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As anyone who has attended a session of the Inclusive Leadership in a Virtual World (ILVW) series likely knows, the chat function of Zoom is one of my absolute favorite elements of virtual events! I personally adore having the ability to “parallel process” topics by having verbal and written discussions happening simultaneously and am delighted that every virtual event platform I have encountered to date offers some degree of chat capability. Over the last few months, however, I have learned that my love of chat is far from universal. Therefore, rather than simply ranting about my passion for chat, this article walks through a variety of approaches and perspectives, starting with the down sides and circumstances that may favor disabling chat.
If you take only one point away from this article, please remember that nothing that happens over the internet is ever truly private and chatting in Zoom, Teams, or any other digital platform is no exception. From my perspective, the potential permanence of anything you “say” via chat in a virtual event is the largest downside to the medium. You may be sending a direct message to a trusted colleague but once your thoughts have been transmitted through the ether, you relinquish control and containment. When using chat during virtual events, I highly recommend saying nothing you would be uncomfortable having sent back to you from an unexpected source. Applying an appropriate level of forethought before hitting send can feel discrepant with the informal nature of the chat box but that is simply all the more reason to maintain your awareness of the potential permanence of your words.
From the organizer / host /facilitator perspective, however, the most common concern I hear about chat is its ability to “distract” attendees. In Zoom, for example, there is currently no easy way to quiet chat notifications so when the chat is active, attendees who prefer to focus on one conversation at a time can become frustrated with the frequent interruptions. While there are some workarounds (the easiest is to “Pop Out” the chat window using the little down arrow in the upper left corner of the chat pane and then hide the window behind something else on your screen), the reality is that the chat window often draws attention to itself. Whether via the movement of messages up the panel or the new message notifications, most platforms want to prevent attendees from missing messages in the chat box and have found effective ways to draw the eye.
Yet I have seen two primary reactions to the description of people “who prefer to focus on one conversation at a time”. About half of the people I speak with about “single threading” (focusing on one thing at a time) say simply that this is “how focus works”. I, on the other hand, struggle to single thread at any time and under any circumstances and I have found that I am far from alone in thriving with the “right” level of multitasking. For example, when I am writing, I keep the editing window on half screen so that I can monitor my inbox. When I am stuck on a sentence, I switch programs and knock out something small to give my brain a chance to process. In one on one meetings, I take incredibly detailed notes partly so that I can search for the information later but mostly because typing gives my hands something to do. Although I have also used fidget spinners and pipe cleaners to keep my hands busy during meetings, I have learned that taking notes has added benefits in allowing me to more deeply process a conversation. The “parallel processing” (focusing on multiple things simultaneously) of concepts as I listen, respond, and rephrase into my notes simultaneously cements the information in my brain.
There has been plenty of research demonstrating that different people learn through different mediums and active chat use can put that knowledge into action. This brings us to the heart of my personal passion for using chat in virtual events: by maintaining a parallel conversation in the chat box, I personally achieve a deeper level of engagement with the main conversation. I am a primarily kinesthetic learner and summarizing the main points of a presentation or conversation in chat allows me to process the information more completely. As an added bonus, because the concepts are now written out, I have found that these “real time summaries” often engage audience members who learn more effectively when reading than when listening.
Of course, there are also those situations where the chat veers wildly off topic and can seem to be nothing more than an obnoxious diversion. I say “can seem to be” because I would offer a few alternative ways to view those moments. First, and perhaps most painfully, a rowdy chat can be likened to a murmuring audience in person – a sign that the primary content is failing to engage the participants. Second, chat can also provide a way for those people who feel the need to voice their thoughts regardless of who has the floor to do so in a minimally disruptive way. Speaking as someone who has had to work hard on listening instead of waiting to speak, the chat function can be a quick way to get the thought out of my head so that it is no longer clogging my ear canals.
But if “off topic chat” is your largest concern as an organizer, my experience has confirmed that this is truly a situation where the best defense is a strong offense. After many months of weekly experiences with two equally rowdy and outspoken audiences (one being ILVW and the other being the equally highly recommended Think Tank Thursday series – message me for details), I have noticed that the ILVW chat box is consistently more focused. I strongly believe that this is because of the active summarizing that is taking place in that forum. For particularly rambunctious crowds, it may also be prudent to restrict private messaging (in Zoom, achieved by clicking the 3 dots in the chat panel and selecting “Everyone publicly”). Regardless of private chat capabilities, having a steady stream of relevant commentary flowing through the chat invites audience members to engage in pertinent conversations rather than shifting their focus to a discussion of their next meal.
My final argument in favor of ongoing and active use of the chat, which somewhat surprised me when I first noticed the phenomenon, is that I am also often joined in the chat box by some of the shyest and most introverted people in any given event. Words that may be intimidating to speak out loud but that feel important to share can sometimes be less daunting to type. I have also often seen the chat box used as a “gateway engagement”, where someone shares in text for some time before deciding to join in verbally and visually. Providing a welcoming chat box can expand the inclusivity of your events to those who are uncomfortable sharing out loud but have insights that bring value to everyone.
So for anyone planning and organizing virtual events, I offer a series of questions to help shape your vision of the role chat will play. First, is your audience primarily comprised of attendees who would prefer to single thread or those who thrive in a world of parallelization? Second, is your audience large enough to likely have visual and kinesthetic learners? Third, is your audience likely to benefit from having a written record of the event after the fact? Many organizers get stuck on the first question but the secret is that as long as you answered “yes” to either of the second two questions, keeping chat enabled is highly recommended.
Taking some time at the start of a session to teach audience members how to “hide” the chat is an easy way to address the potential distractions of the chat box. Restricting chat to only “public” messages can help ensure that the chat is being used to enhance rather than distract from the primary content. Leveraging a designated note taker / summarizer maintains a running overview of the presentation and/or conversations and encourages the content of the chat box to remain relevant. Visual learners can engage with the written record while kinesthetic learners can join in with their own comments and feedback. As long as the note taking is fairly consistent, I have found that the chat rarely veers wildly off-course but, if it does, leaving a few moments at the end to weave the threads together can unite the experience for everyone involved.
If you are curious to see this approach in action, please join the Inclusive Leadership in a Virtual World community any Wednesday from 10-11am Pacific, which brings us to a final point. Although my article has focused primarily on learning types, allowing for meaningful contributions via chat can also increase the accessibility of your content. For some people and some events, leveraging chat is a choice. For some people and some events, leveraging chat is an important accessibility tool. Please be sure, if you decide to disable the chat function for your event, that you truly fall into the former category. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the chat box!