Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Take That Big Leap from a Solid Position

Leaping into a world of virtual genealogical society meetings is not something that "just" happens. It takes well-considered preparation to ease a group from the bedrock of their familiar face-to-face meeting traditions into an unfamiliar world of online opportunities. Yet especially in this quarantine situation, the imperatives to make the move are multiple.

Regarding my local genealogical society, I wasn't too sure we could make that move easily. I had already worked with some very motivated members on computer-assisted family history processes and could tell that many members shared a lack of confidence in their ability to navigate computer-assisted tools.

We had no choice when it came to shifting our meeting plans, though: we had already had to cancel one month's meeting. While the board surely hoped the restrictions to assembly would be lifted in time for the next month's meeting, it was clear by our April board meeting that we would have to make the choice to switch to an online venue or cancel a second meeting.

What we found was that it is possible to coax our membership towards more tech-assisted services. It just takes a plan to implement the system. Think of it as a music performer might: before opening night, we need chances to practice, a team to handle the tech details and roll out the information, and a dress rehearsal for the important performers before the curtain goes up and the show begins.

This meant we needed to work on key segments of our plan long before show time. First, we needed to conduct some background research on the best online venue for our group, and do a test run as a demo for our decision-makers (in our case, our board of directors). Then we needed to review the process on this test run, field questions from the board, and consider any observations offered, before moving on to the next step of introducing the online process to anyone else.

Our next step, once the board made the decision to proceed, was to enlist a key set of influencers to set our plan into action in a limited scope. Influencers in a group are the ones that can facilitate rolling out a decision. These are the people who are most successful at getting the rubber on the road and gaining traction in the real world.

This, in our case, turned out to involve two different groups and goals. One group focused on evaluating whether the leadership could actually conduct a meeting online, and involved negotiations between our program director and our speaker, as well as our webmaster, whose expertise in our chosen utility would help us through her services as co-host for the actual meeting event. The end task for this group was to conduct a dress rehearsal—which proved essential for reasons I'll explain later—and to facilitate all the players coming together in real time for this run-through.

The second group of "influencers" turned out to be members of our special interest groups. Through our society's monthly newsletter, we rolled out a plan to have two of those groups convene their meeting for this month online, rather than in person. Because each was a small group, we had the opportunity for the dual goals of holding an interactive meeting while using that time to test whether these members could actually download the videoconferencing app and use it effectively. We took the time to do an interactive, online tour of the Zoom service capabilities to familiarize users in preparation for our upcoming membership meeting.

Once we had engaged our board and our key influencers among our membership, it was time to roll out the plan. Our first step was actually a demo of the product I proposed for the society's use, to be given via our monthly board meeting. I suggested Zoom only because my family's business has already been using it for several months with good results. The "demo" to the board was actually hosting the April board meeting on one of our company's channels so that all our board members could experience how the system works. For those who had never before used such a system, it was helpful to actually go through the process, even as a first-time user. The experience helped inform the organizational technicalities of entertaining the motion to select a provider and purchase the necessary service components.

Once we purchased our own channel, specific board members used the same tool to meet online for the purpose of coordinating rolling out our plan. We had newsletter articles to compose, social media announcements to consider, and small group events to calendar, all within a matter of weeks.

Prime among all those activities was securing the agreement of our speaker to participate in this change of venue. Thankfully, our speaker was willing—but our dress rehearsal demonstrated that her computer system was not exactly ready. For whatever reason, our first dress rehearsal—conducted, thankfully, two days before the meeting night—brought us what I can only call The Green Blob instead of our speaker. Every time she moved on her camera, this Green Blob morphed across our screens. It was time to do some troubleshooting. Thankfully, we still had the time to spare.

With the next day's test, our speaker thought she had resolved the issue (it was with her computer's camera), but the best she could do was to get rid of the Green Blob—but now she had no picture at all. We decided to settle on a black tile with her name written across it. After all, the focus was going to be on her PowerPoint slides, not her face.

It turns out that a dress rehearsal for the speaker has been essential for other groups, as well. Just the previous week, my husband, who is chapter president in another nonprofit organization, had set up a dress rehearsal for his upcoming meeting, as well. That way, he was able to orient his board to the necessary co-hosting duties, as well as walk the speaker through the meeting agenda and technical steps to switch from camera view to screen share for the presentation notes. Especially for those who haven't presented using this venue before, it helps to have a practice run before the actual event. Even if something unexpected happens at the actual event, having an informed team means they can cover as co-hosts until problems get resolved.

Inviting the assistance of key influencers in your organization helps share the tasks even further. Members can tag-team helping each other get online or troubleshoot problems experienced by their fellow members, especially if done ahead of time (as we did with the special interest groups). And the feedback from membership is also helpful, when those interested are invited to help out ahead of time. We got to see things from our members' perspective, to get encouraging feedback as we walked through the process, and to receive suggestions that helped smooth the transition to this online venue. (Several members, for instance, asked to be reminded again of the meeting the day of the event, as it seems the days are all running together while we struggle with the brain fog of quarantine sameness.)

While everything I had read in preparation for leading our society into this new online venue said to admit members into the meeting with their microphone already muted—we also warned everyone ahead of time to expect this—actually seeing everyone's face again meant I couldn't bear seeing these people I know without being able to talk with them. On opening night, as we invited members in from our "waiting room" at Zoom before starting the night's agenda, I couldn't help but verbally greet each one by name. I learned to tap dance fast enough to open each individual's mic long enough for that person to respond with a word of greeting. I think we all needed the chance to actually say hello.

Because we had an online meeting instead of our usual face-to-face event, it did limit our social time, but that is what we will re-invent our special interest groups to address. The agenda also went quicker because I had to eliminate several impromptu reports and exchanges—I do an "on this day in history" overview as a conversation starter, and we also have an "open mic" section for #amresearching reports—but that meant we didn't wear down our audience before it was time to introduce the featured speaker!

Best part of all: since we also scheduled the event's time block to start with a final test run with our speaker before we admitted members into the online meeting room, we were able to go into the session encouraged that our speaker had actually resolved the computer issue and now could present with a correctly functioning camera. It is so important to have a speaker who is willing to face the very different challenges of speaking from a remote location via videoconferencing tools, and who is willing to work with your organization to resolve unexpected problems.

In retrospect, I'm thankful for all the positive feedback we received from members. But my mind is just percolating with fresh ideas on how we can harness this app to better suit our organization's mission and specific education goals. It might have been a worldwide crisis which booted us out of our complacent position into the "what next" scramble of desperation, but we all are able to land squarely on our feet if we can maximize the tools at our hands in this frontier of online meetings. Having shaken loose of our traditional moorings, we can now explore even more of what is available to groups such as ours for such a minimal cost. A plan to do so may not insure success, but it will certainly enable us to have a better idea of where we are going and how we will get there.


  1. Way to go! Gene has an online support group that met last Monday on Zoom but we forgot about it! Maybe next month! :)


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