How to Maximize Engagement with Both In-Person and Virtual Participants

“Virtual” meetings, held via an online meeting platform, became a lifeline for businesses forced to transition to a fully remote workforce. But the return to the office presented a new challenge for leaders: conducting “hybrid” meetings, with both in-person and virtual participants.

Leading meetings in-person requires a different skill set than leading virtual meetings but leading a meeting with both in-person and virtual participants presents a unique opportunity to restructure our meetings entirely.

It takes skill and intention to connect people—whether in-person or digitally—but connecting people across a digital divide isn’t something most of us have been taught.

It boils down to this:

Those who quickly adapt their leadership skills to this new reality will hold a decisive edge.

But the chief obstacle to doing it might surprise you.

Energy matters.

Gifted presenters (and performers) are keenly aware that energy matters. When people gather for a common purpose, and connection is at its best, there is an exchange of energy between the person on stage (or at the front of a conference room) and the other participants.

But that energy does not translate through a screen—at least, not in the same way.

The result?

When someone presents to a “hybrid” audience, in-person participants are almost always prioritized. Because attendees who are physically present are able to share energy with the person leading the meeting, it’s easy for the presenter to engage with them, and inadvertently neglect virtual participants.

It isn’t impossible to navigate this challenge, but it does take insight from an unexpected source: theater design.

Three communication strategies from a theatre designer to up your meeting leadership game

At Idibri, we design spaces where people gather, and over the years, we’ve established that in any performance space (no matter how large or small), there are three types of communication flow:

  1. From the stage to the audience (presentation)
  2. From the audience to the stage (response)
  3. From the audience to each other (community)

Different types of events prioritize different paths of communication. This is why a Broadway theatre has a different configuration than an arena. The proscenium of a theatre stage prioritizes communication from the stage to the audience; an arena floor with an audience surrounding it prioritizes communication within the audience (which explains why fans can create a home field advantage).

How does this relate to meeting design?

Just as theatre designers factor communication paths into the creation of venues for different types of events, when you know which type of communication flow you want to prioritize, you can design the structure of your meeting to create that kind of engagement.

Let’s look at each of the three communication paths, and how you can use them to structure a hybrid meeting model that will maximize engagement.


The presentation path prioritizes communication from the stage to the audience—which means that the person on the stage (i.e., giving the presentation) has the leading voice in the room. In a hybrid meeting context, this means the focus of the meeting, in both the physical and digital space, will be on the presenter and their content.

Strategies to create a bridge between digital and in-person audiences might include the following:

  • Pre-record portions of the presentation so that the content is tight, professional, and delivered in a shorter amount of time. This not only frees up space later in the agenda for connection, but it also creates the same experience for digital and in-person participants during the content-delivery portion of the meeting.
  • Feature people in the audience (or people they would identify with) in examples; this can create a sense of solidarity between virtual and physical attendees.
  • Prioritize virtual participants visually. It’s common to have a camera present a live audience to a virtual one, which is fine, but while it’s not necessary to create a context in which every virtual participant’s face is shown, it’s important to create awareness—for both the presenter and in-person attendees—and acknowledge the virtual presence of digital attendees. Setting an expectation that all virtual attendees will participate with cameras on during video calls is a simple way to accomplish this.
  • Use a whiteboard (whether physical or digital) to make the presentation feel more interactive in real time for all participants.


A responsive event — like a town hall — prioritizes feedback from the audience to the stage. In a hybrid meeting context, this means there are dedicated ways for the audience (whether physically or digitally present) to respond and be heard.

Strategies to create a bridge between digital and in-person audiences might include the following:

  • Use a moderator to prompt discussion, communicating clear ways for people to respond. (Hint: it creates more parity between digital and in-person participants if everyone responds digitally.)
  • Have someone in the meeting whose job is to monitor and respond to sidebar chat in the meeting software.
  • Engage a graphic facilitator to capture attendee comments. The graphic facilitator can either be a co-host in the digital space who shares their screen or be live-streamed by a camera in the physical room.
  • Share a cloud-based document with a short url (e.g., that both digital and in-person participants can contribute to in real time, or ask participants to engage with the presentation using polling tools; this allows in-person participants to interact digitally with their colleagues.


A sense of community is achieved when the highest priority is communication between the members of the audience. This is the most difficult structure to achieve in a hybrid meeting model, because the physical room you are gathering in needs to be designed for it.

Prioritizing this communication path requires that both in-person and virtual attendees are able to “see” each other, as if they were in the same space.

Strategies to create a bridge between digital and in-person audiences might include the following:

  • Use projection or large screens to bring the digital presence of remote attendees into the meeting room.
  • Provide a video feed of the physical space to remote attendees, and/or have in-person attendees join the meeting from laptops so that everyone can be seen.
  • Plan your meeting well; it is on the meeting leaders to treat digital and in-person participants equally as they design the experience.
  • Coach participants on strategies for interacting well with each other in a hybrid meeting environment.
  • Create a simple way for people to see each other respond. Crowds hold up cell phones at concerts or do the wave at a stadium. Requests for simple responses –like asking people to write something and hold it up, show a photo from their phone, or vote with their hands, allow the virtual and in-person participants to see each other perform the same action–which subtly creates connection.

It isn’t just leaders who need to learn new communication skills.

When it comes to interacting with screens, most of us have passive habits, developed from years of watching television.

Worse, we have a habit of walking away from screens (either in reality or metaphorically, as our  attention drifts) because we are so accustomed to interacting with what is coming through a screen as a one-way conversation.

Teaching whole teams to become more skilled at interacting with virtual participants in the same way they do with in-person participants takes practice and coaching, but we are all learning these new skills together right now. With just a bit of focus, it’s an ideal time to make a culture shift from passivity to being more interactive.

One of the best ways to boost this interaction is to “seed” the audience before a meeting.

Seeding an audience is a tactic often used in theatre productions; performers will “plant” themselves (or others who have been coached on how to engage) in the audience, to encourage others to participate in certain ways. Once the “plants” break the ice and introduce interaction, it becomes easier for other participants to follow. This translates easily to designing an interactive meeting.

(Pro-tip: When choosing your “plants,” resist the urge to select people who are used to jumping out there. Instead, intentionally choose people who care about your mission, and explain what you are trying to achieve and how they can help. This will allow your normal “first responders” to jump on board and create momentum, once the “plants” cue the interactive behavior you’re cultivating.)

There is a win for leaders—and teams—who get this right

Including virtual participants in your in-person meetings expands your reach as a leader, providing an opportunity to pull in people who might have previously been excluded by geography or health-risks.

A common mistake with digital participants is including them as an afterthought, rather than making them a focus for participation, but this shift in focus is an easy one to make.

Leading a hybrid meeting becomes simple, once you’ve identified the priority of the communication flow (like a theatre designer) and aligned everything around it for both in-person and virtual participants.

Better yet: the more frequently you lead hybrid meetings, the easier planning them becomes, because the hybrid model of participation will infuse the culture of your team. What were once passive experiences will become creative, interactive opportunities to foster innovation— giving you (and your team!) a competitive edge.