Who here has been to a terrible meeting?
*All hands go up.*
And who here has been the facilitator of that terrible meeting?
*All hands go down.*
Rarely, do any of us think we run a bad meeting. We all have good intentions and may even work hard at creating an agenda and sending it out in advance. That’s a good start.
But take a hard look at yourself, are you able to initiate and sustain fruitful dialogue and convert those discussions into action items in a virtual meeting? Not a face-to-face one but, specifically, in a remote environment. There’s a difference.
Virtual meetings are much harder to engage people. Participants can become invisible by turning off their video, internet connections drop, and clear audio can be an obstacle.
For some, initiating and sustaining conversation in a virtual environment is an advanced skill and one that is rarely taught. But that’s ok. These strategies are relatively simple to pick up. Here are five techniques to get people talking and engaging in productive virtual meeting conversations.
Address the Basics
Let’s assume that you know the basics. Even before the meeting invite goes out, let’s assume you’ve asked questions like “is this meeting even necessary?” and “who needs to attend?” and “what’s the overall goal?”. These are all based on the idea that we know what makes for a productive meeting. If you have yet to fulfill this prerequisite, you can get started here: Productive Meetings, A Shared Responsibility.
This article assumes that the meeting is necessary and has a good chance at being productive, given the meeting facilitator follows through with great execution.
Plan Meeting Execution, Not Just Topics
An obvious first step in planning a meeting is determining what will be discussed. That’s good but take it a step further and think about execution. This means to plan what questions you will ask, how you will frame the discussions, and what strategies you will employ to get people talking. Will you use breakout rooms, polling, case studies, or show videos? Maybe a guest speaker will attend to share a personal story that will help spark discussion? Whatever strategy is used, almost all of them require advanced thought and set-up.
Not many can do this well on the fly. It requires consideration and detailed planning, maybe even partnership with others, to accomplish successfully.
If you are leading a meeting soon, block time now to plan the execution of it to ensure it is a valuable use of everyone’s time.
Test Out the Plan
There is no better conversation killer than technical difficulties. If you have planned to leverage a platform’s functionality for your meeting, test it all out in advance. This means working through the quirks of breakout rooms and ensuring you checked the right buttons to broadcast a video so that everyone can hear it. Practice running a poll with participants in front of you so that they can tell you what the poll looks like and how long it takes to see the results. Call on trusted colleagues to help you with this by creating a mock meeting and run through the activities in advance.
People won’t notice smooth running technology which means they will remain focused on having a high-quality conversation.
Give Advanced Notice
We all share opinions and ideas more effectively when we’ve had time to think about it. If you want dialogue, then ensure people have advanced notice of the meeting purpose, topics, and questions that will be asked. Everyone performs better when they know what is expected of them.
If your attendees are overworked and buried in competing priorities, then take the extra time to send a personal email or give them a call about the meeting purpose and discussion.
The personal connection will foster their participation and even create tacit accountability.
Consider Number of Participants
It’s a common experience to be on a 10-15-person Zoom call these days. Many teams experience the meeting host or facilitator ask participants for their opinions only to be met with silence. Rarely does a robust, all-inclusive discussion take place. Virtual meetings are much harder to get people talking and the more people attending, the worse it will be.
Here are some guidelines:
Over 20 people attending: This isn’t a meeting, it’s a webinar. Don’t expect any quality large group discussion for problem-solving or decision-making. Keep it to one-way, presentation format with a Q&A at the end. Assign a “producer” role for someone to monitor the Chat for Q&A.
10-20 attendees: Sometimes we have no choice than to have this many people in a meeting. Build an extra 20-30 minutes into the agenda and plan for break-out rooms. Pose your questions, then split the participants into small groups of no more than 4 people. Allow for small group discussion and be sure the groups identify someone to report out to the large group. This approach yields the delivery of diverse viewpoints across a large number of participants.
Less than 10 people: Try using “Think, Pair, Share” as a discussion strategy. Pose your question and give people time to think about it individually. Then, pair participants up to discuss with a partner. After, open it up for large group discussion. This approach caters to those who prefer to think it through as well as those who like to talk through their thoughts.
Capture Action Items and Determine Follow-up
People will be more likely to fully engage in a meeting discussion if they know someone is listening to their ideas and helping the group take action. The facilitator has their hands full guiding the group in discussion. This means, the facilitator is not the right person to capture action items. Assign this role to someone else.
Better yet, devote the remaining 10 minutes of each meeting for this person to recap action items and who is responsible for follow-up. Discuss what follow-up looks like. Will an email be sent to the facilitator confirming completion of the action or is the email sent to all participants? Confirm this process before closing out the meeting.
Who doesn’t appreciate participating in a productive meeting that includes high-quality conversations? No one. We all appreciate it because when it happens, we may feel a little more motivated and inspired for the work. Even better, we look forward to the next meeting because of the great experience we just had.
Isn’t that the ultimate goal, to create meetings that you and your colleagues look forward to attending? You bet it is.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.