Woman working from home facilitating a virtual meeting

Just when you think meetings couldn’t get any more challenging, there’s this: Everyone is working remotely so every meeting has to be virtual.

Despite great strides in meeting platforms, too many virtual meetings are boring and unproductive. Instead of seizing the opportunity to make the meeting dynamic, people become complacent. And the meeting degrades to talk-talk-talk and (Yawn!) endless presentations.

The good news? Just by making simple changes, the virtual meetings that you organize can be productive, fulfiilling and even enlightening. Here’s how:

1. Embrace the technology. Every platform—Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams—have 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. To become a tech master, take advantage of online tutorials or web workshops.

2. Focus on one (or, at most, three) objectives. Start by asking yourself the pivotal question that will be the difference between your meeting being a spectacular success or a crushing failure:

“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.

3. 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

4. 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 transforming this meeting—and they can expect to be actively involved.

5. 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?

6. 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. 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.

7. Let participants vent—or solve big problems. We’re all a little stressed out lately—wouldn’t you say? So give meeting participants an opportunity to express their frustrations by using this effective meeting exercise:

BMW. This isn’t a luxury car, but an acronym for Bitch, Moan and Whine. Use your virtual meeting’s polling feature or whiteboard to allow participants to write as many complaints or concerns as they can think of. These complaints can be specific to a topic or just in general. Once everyone has shared, you can see if any can be addressed. If not, the idea is to express frustrations, then let them go. 

If you think there’s an opportunity to actually solve a problem, use this exercise:

Every Crazy Idea. What if there were no constraints and we could solve the problem however we wanted to? Brainstorm as a group or ask people to think of ideas on their own and post them in chat. When participants share their ideas, discuss which elements of these could be applied to practical solutions.

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!

Want to learn more about improving virtual meetings? I lead a virtual workshop on the topic. And feel free to download this (free) guide. Happy to help!

Originally published on linkedin.com

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