Technology and Facilitation for Online Conversations

Learn to lead conversations with ALA's free e-course. Libraries Transforming Communities.

Face-to-face community conversations are sometimes not possible. In these and other circumstances, you may need to adjust your plans from in-person to virtual. Luckily there are technologies available that can help you host and facilitate conversations effectively online. In this module, we will discuss these questions and help you plan for online conversations.

Upon completion of this module, you will understand how to:

  • Use computer and telephone technology to host community conversations
  • Pivot face-to-face engagement to other types of community engagement, including online conversations and other input-gathering methods
  • Market online conversations to recruit diverse participation
  • Facilitate in an online setting

Who Will You Meet?

Throughout this module, you'll hear from library workers and volunteers who have led a variety of virtual conversations. They are:

  • Maureen Rust of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, who has led virtual Cultural Conversations
  • High school student Kariana Wyatt, who runs a virtual teen writing group supervised by Pamela Jayne, teen librarian at Boone County Public Library in Kentucky
  • Jen Thiele of Marinette County Public Library in Wisconsin, who has led virtual conversations with the library board and other groups
  • Lissa Staley and Mary Pyko of Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas, who run virtual deliberative dialogues

Shifting the Conversation Online: What Tools to Use

Leading a conversation online is, in many ways, similar to leading one in person. The concepts we have been discussing throughout this course -- creating a welcoming space, keeping the conversation going, and handling challenges as they arise -- are as relevant in a virtual space as a physical one. Still, you should be prepared to adjust your facilitation practice to address the virtual environment and ensure participation from all attendees. In this section, we’ll look at the tech tools you'll need to bring your conversation online.

Video- and Tele-Conference Tools

The following is accurate as of September 2020; check platform websites as details are subject to change. Video-conferencing platforms (e.g. Zoom, GoToMeetings) allow participants to see one another, which is advantageous to virtual conversations.

A note about hosting and facilitating: The "host" of a virtual conversation controls the technical capabilities in the room including many of the features noted below. In this guide we assume you may be in the role of hosting the video-conference platform as well as serving as facilitator. However, it may be helpful to have someone acting just as the host for technical support (e.g. muting/unmuting participants, helping with tech issues, activating breakout rooms, etc.).

When it comes to virtual conversations, the same roles for in-person conversations apply, including facilitator, note taker, and time keeper.

Most platforms will allow patrons to connect to a discussion through different methods (e.g. video, phone).

A note about tele-conferencing: In cases where you are using tele-conferencing only, it is important for the facilitator to take down the names of all participants at the start of the call. As there are no cameras involved that list is vital for the facilitator to keep tabs on who is speaking. A best practice in this format is to ask participants to identify themselves each time they speak, which allows everyone to familiarize the names with the voices, and for the facilitator to know who might be dominating and who to invite to contribute.

Helpful Features

For most platforms, there are several features that are helpful to the host/facilitator:


When it comes to virtual conversations, facilitators should follow the same roles for in-person conversations, including the use of a note taker when needed. In addition, most video- and tele-conference platforms allow for recording of the event (sometimes with a fee). Recording a session can be useful for a number of reasons:

  • Transcription or expansive note taking
  • Facilitator reflection and learning
  • Sharing the conversation with a group or the public

Recording is not always appropriate, such as during conversations of a personal or sensitive nature. If you are recording a session you should say so at the beginning to comply with best practices for patron privacy. In addition to informing participants, the facilitator should share how the recording will be used and/or if it will be shared with participants or anywhere else. Noting this in the invitation is ideal.


In virtual conversations, background noises can distract or disrupt the conversation. A platform's mute function can help reduce these interruptions -- but it is important that you don't use the mute function as a stand-in for good facilitation. Do not mute someone when they are speaking to avoid or censor their comments (unless it is a matter of last resort); instead, use your skills as a moderator to address comments that are hostile or hurtful. At the start of your session, review the process for muting and unmuting, and remind participants to mute themselves when they are not speaking. Read up on your platform's settings; some platforms allow you to automatically mute all participants at the start, which can make the beginning of your session less chaotic.


A chat function provides a second method for communication. As the facilitator, make it clear at the start of the conversation how you would like them to use the chat, if at all. It can be a distraction if used for side conversations. For the facilitator, the chat is helpful for sharing ground rules, facts and information, questions to respond to, or links.


Generally, virtual conversations seem to work best with groups of 6 to 12; when you find yourself with groups larger than 12, breaking into smaller groups can help create more connection and deepen the conversation. Best practice would be to have a facilitator for each breakout group. However, if this is not possible you can give participants instructions for the breakouts, including the main topic for them to discuss, and how long they will be in conversation before reconvening in the main room. Once everyone returns to the main room ask one person from each group to share a brief summary or one key insight from their conversation.

Please note: In Zoom, breakouts need to be permitted for the event you create -- check your settings in Zoom to make sure you have this set-up!

Screen Sharing

At times when visuals would help illustrate a concept, you may wish to share your screen with the group. If this is not available, you could send participants links in advance to the documents and ask that they have them available for the event, or review them prior to the conversation. In some platforms, screen-sharing makes it difficult to see people's faces; participants’ faces get pushed to the side to make room for the shared document. Try not to leave a document shared for longer than is necessary because the static image may cause people to disengage.


In a virtual environment, most platforms allow participants to choose their screen name or have an identifier underneath their video. Whenever possible, ask participants to join the event using their first name. Other information you can ask them to put with their name might be pronouns (e.g. she/he/they) or location. You might even use this option to sort people into breakout groups: if you have different topics for breakout rooms, allow participants to put the number or name of the topic where their name is, to allow you to easily sort groups! Check out how to change your name in the platform in advance, so you can advise participants on how to do this.

Free Platforms

There are multiple platforms out there that offer alternatives to Zoom. Here we list several free platforms that may be useful. Decide for yourself the platform that will work best.

  • Discord: Offers free text and voice chatting options. Geared towards younger audiences.
  • Free Conference: Offers free video and telephone conference calls for up to 100 people. Additional features available with a fee.
  • Google Hangouts: Free video-conferencing for up to 25 people. Audio can accommodate up to 150.
  • Microsoft Teams: Free video-conferencing. Larger group events available with a fee.

Many free platforms have a limit on the length of an event. Let folks know about the time limit, and make sure you leave time to closing and asking for feedback on this new format. Using a time keeper may be helpful!

Additional Tools

To enhance your video- or tele-conference conversations, several additional tools may prove useful. Check out the following tools to see if they might fit your needs (all are free or offer free versions):

  • Google Docs: A great web-based tool for note taking. This can be used collaboratively, so multiple groups can capture notes in one document, or can use the doc to identify actions or decisions.
  • Google Jamboard: A fun tool that can be used to lead a sticky-note or dot-voting exercise in an online conversation.
  • Padlet: A tool that can be used collaboratively for idea generation, discussion threads, capturing the key outcomes of a conversation, and more, presented in an appealing format.
  • Poll Everywhere: A tool for polling participants, which can be useful for making decisions or receiving feedback.

Be sure to instruct participants on how to use the tools.

Facilitation Approaches for a Virtual Setting

A few simple shifts in your facilitation approach can help move your virtual conversation along and allow for participation from all. Below are several considerations to make as a facilitator before, during, and after your conversation.

Before the Conversation


Requiring advance registration will give you a head count and an email address for participants to send any important information prior to the conversation. Collecting email addresses also allows you to send the link to the conversation privately rather than posting it publicly, thus avoiding unwanted interruptions or security breaches (e.g. “Zoom-bombings”).

If your library lends out hotspots, you may want to notify participants in case they need to borrow one to participate in the conversation and provide information on how they can sign-up to reserve one.


Prepare as you would for any conversation, including establishing your goals, ground rules, and some questions you plan to ask (refer back to the previous modules and your Conversation Planning Tools for guidance on this). Additionally:

  • Get familiar with the platform you are using, including checking the settings for you as the host and knowing how to mute participants.
  • Send participants a reminder for the event (either the day before or 1-2 hours before works well). Include the instructions on how to join, the length of the session, and your expectations for their participation.
  • If you are offering video-conferencing, encourage them to join with video. Let participants know about any technology requirements or preferences for participation, such as a webcam or phone with camera, microphone or telephone connection, and so on. Recommend that they download the app in advance if applicable, and to join a few minutes early if they are not familiar with the platform.

During the Conversation

During your virtual conversation, you will follow many of the same facilitation practices as outlined in Modules Four and Five. Below, we will share some brief tips to address the differences in facilitation approaches for a virtual setting.

A note about ground rules - while ground rules will remain mostly the same, you may wish to consider adding some additional rules specific to the setting, such as "please mute yourself when not speaking to allow others to be heard." Please refer back to Module Four for further guidance on ground rules.

A note about group size: An ideal group size for a virtual conversation is between 6-12 participants, though you can certainly hold a virtual conversation with as few as 4 people. Consider in advance if you will need additional facilitators and how you will structure the conversation.

What if someone is confused about how to use the platform?

You may wish to have a helper to lend assistance in case questions come up about the platform. Encourage folks who need to get settled to join early so they can be helped before the conversation gets underway. Let folks know who to message if they need help during the conversation.

What if someone has a lot of distracting background noise?

Let participants know at the start how to mute themselves when they are not speaking. If someone does not mute, you as the host can mute them yourself, but you may need to remind them to unmute when they want to speak again.

How can I avoid participants talking over one another?

Calling on participants to speak can bring more order to a conversation, especially at the start. The participants can choose to pass if they wish. You can continue in the round, or open the conversation up from there, going back to that approach if needed later on.

What do I do if someone logs in late?

If someone joins late, treat them the way you would in person. Welcome them, let them know where you are in the conversation, and encourage them to listen for a while before jumping in. If you are using a platform with chat, use this feature to minimize the interruption. Once you are past the halfway point in the conversation, invite latecomers to observe rather than participate. You can invite them to share their reflections as an observer at the end, if you like.

After the Conversation


If you have email addresses for participants, you may want to send the following to them after your conversation:

  • Thanks: Share your appreciation for their participation and their time. Recognize the challenge of trying a new format, diving into a tough topic, etc.
  • Next Steps: If this is a continuing conversation, let them know what will come next. If decisions were reached, include them here. If certain commitments were made, include them! This serves as a shared record for moving forward.
  • Sharing Notes or Recordings: If you have notes from the event, share them with participants. If you recorded the conversation, you may want to link to it for participants as well.

Reflect and Assess

What worked well about the virtual format, and where did you struggle? Consider your own work as the virtual facilitator, but also the platform. What settings might you want to adjust for next time? Did a tool work well or make things more challenging? Considering this right after the event will help your planning for the next one. Refer back to Module Five for additional prompts to reflect on the overall process.

Accessibility Considerations and Other Means of Engagement

When we talk about accessibility in the context of virtual conversations, this refers to both access to technology and accessibility for those with different needs within a virtual conversation.


You know your community and its access challenges. If internet access is spotty or nonexistent in your community, you are likely to wind up with poor attendance -- or with a virtual event that disconnects or experiences constant freezing. In this situation, a conference call will be more successful.

Other Accessibility Considerations

Consider the needs of members of your community who may need accommodations to participate in a virtual conversation. Do you need to include closed captioning? Will you need to incorporate written and verbal participation? Are translation or breakouts for different languages necessary? In what formats and languages will you need to provide materials? Anticipating these needs will help with your planning in advance. Additionally, asking about any necessary accommodations in your registration will help you finalize your plans to best serve the group.

Different platforms allow different accessibility options. Zoom, for instance, allows for closed captioning but it must be written by a host in real time. Explore what might work best for your group. Most platforms have tips and information about their features, including instructions on how to use them.

Other Ways to Connect

If internet is not the right choice for your conversation, whether because of spotty access or audience preference, you may wish to consider alternate ways to engage.

Think about the spaces that your patrons occupy in their daily lives. If your library is well-trafficked, a simple tabletop can make an interactive display where you collect patron feedback on sticky notes. A printed survey next to the cash register in a local coffee shop might be the best way to get feedback. Get creative!

Whatever the location, well-crafted questions will make all the difference. Please refer back to "Conversation Starters and Questions" in Module Four for guidance on crafting questions. Consider how your participants will respond in these new formats: how much space will they have to respond? Will they will see others' responses?

You may wish to spread your "conversation" over a period of time, such as asking a new question each day for a week. This allows people to see and respond to or build upon one another's answers. You will need to moderate the comments to ensure everyone is abiding by any ground rules you set.

Gathering community input from people who are unable or unlikely to participate in a virtual conversation is a good way to ensure diverse opinions are heard. Below are some ideas for engaging with community members outside of a virtual conversation.


Are online or paper surveys a practical option for gathering community input on possible actions for addressing a local issue? Who can help distribute and collect responses?

Online Portals for Community

Are there other portals or platforms people use frequently that can be used for online discussion threads or to collect individual input? Facebook, for instance, is a platform used by many people. If the library has a presence, it can connect with its followers to engage in conversation, polls, or other engagement.

Community Bulletin Boards

Is there a central location in town that people still frequent? This may or may not be the library during the pandemic. But if there is a community center, grocery store, school, or other shared space where people filter through, consider a community bulletin board to post information on the topic and to ask people for their thoughts, concerns, or ideas. Post a question and provide paper and markers for people to post their responses on the board. This allows people to see one another’s ideas and for you to collect them. It is generally best to ask a question that is answerable in a couple of words. Asking people "What is your greatest hope for our community?" or "What is the one thing you would change about our library?" are helpful examples.


Is there a display space (e.g. a school marquee or library window) that can be used, either to share information or perhaps to share results you gather? These spaces can contribute to the virtual conversations, or help those not able to participate to keep up to speed.

Marketing and Recruitment for a Virtual Conversation

Just like an in-person conversation, marketing your virtual conversation is essential to ensuring a good turnout. Consider the following:

  • Diversity: It is important to bring diverse experiences and perspectives to the conversation. This may require you to cater your marketing and outreach to different populations in your community. Consider offering marketing materials in several languages. Subtle cultural and political differences are important to consider as well.
  • Partners: As much as they are critical to recruiting for in-person events, community partners can also play an essential role in recruiting diverse participation for virtual conversations. Consider your potential partners as you would for an in-person event. Refer back to the information in Module Two and the Conversation Planning Tool to review working with partners.
  • How to promote: Sharing on the library website and in newsletters is a start. Also consider social media, partner websites and email lists, and local news outlets. Make your materials supporting the event available online in simple formats. More traditional methods like flyers may reach members of the community who do not use technology as frequently.
  • Encouraging participation from those less familiar with technology: There are several steps you can take to help encourage their participation. In many cases, platforms offer simple instructional videos or pages about how to use their platforms. Share these links in your invitation and registration pages to allow participants to view in advance of the event. Encourage them to download any app required in advance, and let them know who they can contact if they need assistance (if you have the capacity to answer questions).
  • Reaching those not in the library's general online reach: Be sure to work with your partners to help promote the conversations via their social media channels and in other formats people in your community generally learn about events (e.g. other newsletters, websites).

Module Resources

In Module Six you have learned about various options for adapting conversations to virtual settings. You have learned about tools and settings, as well as how to adjust your role as facilitator. You also considered accessibility needs and alternative means for engagement, as well as how to market and recruit for these conversations. We hope this module has increased your comfort level with moving conversations from in-person to virtual.

Keep the following resources with you as you continue to learn:

Module Six Conversation Planning Tool (What's this?)

Here are several additional resources you may wish to check out:

Next Section: Expanding Your Dialogue and Deliberation Work