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Public Engagement

Engaged Topics Network: Engagement in the age of social distancing

Many of our engagement projects rely on being able to interact face-to-face with our audiences to spark conversation; so how do we engage when these in-person interactions are no longer an option? At our latest Engaged Topics Network meeting, we explored how those at Queen Mary have adapted their work to engage online and the lessons they've learnt along the way


For the session we were joined by Harvey Wells, a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Communication Skills from the Institute of Health Sciences Education, and Pen Woods, a Lecturer in Drama from the School of English and Drama, who reflected on their experiences of socially distanced engagement as part of Being Human Festival.

Both projects had originally intended to be face-to-face events, but as with most things in 2020 their activities were impacted by COVID-19, resulting in adapting to hybridised online approaches. Pen’s ‘Poetry vs. Colonialism’ workshop series became a series of online activities which mixed together talks, hands-on crafting, performance, and creative writing that used the senses to explore the colonial histories of commodities like gold, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Harvey’s ‘COVID-19: Apart but Together’ exhibition and storytelling evening became an outdoor magnet-exhibition of the submitted artworks, a digital exhibition, and an evening of online storytelling reflecting on people's experiences of the pandemic.

Here are the top-tips they shared with us from their experiences:

Planning is key (still!)

Just like any face-to-face engagement activities, when you do engagement online you should still create a plan that'll help you to develop and deliver your project. In fact, planning for activities online requires a little more upfront planning because it introduces lots of things you may not have considered before-- like ticketing, or sending resources to people-- or adaptations of other aspects-- like collecting evaluation and capturing legacy. 

Some questions that could be useful to ask yourself include:

  • Where are you going to advertise your activity now? And how?
  • What ticketing platform are you going to use to get people to sign-up?
  • What information do you need off attendees in sign-up (i.e. do you need addresses to send activity packs)?
  • How much information do you need to include in pre-event registration and reminder emails so that people know what to expect?
  • How long will it take for you to assemble any resources you're sending out? How long could these things take to reach people in the post?
  • How do you build in opportunities for interaction with the attendees? (More on that below!)
  • How are you going to capture the experiences of attendees and get their feedback? 

Give yourself some pre-event preparation time

Though online spaces make everything feel more 'instant', it still pays to have a little bit of preparation before you kick-off your activities.

You should try to have a trial run of using the platform(s) and tool(s) that you're using in advance of the event. This not only gives you an idea of how they work, but also allows you to reflect on how easy (or not) it might be for the attendees to use. This'll help you decide what level of support and instructions you might need to include for attendees to enable them to engage and get the most out of the experience.

If possible, you should try to have at least 20 minutes before sessions kick-off to bring your team and speakers together to test the technology (A/V and screensharing), run through what’s happening and who is responsible for what, give people the opportunity ask any remaining questions they might have, and offer an opportunity for everyone to say hello to others that they'll be working with in the session that they may not have met before.

Develop your presence

If you've had experience with online teaching-- you've probably had plenty of experience of how to get (and keep!) people's attention and have developed loads of useful methods that you can apply in this area. For those who haven't, a couple of the things you might want to consider to develop your online presence:

  • Making sure you have a warm greeting to start, and explain to everyone what the session is going to be about, and how to use the space they're in
  • Try to maintain open, engaged, body-langugage whilst you're talking, like you would in person
  • Introduce some small movements-- like hand gestures-- into your presenting 
  • Look at your camera (your audience) rather than at your screen
  • If you're doing interactivity (like polls): acknowledge resuls, pick out interesting responses to read to the group, ask further questions based on these interaction points.
  • Be authentic and present as you: people appreciate that human element

There are some other practical audio and visual modifications that you can do to help with your online presence. Try to change the positioning of your webcam to ensure people get a clear, unobstructed view of you, and that it's at an angle that you feel comfortable with (no one needs nose shots!). Also try to make sure the area is lit well enough so people can see you as you present-- but not too brightly that you become a faceless shadow. Also try and test your microphone ahead of the session to see how well it is picking up your voice and whether there’s any echo so you can adjust the positioning if needed.

Try to create that sense of ‘in the room’ atmosphere

Despite the number of people in an online space, they have the tendency to feel like quite empty places. This is because online we lose some of the atmosphere that we’d naturally have in a face-to-face setting generated by a room full of people: things like chatter and applause.

There are a few ways that we can try and recreate an atmosphere. When people are coming into the room before sessions start we can do what we’d do in person: welcome them in, tell them what’s happening, and encourage background ‘chatter’ in the chat box.

Another way to chase away the feeling of emptiness is by using audio. You could explore playing music during entry/exit and even in the coffee breaks during sessions. There are also a whole host of sound-effects that you might want to use at various points: like bringing back some hearty clapping.

Build-in interactivity to keep people engaged

It’s difficult to interact with a group online and keep their attention for long periods of time—especially when we’re all experiencing screen fatigue. That’s why you should look to build-in interactivity to your activities: switching the participants from being passive listeners into active doers.

There are lots of different ways to encourage interactivity: this could be by running hands-on, at-home activities which people get in the post in advance, facilitated discussions around a prompt, getting people to bring items/stories with them to share with the group, incorporating polls or quizzes, or building in Q&A and discussion time.

Do make sure you build in enough time for people to meaningfully engage with any interaction you’re doing to get the most out of it: no one likes a rushed crafting session! Then also build in time to transition between the different activities, as it will take people a couple of minutes to click on links and navigate to quiz pages, as well as come back into the space with you after the activity has finished.

Encourage informal interaction between participants

Related to the point above, it is also difficult to get people talking to each other and having informal conversations in online spaces, which means less rapport building that we’d seen in person. But that's not to say it is impossible to do-- we just need to build the space in a little bit more formally than we would have in face-to-face activities.

If you’re running smaller sessions you could begin the session by doing an icebreaker activity based around your material where everyone can introduce themselves using audio/visuals and share a reflection/story on your prompt. If you have quite a large session, think about whether there might be opportunities for facilitated break-out rooms where people could discuss topics together. Alternatively, if you want to keep it strictly text, try and encourage conversation in the chat using prompts.

For some people, you might be looking to run multiple online sessions with one group where a sense of community is fundamental to what you're doing, so this informal interaction is even more important. In instances like this you might want to dedicate an entire session to informal interactions and relationship building so people feel comfortable to talk together.

Have a contingency plan in place

Technology does go wrong sometimes and so it’s useful to have a back-up plan ready… just in case. This can be having someone who can act as a back-up facilitator of the session if you experience connection issues; having multiple people with access to presentation materials like slides and videos; and even uploading materials like videos to streaming platforms. You could also look to have one person present to handle any technology issues so that These all act as ways to keep your event running smoothly, even if your internet decides it’s the perfect time to stop cooperating!



The Engaged Topics Network is a community for individuals involved in public engagement activities at Queen Mary. The network provide a space where all staff and students can come together to share their knowledge and experiences, build new collaborations, and provide support for one another. As the Network exists to support our community, we are keen to ensure that the programme is directed by you so welcome your suggestions for topics and themes for future sessions.



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