings. Thames Valley was the first SCIA region to illustrate how successful online meetings can be when they organized “Farming During a Pandemic”. Grey SCIA have had four virtual crop walks this summer. These organizations are using technology to keep members connected and informed.
What do you need to consider when pivoting to virtual meetings/small events? First, it is useful to establish your goals. Next, evaluate the features of video conferencing platforms available: Google Meetings; Microsoft Teams; Zoom; Go To Meetings; Any Meetings, and more. The Georgian region chose to purchase a one-year subscription to Zoom ($200 Cdn). The paid subscription allows one to conduct meetings of unlimited length (vs. forty minutes in the free version), with up to 100 participants. Georgian SCIA utilized the Special Communication Enhancement Grant from OSCIA to cover those costs. This $500 grant is available to all regions and supports subscriptions to technology that will assist members to stay connected during this pandemic. The deadline for submission of your final claim is December 30, 2020. Some of the merits of Zoom that Grey SCIA have encountered include: easy to learn; participants with poor internet can call in; participants can share screens/presentations; chat box for questions and comments; polls for participant engagement/meeting motions (the raise hand feature can also be used for meeting voting); record function to share the webinars with others following the event; and break- out rooms for smaller group work.
Once you have picked your platform, it is important to get comfortable with it. During your meeting, the comfort of the host and chair will be infectious. As you plan your first “gathering”, remember that breaks are vitally important to keep everyone engaged. The longest session that you should run without breaks is 90 minutes. Consider including a social time during the meeting where members can see and speak to each other in gallery view, as many are missing social interactions. Since many people are not yet comfortable with this new way of communicating, curated conversations are helpful, and avoid awkward pauses.
The group organizing the meeting or event should have clearly defined roles. Dividing the tasks across several members ensures that each person is more focused, which will ultimately lead to a more successful and polished meeting. A host could be responsible for technical matters (audio/visual, screen sharing/slide transition), fielding calls from people with issues, and monitoring the chat window. The chair is the face of the event, providing a guided experience to the participants. They should teach participants how to master the basic functions; explain how the meeting will run; and how questions will be handled. They will also: announce key times; look after the flow; introduce speakers; interject to keep the meeting on task; and thank sponsors.
Recently, as part of a training session, Taylor Selig and Mercedes Unwin from AgScape provided OSCIA RCCs tips on planning virtual events. They commented that detailed scripts for the meeting planners are an asset. These scripts would include: the dialogue; what transitions will occur between speakers; and back-end actions. They also recommended that during the event, planners should prioritize the moment and remove all distractions.
After planning four crop walks, Grey SCIA found that the most challenging aspects were member interest/ registration, engagement, and internet issues. They recommend that you do a dry run of your event to ensure that the internet is adequate and stable at the recording site, and to confirm that there are no equipment issues.
Deb Campbell, one of the crop walk speakers, said that “A good microphone that reliably syncs to the recording device (phone) was important to maintain continuity of sound from the presenter. This means if you are using Bluetooth, that the devices must be fully charged, signal strength be strong and devices/people remain close enough together that they don’t unsync.” Someone other than the speaker should be recording and listening to the feed. If the walk includes scouting the field, ensure you are moving the camera as smoothly as possible. A selfie stick or a gimble might be useful to reduce camera movement. Campbell advises “Above all, go with the flow and have fun with it. Trying anything new is intimidating, especially if you are not technically savvy, but practice makes perfect. It’s okay to stumble a bit as you learn what works for you.” We are all negotiating this new landscape together. Please reach out to the other regions for ideas, support and assistance.