Making Online Meetings More Effective

Feb 20, 2011 No Comments by

Over the past couple posts, I have shared best practices that teams can use when they participate in virtual meetings.  For the uninitiated, virtual meetings involve one or more attendees participating from a distance. Participants typically use a web connection to share materials and a teleconference line for audio.

I started by describing the key ways these online meetings differ from face-to-face meetings and the problems these differences create. I then shared the first 5 of my 10 tips to make your virtual gathering more productive:

1. Have a Plan. Make sure to create a clear agenda for the time you will spend online together. State the purpose and expected outcomes of your meeting up front and verify that everyone attending shares these goals.

2. Assign a Facilitator. It can really help to have someone drive the meeting who is solely concerned with how it flows and how the outcomes are getting accomplished. It can be the person who owns the main topic, but it’s often better to have someone who is neutral and skilled in the art of facilitation.

3. If they Didn’t Hear It, It Didn’t Happen. Repeat decisions, action items and commitments verbally and verify that they have been uniformly accepted – especially by those who are expected to do any work beyond the meeting.

4. If You Don’t Write It Down, It Might Not Happen: Take notes and share them after the meeting.  Remember that the people in distant locations do not have the advantage of seeing the whiteboard in the main conference room. Everyone can benefit from a written record of your online meeting, just as they do after “regular” face to face meetings.

5. Breathe! In face-to-face meetings there are all sorts of non-verbal cues to help attendees recognize when someone has a point to make. These are largely missing in a virtual world. Pause every 5-10 minutes to verify that everyone is keeping up with the dialogue and no one has been trying in vain to communicate with the group.

…and here are 5 more tips to make your online gatherings more effective:

6. Use “Around the Horn” Introductions. If you have fewer than a dozen people,  have each person introduce themselves at the start of the meeting. (In subsequent meetings of the same group, you may recognize everyone’s voice, but it’s still a good idea to take a roll call.)

If you have 10-20 people, the Facilitator might want to announce each location to smooth out this process.  For example saying: “Good Morning Philadelphia… Who do we have with us today?”, might prevent disembodied voices from tripping over each other. Red Flag: The Around the Horn introduction approach will obviously not work with huge groups.  In that case, I advise teams to use the news reporter approach. (see next)

7. Use the Newspaper Reporter Approach to Introductions.  If you’ve ever watched to a formal press conference on television, you’ve probably heard something like this: “Mr President, Ron Burgundy of Channel 4 News… What should Congress do about the deficit?” It’s the accepted way for reporters to introduce themselves without taking up much time.

You can easily borrow this technique. Agree to a ground rule that each person who chimes will in begin with that same brief intro and you should have no trouble keeping track of who is contributing what to the dialogue.

8. Check Out Your Tech Tools Beforehand! Avoid technical glitches by running a practice meeting at some point in advance of the real one, or have people join the meeting a few minutes in advance of the scheduled start time.

Most online meeting tools require people to at least register their email address and in some cases download a bit of software before they can join the meeting.  In either case, make sure to include this minor inconvenience in your meeting invitation and advise people to sign in early if possible.

It’s also good for the facilitator to try the online meeting process for themselves at least once before the real meeting so they can relate to the connection process and participation experience attendees will face. Your organization may also want to maintain (and share) a running list of idiosyncrasies, tips and glitches related to the virtual meeting process.

9. Help Them Prepare: Send participants any necessary materials well in advance. The meeting invitation should contain everything an attendee could need in order to get ready for the meeting. Here is a short list of web meeting must-have’s:

  • agenda,
  • read-ahead materials,
  • dial-in or VOIP information,
  • start and end times,
  • registration requirements,
  • a web link to click to join the meeting
  • any other prep steps or software that needs to be loaded prior to joining the meeting.

10. Chat It Up: Finally, make use of the chat features that most online meeting tools have to offer. Attendees can typically see who else is in the meeting and chat with them in a manner similar to Instant Messaging. With chat features, they can also submit questions, add comments or even take surveys based on the meeting’s content without interrupting the flow of the dialogue.

Red Flag: This feature can be distracting if attendees are chatting too much. It can also be useless if no one knows it’s there. The facilitator might consider establishing a precedent for chat use early in the meeting by asking if anyone has questions on how to use it – then sending periodic requests for feedback out via the chat feature during the meeting.

Summary: For most organizations, the use of online, virtual meetings is not new. Running them effectively may be a challenge however. Recognizing the inherent differences between virtual meetings and the “real thing” is the start to fixing what ails them.  Following these 10 tips can have a surprisingly immediate positive impact on your results.

-Steve

Questions for Chatter:

  1. In your experience, do attendees really participate in virtual meetings at the same level as they do in face-to-face meetings?
  2. What other tips or techniques have worked for you when using online meeting tools?

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