At the start of 2020, I could count on one hand the number of Zoom gatherings I had attended. Needless to say, along with my banana bread consumption and gravitation towards handcrafts, my participation in virtual socialization has skyrocketed this year. In the past three months, I’ve attended a birthday party, a wedding, a school orientation and a bridal shower — not to mention numerous game nights, casual friend hangouts and a multitude of work meetings — all via video conference.
I have consistently low expectations each time I log into Zoom, and admittedly, some of the virtual get-togethers I’ve attended have left something to be desired. Replacing in-person socialization with an hour of screen-staring is hard.
However, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at the fun, festive, and meaningful atmosphere cultivated in many of the electronic spaces, and in an attempt to learn from the best Zoom sessions I’ve attended, I analyzed my video-conferencing experiences of the past year. In doing so, I found that the most successful gatherings involve a few key ingredients:
A designated host
What’s more uncomfortable than the average lull in conversation when, say, having dinner with your significant other’s parents for the first time? You guessed it: An awkward silence over a virtual party with 20-plus people. Between the likelihood that not everyone gathered knows each other, the cumbersome nature of one large group, and frequent technological hiccups, I’ve spent many an hour in front of my computer internally cringing.
While pauses can’t be avoided entirely, a clearly designated host can keep the conversation moving smoothly and inclusively. The host should facilitate introductions, jump-start the conversation when the hazards of technology cause it to fizzle (a series of “can you hear me”s has the unique ability to stilt even the most riveting discussion), and invite the more quiet members of the gathering to share a thought or idea. Virtual spaces require a dynamic leader to navigate the awkward-prone terrain of Zoom, and the person who initiated the call shouldn’t resist taking the lead.
One of the biggest challenges with virtual gatherings is the impossibility of side conversations. Think about it: At a party, a few people hover by the snack table, another cohort situates itself on the sofa, and still another group hunkers down on the porch. People flow in and out of these groupings, and the movement and change of conversation partners keeps the evening interesting. When you are gathered over a video call, however, something else needs to keep the party moving, and I’ve noticed that creative activities can accomplish this goal fluidly and festively.
For instance, at a Zoom bridal shower that I attended last month, the host asked three different people to lead three different games. Each engaged the gathered group in a different way and the changing voices added variety to the hour. The added bonus is that shared leadership takes some pressure off the host and gives her a chance to relax and enjoy the party.
In Jenny Rosenstrach’s how-to-meets-cookbook “How to Celebrate Everything”, she describes her father-in-law’s tradition of commemorating every family occasion — from weddings, to birthdays to graduations — with a masterfully crafted poem. Rosenstrach reflects on how the poems delight everyone gathered, make the recipient feel out-of-this-world honored, and add a sense of gravity and importance to the occasion. A few thoughtful and genuine words can go a long way to transforming an ordinary gathering into an uniquely meaningful one, and this extra infusion of significance is especially needed on the dangerously sterile platform of Zoom.
The good news that warming words don’t have to be written in verse. If writing poetry isn’t your thing, try offering a toast, giving a thoughtful welcome or goodbye, telling a relevant story, or sharing a few sentences about why the group gathered is so important to you. The point of this moment of reflection is to connect the people gathered with something deeper within themselves, and hopefully, with each other.
Hosting in any circumstance is an art and a skill, and virtual gatherings present new challenges to even the most seasoned host. Incorporating these elements into your next Zoom get-together will go a long way to making your call feel worthwhile and enjoyable to all who are attending.