Confessions of an online Masonic lecturer

Ten weeks ago I thought Zoom was an ice lolly. Seventeen online talks later it’s my direct link to an audience that has so far gone over 1,000. This is my story (so far).

It all started when Josh asked me if I would deliver my talk, “The future of Freemasonry: evolution & change” (the 2018 Cornwallis Lecture), to an online meeting of Leeds Light Blues. Most of us were very new to this, thrown into a flurry of Zoom meetings in our rush to adapt and adjust to the Covid-19 driven suspension of Masonic meetings. Josh and his team were already leading the way and had the skills to make it work. Safe in their hands I tentatively felt my way into a new universe.

Now, please understand. I love engaging with a live audience. I love speaking, getting my message across, monitoring the body language as it gives away peoples’ reactions, responding to their questions, reading the room, noticing who wants to ask but is holding back, debating issues and – yes, unashamedly – seeing and feeling my efforts appreciated.

Some say I am quite good at this stuff.

How would it work online, when all I could see were postage stamp versions of my audience?

Well, it requires an adjustment. It’s no good wishing it were different. You have to embrace the opportunity you have been given, quickly learn new skills, take the feedback that you can and respond accordingly.

That first talk had an audience of 74 and raised £525 (plus gift-aid) in online donations for my charity appeal, in aid of the UGLE / MCF Community Fund. The immediate feedback was great, as was the follow-up. It very quickly led to more invitations as guests invited me to their Light Blues Clubs and Provinces.

After the second, for Cheshire Masters’ & Masons’ Forum, I realised a pattern was developing. There needed to be two hosts; a “presiding officer” (a bit like a WM) and a “tech guy” (a bit like a DofC). It was clear that access to the call and security were issues and that registrations involved a lot of work on the part of the host. So, I looked at best practice, drafted some guidance notes and opened an Eventbrite account.

The guidance notes give new hosts and me a framework to discuss and agree how their event would work. Eventbrite, which includes a scheduled email system, relieved them of the burden of responding to email registrations. Coupled with the Everyday Hero fundraising platform linked to my Prestonian Relief Chest, and social media marketing, we were ready to step up to the next level.

I also found I liked doing my own warm up. A tricky one this as it is not my event and before the formal start I have not been introduced. But, chatting with people as they come online certainly helps me to take the temperature of the audience and build some rapport. And audience rapport is essential if a speaker is to have a positive effect.

Of the seventeen talks I have done so far, two have been for overseas Districts (South America, Southern Division, and Trinidad & Tobago). On many talks there have been people sign in from various European countries, Africa, Iceland (thank you Olafur), the USA, South America, Asia, Australasia – as well as all parts of the UK. While I have travelled to four continents to deliver my Prestonian Lecture, I could not expect to have got such a wide exposure so quickly.

It is interesting to see how different organisers run their online lectures. One asked audience members to switch off their camera as well as their microphones, actually depriving the speaker of any visual connection with their audience and any source of feedback. Others distribute their meeting codes widely, opening up their events to the possibility of gatecrashers. We are all learning and I am sure we will see good practice develop for some time to come.

As I have held a number of Masonic lectureships, it has been interesting to see new organisers join the field.

I have been working with UGLE’s Learning & Development Team and my fellow Prestonian Lecturers to record and publish our work on Solomon. This involved new learning again as we struggled to make good quality sound recordings over PowerPoint slides. My own lecture, “Scouting & Freemasonry: two parallel organisations?”, was the first to go up and tomorrow (19th June) we will hold the first live Q&A to a global audience.

On Tuesday (23rd June) I will be the twelfth “Freemasons without Borders” lecturer, following in the illustrious footsteps (or is it seats?) of two Grand Masters and two Grand Secretaries, with my talk, “The historic links between the Craft, mark & Royal Arch degrees.”

Without doubt, the stars of this new platform are the Light Blues Clubs. They have the technical skills, the social marketing experience and the enthusiasm to make online talks for large audiences work. In the vast majority of cases they have had excellent support from their Provinces who have recognised that these brethren can be relied upon to do a great job and to further the cause of Masonic education. As the Head of Learning & Development for the Province of West Kent, I am looking forward to developing my team’s relationship with our Light Blues Club.

Online lectures may not replace the live experience, but they are the best we can have for now. Once our meetings resume I will certainly continue to deliver some online, especially for my new found friends in Light Blues Clubs.

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