Companies seeking to cut costs have put the brakes on one key expense: travel for meetings, training sessions and internal conferences. ON24, a webcasting service provider, found that 87 percent of companies surveyed are replacing in-person training and meetings with virtual events.

Instead of putting people in planes, trains and automobiles, companies are increasingly directing their employees to use the phone, web meetings and videoconferencing. But often these tools create an experience that's a poor substitute for getting together in person—particularly when large numbers of participants are involved. As illustrated (in the adjacent chart), the result is bad meetings: boring, unsatisfying and unproductive.

Virtual meetings run amok

Problem Cause
One-way Street One presenter drones on and on with little opportunity for others to participate
Death by PowerPoint® The meeting consists of nothing more than a long, complicated PowerPoint presentation
The Blob The session has no structure, and oozes from topic to topic without a plan
Multitasking Mania Participants have no role in the meeting, so they use the time to get other work done.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome The meeting doesn't accomplish anything—no progress is made—so after an hour, everyone's hungry for action.


Making virtual meetings matter
Virtual meetings don't have to be a disappointment; in fact, they can actually be more engaging and productive than their face-to-face counterparts. However, creating an effective virtual experience takes a greater level of planning and facilitation than regular meetings. That's because you need to overcome two obstacles—distance and the lack of informal interaction—that hold people back from fully participating.

Five ways to improve the effectiveness of virtual meetings
Here are five strategies for creating successful virtual meetings:

1. Develop one to three objectives
Many virtual meetings fail because they try to do too much. It's the "and" trap: "As long as we're holding the meeting," organizers say, "we might as well cover this and that and the other thing and something else." The problem is that the meeting becomes so jam-packed with stuff that it has no focus; it's a messy closet where you can't find the thing you need most.

The solution is to limit the agenda to one to three (and no more) topics that matter most, and spend quality time exploring each. To hone it down to those few objectives, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do we need participants to learn during this meeting? What will they know afterwards that they didn't know before?
  • How will participants' viewpoints or perspectives change? How will their beliefs be affected?
  • What will participants be prepared to do after the meeting? How will they take action?

2. Develop an agenda that creates focus
The single most important success factor for virtual sessions is meeting design, which means creating an agenda that brings your objectives to life. This is not a task you can dash off in 10 minutes; you need to think through how to cover your subject matter and engage participants.

As you develop your agenda, consider how to manage time differently. Too many virtual 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.

Instead, try creating an agenda that devotes at least one-third of the time to participation. That means going beyond asking, "Are there any questions?" Instead, you need to stimulate discussion by posing smart questions via voice, a web chat feature, an online poll or other virtual techniques. 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?

3. Set new expectations for participation
If your organization has been running dull virtual meetings, your employees have gotten used to appearing to pay attention while multitasking. But you're about to change the game and create true interaction. So you need to be clear about the new expectations you're setting for participation.

To do so, at the start of each meeting let participants know:

  • Expected outcomes of the session
  • How the meeting will be organized and what will be covered
  • The role of each participant
  • How participants can use meeting tools, such as teleconference prompt and web meeting features

4. Use tools available with your technology
Technology advancements—especially for web meetings and videoconferencing—mean that a variety of tools are increasingly becoming available to make your session more dynamic. Become familiar with these features by viewing a demonstration or taking training (both are often provided without cost by your company's vendor).

For example, most web meeting systems offer the following options:

  • Polling, so you can create and run a quick survey of participants
  • Chat, which allows "instant messaging" during the meeting, so that participants can ask questions, make comments or share ideas
  • A whiteboard to brainstorm ideas
  • Sharing, so any content including documents, spreadsheets or samples can be viewed by participants

5. Rely on voice, visuals or both
Ever listen to a talk radio show? There's no fancy technology—just a couple of people sitting around talking—yet the best shows are quite compelling. That's because radio uses the power of voice quite effectively.

Web meetings and videoconferencing offer an additional feature: the ability to use visuals to create understanding and involve participants. Everyone can all view the same image, watch as someone edits it and contribute thoughts (or pictures) as the meeting progresses.

The key is to use what you've got. Only have teleconferencing? Then format your meeting like a talk show, with a minimum of lecture. Instead, create an "interview" with an expert and opportunities for participants to comment and ask questions.

If, however, you have the advantage of visuals, use them—slides with images, video, screen shots, and other graphics—to create focus and attention. Virtual meetings can be interesting, productive—even compelling. The key is to take advantage of the virtual format to create an experience that brings people together, even if they're hundreds of miles apart.

Virtual meeting makeover
The Human Resources department of a global healthcare company used web meetings to keep HR managers around the world informed about important initiatives. But managers gave these monthly meetings negative feedback on almost every attribute: usefulness, relevance to their work, interaction, and "good use of my time." Clearly, a makeover was needed:

Meeting element Before After
Length of time 2 hours 90 minutes
Number of items on agenda 8 to 10 different topics 1 to 3 topics, each covered in depth
Format PowerPoint presentation followed by verbal Q&A session PowerPoint still used for sharing information, but supplemented with web chat, online polls, sharing of web sites and other content and "whiteboard" sessions
Timing Presentation 90%, Q&A discussion 10% Presentation limited to 66% of time, with facilitated interaction for other 34%
Participation Almost none Participants were encouraged to offer perspectives, provide feedback, come up with suggestions and agree on action steps
Result Participants were bored and frustrated Participants found the meeting to be "worth my time" and to "help me do my job"