15 lessons we learnt from 15 months online


Sharing a virtual chuckle in April 2021

The past 15 months of designing & delivering dozens of virtual gatherings, reaching hundreds of participants has been one heck of a learning curve. From Melbourne to Atlanta, Singapore to Geneva, Paris to Tampa - we were tasked with crafting learning & networking experiences for engineers one month, sales & marketing managers the next and C-suite execs the month after.


There was a lot of trial & error and tweaking on the fly, but we landed on a few universal truths that take a virtual gathering from drab to fab. Spoiler alert: There are no shortcuts or silver bullets! 🥺


You might be thinking, who needs these now, when we’re going to be meeting again IRL very soon? If that’s the reality of your market and your community, feel free to skip this post. But for those of you who’ve come to realise virtual gatherings are here to stay (for all sorts of good reasons*), we gladly share these lessons with you, in chronological order.


  1. Start with why you’re gathering - even if it’s obvious or you’re confident you already know. Say it out loud and test it with a few trusted people - what need are you fulfilling?

  2. Yes, you CAN. It might feel awkward and clunky to start, but believe you can host your community online - and don’t worry, they’ll cut you some slack

  3. Pick up the phone and talk to a few people you want to see in your virtual gathering and test your ideas with them - please do not, under any circumstances, ‘send a survey’ to replace these phone calls!

  4. Design the end-to-end experience from the user’s POV (UX has never been sexier)

  5. Instead of thinking of virtual as a cross to bear, think of it as a gift you forgot to open - how could this end up being the best thing that ever happened to your community? (i.e. apply the principles of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset)

  6. Better representation has never been easier - seek out diverse voices and perspectives for your virtual gathering. It’s time to Change the Stage

  7. Go small or go home. Keep it intimate for maximum interaction & impact

  8. 8 is the magic number in the r(Z)oom (or maybe 5, no wait, make it 10 but absolutely no more than 10). Point is, there is no magic number; try it out with your tribe and see what works

  9. Prepping and priming your participants is absolutely essential, including a calendar invitation that leaves no room for doubt on what sort of gathering this will be - e.g.: “THIS WILL NOT BE A WEBINAR. Please put clothes on, turn off the stove, turn on your camera and be prepared to speak at all times” - which leads us nicely to the next point

  10. Mics on. Cameras on. Active participation is key if you want people to take anything from their time with you. Together, you can defeat the Forgetting Curve.

  11. Go beyond the chat feature for ‘interaction’. Carefully used Mural boards, live scribing, assigned breakouts and tasks can all help foster a sense of active ‘doing’ rather than passive ‘listening’

  12. Humanise the discussions with good facilitation. You can successfully create space for the small talk that gives us a glimpse into each others’ lives and builds trust

  13. On the point of facilitation, make sure you set ‘em up and get out of their way - nobody wants to hear the host or facilitator talk about themselves or their organisation / project

  14. Create an artefact (could be as simple as a word cloud or detailed as a live scribe, or a co-created toolbox) for future reference; something that serves as a tangible takeaway

  15. Finally and most importantly, don’t forget to have fun with it all!


So there we have it; 15 lessons in 15 months. In all honesty, there are loads more, but these are the main ones, and we are learning every day! So we’ll keep updating this list and as always you can drop us a line on hello@uncommonconferences.com or hit up UC directors Marcus / Banu.


*Good reasons for virtual to continue to have a place in our gatherings include:

  • Much lower barriers to hosting and joining, meaning more frequent touch points with your people (these could be in between in-person editions, or in some rare cases replace the in-person edition)

  • They tend to be more inclusive and representative

  • The positive environmental impact from less travel and reduced waste


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