15 ideas for engaging online events

9 Dec 2020

This year’s been extra tough for our social entrepreneurs and learning teams.  Since March, they’ve been learning online instead of the usual face-to-face experience.

It’s been a year of change and adaptation – a complete departure from what we’ve done in the past.  That includes our approach to graduations this year.

We’re not a traditional ‘school’. But here at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) we do like to celebrate our social entrepreneurs’ learning journeys.

So we hold a ‘graduation event’ when they complete one of our programmes.  It’s never been about gowns and mortar boards.  Rather a chance to come together and celebrate the achievements of our cohorts alongside their peers, families, funders, and learning facilitators.

Despite Covid-19 restrictions this year, our ten regional teams have put on an amazingly diverse range of online graduations for the 253 changemakers who completed our Lloyds Bank and Bank of Scotland Social Entrepreneurs Programme, jointly funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.

Here are 15 ideas we’ve tried and tested to make an online event inclusive, engaging and that extra ‘SSE special’:

1. Involve your guests in the planning

SSE Scotland graduate Taylor McInroy, from Ayrshire Film Company put together this amazing video. SSE Midlands used a rap to tell their story in We Will Rise created by graduate Jeremy Grant, founder of FORM180.

Talented Reannon Tapp, graduating from SSE in the East, is founder of Hidden Capacities. She put together a showcase video of all the graduates in her cohort. This short video featuring Yorkshire and North East graduates was inspired by the regional lockdown trend ‘Pass the drink challenge’.

Shown at the graduation events, these videos used humour, music and powerful stories of challenge and triumph.

2. Co-create the occasion with participants so that it works for everyone

For instance, our team in the Midlands had their graduation in the daytime as four of their graduates have young children.

3. Learn something new

Consider a group singing exercise from Shared Harmonies or a mocktail and canape masterclass from Seasonwell .

What about an interactive drumming session led by Katumba, or a short boxing session with Kairos Martial Arts.

4. Send something special in the post

Our teams put together the most incredible goodie bags featuring products made by social enterprises we’ve supported on our programmes.  We had beautiful chocolates from Grace Chocolates, face masks from Kalopsia Collective,  ethical funky socks from Stand for Socks, luxury soap from Mbikudi – Naturally Powerful, motivation cards from Blurt Foundation, pack of Wildflower seeds from Seeds of Hope, and smoked pumpkin seeds from The Smoke Folk.  SSE Scotland’s ‘party in a box’ was co-ordinated by Dechomai Events, one the graduates on the programme.    All these gifts and more feature in our Good Gift Buying Guide.

5. Inspirational speakers don’t always have to ‘fit’ the theme exactly

SSE in Yorkshire and North East had two inspirational speakers who picked up on the theme of resilience: Terri White, Editor in chief at Empire magazine and author of Coming Undone and Ngozi Lyn Cole, leadership coach and change consultant.

6. Use pre-recorded video

SSE CEO Alastair Wilson pre-recorded a personal video so that he could congratulate our learners personally, despite not being able to attend every event.

7. Use poetry to symbolise the mood and inspire

Like this poem read by Max Girardeau, Director at The Visionaries and  SSE London graduate.

8. Use personal objects to tell stories

Our team in London asked graduates to each bring an object of significance to symbolise something that happened during the year; something they learnt; an achievement or a challenge they overcame.  Inspired by these objects, they shared their stories with their fellow students.

9. Don’t forget to include an unmuted ‘round of applause’

Or several!

10. Try ‘Pecha Kucha format for presentations

Keep it engaging and avoid ‘death by powerpoint’. Each graduate at SSE Cornwall spoke for 3 minutes in Pecha Kucha format with 9 slides that scrolled on every 20 seconds.  Try it out!

11. Use music to tell the story

SSE Dartington asked graduates to provide a song that meant something to them.  Each song was played and they had to guess who the song belonged to and then tell the story of why it was important.

12. Create a sense of unity with a common visual

Our team in the Midlands sent all graduates a smiley face balloon so they all had it in their zoom background.  Simple but effective.

13. Post on social media before and after the event

This will create excitement and showcase celebration. SSE North West posted photos of the goodie bags being sent out to create a sense of expectation.  And our graduates posted the obligatory zoom pics on their social media – all adding to the celebration and spreading the word about their achievements.

14. Use breakout rooms

Let guests share their stories and network in smaller groups.

15. Expect & embrace tech failures

An online event isn’t complete without a ‘you’re on mute’ or broadband freeze.  If the sentiment is there, embrace tech failures as part of the human experience.


We may all be a little Zoom-fatigued right now.  But with creative thinking, our regional teams and talented social entrepreneurs have proven online events can be authentic, engaging and memorable.

Interested in more ideas on how to best facilitate online events?  In ‘How to run online training during Covid’, our Head of Learning and Innovation, Josh Babarinde explores how to create engaging and inclusive online learning experiences.

By Hannah C, SSE communications manager