Engage everyone in your Zoom call using 1–2–4-All

Ivan Sanchez
4 min readSep 9, 2020

One of the challenges of running meetings over Zoom is including every single participant. Without some structure, only the most vocal people will share their thoughts, and the whole group will miss the opportunity to hear perhaps the most innovative ideas that may come from quiet people, individual contemplation or smaller conversations.

We can solve most of these issues using a Liberating Structure called 1–2–4-All. In this article, I’ll share an adapted way to use this structure with Zoom + Breakout Rooms + any collaborative note-taking tool (e.g. Google Docs)

The original structure takes around 12 minutes, but I suggest people plan for about 25–35 minutes for its virtual version. That’s to take into account the technical setup, the extra instructions, and the slower transitions between rounds.

Before you try it for the first time, I recommend getting familiar with Zoom’s Breakout Rooms feature by following their tutorial and experimenting with a colleague or two ahead of time.

Round #1 — Brainstorm ideas individually

We start by supplying time for people to think on their own about the problem at hand.

For this stage, we must:

  • Be clear about the question/topic.
  • Invite people to take notes so they can refer back on the next step.
  • Remember to put the timer on for 5–7 minutes.
  • Mute all participants.
  • (bonus) Play some music.

We can achieve this with the following prompt:

We’ll start with a moment to reflect individually about the challenge at hand: . Take notes of your ideas so you can discuss them in the next rounds. I’ll put minutes on the clock now, and I’ll mute everyone until it’s time to continue as a group.

Tip: if you’re the only host, you can save time and avoid multitasking by using this time when people are thinking individually to set up the Breakout Rooms for the next round.

Round #2 — Generate new ideas as pairs or trios

In this round, we’ll use Breakout Rooms to split the group according to the number of participants. We aim to have two or three people in each room.

For this stage, we must:

  • Let people know that they’ll be moved to Breakout Rooms to share and build on their initial ideas.
  • Invite people to consolidate their ideas in a collaborative note-taking tool. (e.g. Google Doc or even Zoom’s chat)
  • Have the Breakout Rooms ready for the desired number of people.
  • Have the shared document for note-taking ready to be shared.
  • Remember to put the timer on for 7–10 minutes.
  • Send people reminders of how much time they have left.

We can use the following prompt to get this round started:

We’ll now move into rooms for pairs (or trios) where we can discuss our initial ideas and generate some new ones. I’ll put the link to a shared document for notes in the Zoom chat. Please consolidate your ideas in a new section with your Breakout Room name. After X minutes, we’ll move back to the main room before moving to the next round.

Tip: Remember to take into account that when you close the Breakout Rooms, Zoom will still give an extra minute for people to finish conversations before moving everyone back to the main room.

Round #3 — Develop ideas further in groups of four or six

In this final group round, we’ll reuse the existing Breakout Rooms this time for larger groups so people can discuss, develop, and gather the best ideas.

For this stage, we must:

  • Re-assign people to a subset of the Breakout Rooms to form larger groups.
  • Invite people to combine their group’s ideas in the collaborative document.
  • Remember to put the timer on for 10–15 minutes.
  • Send people reminders of how much time they have left.

It’s useful to explain this round to participants using the prompt:

Now we’ll get together in groups of four (or six) to develop our best ideas. Please consolidate your output in the shared document in a new section with your Breakout Room name. After X minutes, we’ll move back to the main room for our debrief.

Round #4 — Share the most important ideas with everyone

Now it’s time to gather the essential ideas created and developed in the prior rounds and share them with the whole group.

For this stage, we must:

  • Allow every group to contribute.
  • Make sure we record all relevant insights.
  • Capture as many good ideas as possible.

Tip: Don’t throw away the unmentioned ideas from the final round. Instead, invite participants to read them after the session.

Ask for each group, and repeat for as many times your time allows:

What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?

After running all the rounds of 1–2–4-All, you should end up with the best insights the group could produce, some of them revealed by the open, generative conversations that this structure allows.

Bonus tips

  • Experiment running multiple rounds of pairs, so people get a chance to interact and generate more ideas.
  • For smaller groups, try pre-defining the Breakout Room set up to foster diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and opinions in each room.