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Holding an online event – 'Returning to Our Senses'

This case study discusses how to successfully conduct an online event that doesn’t compromise on the interactive and collaborative nature of public engagement. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the event? 

‘Returning to Our Senses’ was an online event which explored the impact of COVID-19 on our sense of smell. Experts discussed the role smell plays in our everyday lives and attendees were invited to share their experiences as well as take part in a series of at-home experiments. 

Prof Barry Smith and Dr Ann-Sophie Barwich gave great insights into the role humanities research is playing in this seemingly medical issue, including Barry’s involvement in getting smell recognised as a COVID-19 symptom. Chrissi Kelly, from the charity AbScent, also spoke about the support available for those affected by anosmia and smell disorders.

Prof Barry Smith and Chrissi Kelly discuss the role of essential oils for smell retraining

How did you and your colleagues ensure the online event was still participatory? 

‘Returning to Our Senses’ was the last in a series of online in-conversation events. Throughout this series we learnt that holding events online can create greater distance between host and attendees and can sometimes slip into one-way dissemination of knowledge. 

To this end, we worked really hard to build in lots of opportunities for two-way conversation and interaction. Attendees were asked to share questions and/or their experiences of losing their sense of smell throughout the event. Rather than having a pre-structured format to follow, these questions shaped the conversation amongst speakers so that they spoke directly to the concerns and experiences of attendees. We would have liked to increase this level of interaction even more, however, we found that due to the number of attendees it became logistically difficult to manage. 

Throughout the event Barry also guided attendees through a number of at-home experiments that explored our senses. Using household items such as fruit, shampoo and even jelly babies, attendees could feedback their findings via online polls and then these were discussed as a group. This interactive element really helped break-up the session and again offered people another way to be active on a platform that can sometimes feel quite passive.

Did you and your colleagues face any challenges in organising your event online? If so, how did you overcome them? 

Throughout our series of in-conversation events we found that drop-off from booking numbers to actual attendees could be between 30-40%. This meant we had to do a bit of guess work in overbooking events. 

For ‘Returning to Our Senses’ we chose a platform package which allowed us to have a very high number of people in an online room. This meant that we could confidently set our capacity limits knowing everyone who booked could theoretically attend. 

I would definitely recommend for free online events that you release more tickets than the number of people you would like to be there on the day. It is so easy for people to feel computer-weary at the end of the day and decide not to logon for more screen time. 

Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers? 

  • Don’t make your event too long. Sitting in front of a computer can be a lot more tiring than attending an event in-person, so try and keep things short and sweet. 

  • Choose a platform that is user-friendly and doesn’t require too much tech know-how. This might be different to the one you use with colleagues as these can require accounts or specific software. 

  • Do some practicing and make sure you’re confident running the activity. Ask friends to do a test run to check they are seeing what you think they are!

If you would like to learn more about holding an event online, check out our toolkit on ‘Engaging at a distance’.

Take part

This project was part of Being Human’s 2020 Open Call pathway. If you would like to be part of the festival, please visit our ‘Get involved’ page. 

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