Satellite Meetings: Tips for Engaging Stakeholders Remotely

Last year in June, I worked with Future of Research to host our MentoringFutureSci meeting, where we convened stakeholders, from graduate students to department leadership, and tasked them with developing a set of guidelines to improve research training environments. The meeting was different in that we also engaged remotely with stakeholders across six different campus ‘satellite meetings.’ This allowed us to cast a broader net with regards to stakeholder input, as well as provide other campuses the opportunity to engage their local stakeholders in conversations around mentoring and training environments.

Scientists across disciplines are now recognizing and coming to terms with both the inaccessibility and environmental cost of hosting large national and international conferences (see the awesome thread below).

While it doesn’t provide a full solution to many of these issues, the satellite meeting model, a hybrid of the webinar and traditional meeting styles, allows for meetings that are less costly yet flexible to engage with stakeholders across campuses. Coincidentally, I’ve been asked in the last month by two separate organizing committees to provide insights into how to successfully run a meeting with satellite sites, so I decided to write this piece for anyone else who is interested in the model. Below you’ll find my two major pieces of advice.

Have clear goals and structure

Like any meeting, one that engages satellites works best when there is a clear goal and structure for the meeting. There’s a story I read once in a development psychology/attachment theory piece about children feeling most safe and comfortable in a fenced in playground (room to play and explore but with clear boundaries). This also applies to your satellite meeting facilitators. In other words, you should have a clear schedule of the parts of the meeting that will be live-streamed, usually speeches, and the parts of the meeting that won’t, usually workshops and breakouts (see my rough sketch below, with the main meeting timeline on top, and the satellite on the bottom). Having a clear schedule with opportunities to tune into the livestream and participate in workshops also gives satellite organizers the freedom to tailor their own schedule to the pieces they think will be most relevant for their audiences, and organize their own parallel speakers and workshops should they wish to.

As you can see, the format that this meeting works best for is those that require participation in workshops and further input by stakeholders. The idea is to treat each satellite meeting as a small working/breakout group that convenes for each workshop and then reports back in the ‘large group reconvene’ session along with central meeting breakout groups. Satellites with many participants can also break up into small groups and report out one or two salient points that haven’t been reported at the main meeting. If there are more than six or seven satellite meetings and having all of them report out becomes unwieldy, have them submit their main points via chat for a point person at the central meeting to report out. Because you won’t have full control as to who will be organizing and facilitating the satellite meetings and workshops, having a clearly laid out goal and facilitation plan will help everyone start out on the same page. Which brings me to my next point.

Have clearly defined logistics

There are several aspects of the meeting that will logistically require to have a plan in place to assure smooth sailing and quick adjustment if and when hiccups occur:

  1. As you can imagine, you need a solid A/V set-up at your main meeting. You will need a room that can project the speakers’ slides, and that has the capacity to log into a chat room such as Google Hangouts, Zoom, or BlueJeans. Google Hangouts has a really cool live closed-captioning feature that makes for more accessible meetings. Most of these platforms give you control of who is muted so you can avoid feedback issues, and have a chat feature that can let you quickly communicate with your satellite facilitators. You will also need an A/V set-up that allows input from multiple microphones (multiple cameras are a plus). Remember that the satellite meetings won’t be able to pick up audio from participants at the main meeting unless they are speaking into a microphone. Satellite facilitators/organizers should designate a point person to communicate with the person in charge of A/V on the day of the meeting. Having point people’s phone numbers can help provide a means to communicate during troubleshooting tech issues.
  2. Set up a Google Site, Google Drive, or other form of organizing and collecting feedback from satellite meetings. I like Google Drive because it allows each satellite meeting to have access to materials relevant to their own satellite and take notes on a Google Doc that is either open to other facilitators or just the main meeting organizers and each individual satellite.
  3. Provide your facilitators with a pre-meeting packet that contains all of this information: links to drive/docs, a meeting schedule, workshop facilitation prompts, and logistical and A/V information for the day of the meeting. You can also provide them with standardized/template language for promoting the meeting at their campuses and tips and tricks for facilitating workshops if they’ve never done so before. For the latter, I used an adapted version of the facilitation guide from the Entering Research and Entering Mentoring curricula, which can be downloaded for free.

Concluding Thoughts

That’s it! You’re ready to run your own conference with satellite meetings. If you’re concerned about your participants’ limited ability to network given the remote structure, I will add that networking at both in-person and remote meetings requires accessibility and intention. Have your intake form note which participants are looking for connections and mentorship, who is willing to be contacted to mentor others, and then follow up after the meeting to provide people with this information and opportunities to connect. Depending on the size and purpose of your meeting, there are different issues that you will come across that can be creatively solved or adapted. I’ve alluded to some above, though I am sure there are others I haven’t covered. Like with general meetings, you will still have to keep in mind accessibility and representation. Having remote satellite meetings doesn’t by default make your meeting any more accessible to diverse audiences (see my comment above on subtitles, as an example). Likewise, the voices you choose to highlight and elevate, and those you choose to organize and facilitate satellite meetings will have a huge impact on stakeholder turnout and who feels represented and safe participating in workshops. As always, if you have any follow-up questions or comments, my inbox and Twitter DMs are open. Happy organizing!