Raise your hand if you've ever experienced a virtual meeting that's:
- A great way to catch up on emails because you're not paying attention to anything that's going on
Wow, I see a lot of hands in the air! But although virtual meetings are often painful, they don't have to suck. In fact, just by making simple changes, the virtual meetings that you organize can be interesting, productive and even enlightening. Here's how:
1. Embrace virtual
We've all been the one person on the phone when everyone else is in the meeting room, commenting on how good the pizza is. That's just one reason 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. The ideal? Create a consistent experience so everyone can participate in the interesting activities you've planned.
2. Love the technology
Every platform--Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc.--has an array of interesting features--polls, whiteboards, chats--that will make your meeting much more interesting than the usual PowerPoint festival. Get to know what the meeting platform has to offer--and become comfortable with every feature. Take advantage of online tutorials or web workshops.
3. 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).
And let everyone know that your meeting is going to be different. By now, many people equate "virtual meeting" with multitasking; they expect to tune out. At the beginning of your next session, tell participants that you're doing this meeting differently--and they can expect to be actively involved.
4. Focus on one to two objectives
Ask yourself the pivotal question that will be the difference between your meeting being a spectacular success or a crushing failure.
The question is this: "What is the one thing I need this meeting to accomplish?"
This, of course, is another way of determining outcomes or objectives. Here's another way of stating it: "What does success look like?"
Only by articulating a desired end-state can you build the elements of success. In fact, every decision you make--from where to hold the meeting to whom to invite to how to facilitate--should be based on how you answer this question.
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).
5. Rely on your friend, the agenda
The best meetings are carefully designed to achieve your objectives. The old-fashioned word for this design is "agenda", but you need to do more than create a bulleted list of content. You should structure your meeting to have a flow that makes sense, build in opportunities for participants to . . . well, participate, and to manage time so that you get everything done.
As you develop your agenda, think about time differently than the way you usually do. Too many meetings squander almost all their time on presenting information, with just a few minutes at the end for questions or brief discussion. That not only creates a boring session; it's also ineffective for preparing participants to take action.
Your agenda becomes a guide that helps you:
- Devote time to things that matter most
- Set aside blocks of time for important topics
- Allow adequate time for recharging, informal discussion, and relationship-building
6. 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.
One TV-producer trick: stimulate discussion by posing smart questions and allowing plenty of time to explore them. Here's a sampling of the kind of questions to ask to prime the pump:
- What questions do you think people in your (region/function/area) will have about this program? What will confuse them? What will they want to know more about?
- How will your customers (external or internal) view this program? What objections might they have? How can we overcome their objectives?
- Based on your experience, how would you suggest we implement this initiative? What are some low-cost, proven techniques? How about pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-box methods?
7. Choreograph 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. Start by using the tools available:
- 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.
It takes a bit of work to facilitate a great virtual meeting, but the effort pays off: You accomplish your objectives because people participate. Great job!