Virtual meetings have become commonplace--so commonplace, in fact, that in some organizations it's hard to get people (even those right down the hall) to attend a meeting in person. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that many virtual meetings are worse than face-to-face sessions. That's because virtual meetings are often:

  • Unproductive. When nothing is accomplished other than sharing information, what's the point? (Every meeting should exist to solve problems, generate ideas or discuss and agree upon actions.)
  • One-way. Despite the availability of great tools, many virtual meetings are often less interactive than in-person encounters.
  • Inattentive. Meeting attendees often use the time to read email, visit web sites, review documents and get work done. (Why do you think everyone's phones are on mute?)

Yet virtual meetings have the potential to be better--that's right, better--than face-to-face meetings. Web meeting tools--like Citrix GoToMeeting, Microsoft Live Meeting and Adobe Connect--offer opportunities to make virtual sessions productive, engaging and even fun. Here's how:

1. Focus on one to two objectives.

Don't try to throw everything into the sink; choose just a few desired outcomes, centered on what participants will know (by the end of the meeting) and/or do (afterwards).

2. Set expectations.

While it may sound obvious, it's important to manage participants' expectations about what will happen. Be explicit about what will be accomplished (objectives), what will be discussed, including order and timing (agenda), what everyone in the meeting will do (roles) and how the meeting will be conducted (rules).

3. Channel your inner TV producer.

My biggest revelation about virtual meetings is that they require even more structure than traditional sessions. Think of your virtual meeting as producing a television talk show. You'll need a dynamic speaker, interesting guests, supporting visuals, clips and stories, and opportunities for interaction.

4. Get the logistics right.

Just as you want your physical room to be right (comfortable temperature and lots of flipcharts), your virtual space needs to be perfect. For example, one the biggest complaints from virtual meeting participants is "I can't hear the speaker." So work with your vendors to make sure the sound quality is good, visuals and video are clear and that everything else is flawless.

5. Plan for participation.

Since virtual meetings are challenging to run, the default approach is to focus on the delivery of information (one-way), which is only half of the communication process. The best meetings occur when participants are actively engaged: commenting, brainstorming and asking questions. Use the tools available in most web meetings:

  • Polls. A simple one-question poll is an effective icebreaker.
  • Chat. Allow everyone to ask questions or make comments throughout the meeting.
  • Whiteboards/note pads. Yes, you can brainstorm virtually. Ask participants to share challenges or opportunities and record them on the whiteboard.
  • Around the table. This is more a technique than a tool. At some point, you may want to hear from everyone. So use the participant list to "go around the table" and ask each person to share his/her viewpoint.

One more tip: It's better to make the meeting completely virtual rather than having a few people in a meeting room and a few others joining remotely. That way, the experience is consistent and everyone can participate in the interesting activities you've planned.