How often have you been in an online meeting or webinar … sitting at a table … with an LCD projector showing the computer screen on the wall (or huddled around a computer monitor) and a speakerphone for the audio? This circumstance is deadly if you want participation. Why? This situation takes away everyone’s ability to engage as an individual other than the ONE who is at the keyboard. Everyone else is left passively listening or taking notes until called upon or jumps in.
That’s the way it was — back in the day when virtual meeting technology was new and we had extremely limited bandwidth and were trying to mimic as closely as we could our normal meeting pattern – we made sacrifices. We did what we could. I happened to work at an organization that had staff in nine states so for us it was an imperative to use the virtual meeting tools to connect. While the tech then was helpful it isn’t nearly as good as it is now plus we’ve learned how to navigate virtual meetings much better. If you’re organization is still doing things the old way or looking for ways to do these kind of meetings and events better, here are 10 shifts you can make so that your virtual meetings are more inclusive and engaging.
- Everyone join the meeting from their own device. For the most part, when we join a virtual meeting from a meeting room as a group, we restrain or even eliminate most of the participation. The only person able to consistently engage is the person at the keyboard which turns everyone else into a passive listener aka audience member aka attendee but not a participant. We can eliminate the participation barrier if everyone joins from their own computer or mobile device. This enables everyone to participate in the meeting and allows you to fully utilize the virtual meeting tool set e.g., chat, polling, Q&A, whiteboard, etc. If you must use the old configuration of group to group, or some mix of group and individuals then consider integrating a private backchannel with tools like Chatzy (www.chatzy.com) or TodaysMeet (www.todaysmeet.com). If you’re prepared to use apps on smart phones you might try GroupMe (https://groupme.com/) or WhatsApp (http://www.whatsapp.com/]. These tools allow everyone to participate via text message, so anyone with a cell phone handy can jump right in. Besides who doesn’t carry a cell phone these days?.
- Learn your platform(s). You don’t have to know how to set it up and run it unless that’s your job. But, you do need to know how it works, what it can do and how to do it from a participants viewpoint. The more comfort and confidence you gain, the better and less technologically stressful your meetings will be. There are a lot of different platforms but I’ve learned that once you start using one, the others are much easier to figure out. If you are presenting, the same thing applies: learn to use the platform.
- Use the interactive tools you have to the fullest. All of the virtual meeting rooms have a tool set. Some are better than others but all are there to meet your meeting needs. If you have a chat window, put it to work. If you have a pointer, use it to help people follow your presentation. If you have emoticons, encourage people to use them. If you have presenter video and sufficient bandwidth, give it a try. Using video is a great way to open a meeting so that everyone can see everyone else – its a great point of connection or reconnection. You can always turn it off when you’re ready to focus on content. Some platforms allow for meeting notes to be seen live while being typed. Some offer whiteboards for collaboratively working together. Some offer Q&A. The point is to put the technology to work for you to meet your needs and to humanize an otherwise sterile virtual environment. The platforms I enjoy using the most include Adobe Connect, WebinarJam, and AnyMeeting, or you can use a Google Hangout or Hangout on Air depending on your needs, numbers and privacy concerns. Of course the Google tools are free and integrate easily with Google documents, presentations, spreadsheets, etc.
- Send out essential information before the meeting. Timing here is important depending on the volume of material being sent! Any information that is going to be discussed needs to be sent ahead of time to give people time to review and be ready for the discussion. Avoid sending large reports or hefty documents unless you give people a cover guide or set of questions you’ll be discussing in order to help them focus on key information and not the whole enchilada. Few things are more frustrating to a participant in a meeting than being sent a 200 page document the day before with instructions to be prepared to discuss it! Yikes!
- Send reminder nudges. I’m finding the best and most helpful
reminders come via text message but email works too for most people. Send a reminder 24 hours prior and another reminder on the morning of the meeting. If you have the ability to text, send a text 10 minutes before start time. We all have busy lives and sometimes extraordinary demands on our time so a nudge here and there is helpful. A couple of really easy to use apps for reminders are also listed above, WhatsApp and GroupMe. The way they work allows you to also send a group text to your entire meeting member list.
- Straight forward information is best done in another format. If the meeting is simply informative, meaning someone is presenting a talk (non-interactive) consider shooting a video at your desk, post it unlisted on YouTube (or your servers) and send the link to everyone. If the focus is strictly on presenting information you may be far better off with another form of communication than a meeting. If there’s discussion, sharing, strategizing, brainstorming, or other kinds of active engagement, then a meeting is better. Save your meetings for the action.
- Limit screen time. No one wants to sit and stare at a screen for hours so just like you would for any event, consider the context, content, print-based material, visuals, AND the facilitated engagement around all of these things. Keep the pace brisk and time limited to an hour. If your meeting needs to be longer, be sure you take breaks often to relieve the stress of cognitive load and what I call flat bottom syndrome from sitting so long. Remember the old saying, the mind can only absorb what the backside can endure.
- Assign a meeting facilitator/moderator for each meeting. Not the same person all the time but trade off so that more people get to build their virtual meeting facilitation muscles. The technical prep can be fairly straightforward (checklist) but the facilitation needs to be well thought out. I find that pause time and delays in transmission make a huge difference so sometimes I sit on my hands while I wait for replies and I remind myself — its not just about the speed of tech, its also allowing time for participants to consider the question and respond. While it isn’t hard there are nuances to it and by serving in the facilitator/moderator role, everyone has a deeper appreciation for the role and the people in it. Once you’ve experienced it you’ll be a better participant.
- Real time meeting documentation. Some platforms like Adobe Connect have a built in pod for note taking but most others do not. Chat can be helpful if the facilitator will ask for participation e.g., “Take a moment and use the chat to list your takeaways from today’s meeting”. When everyone is online together on a supportive platform using collaborative tools it makes the documentation much easier and far more efficient. By the time your meeting is over so is the documentation process. If your platform doesn’t offer a place for collaborative meeting notes consider opening a Google Document and having everyone sign in. What’s nice about these documents is you can see everyone who is participating (color coded) right down to where their cursor is on the screen. This keeps you from overwriting each others work and makes corrections easier.
- Encourage everyone to help each other – this may be more important than just about any other action in terms of building personal and professional relationships especially around the use of technology. If you have new staff or staff that struggle with the technology be encouraging. For those who use it well, be a champion and help those that need it. Nothing like the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve helped someone else join and belong. Technology can be a barrier but only if we allow it.
Get creative and try new and different options – don’t be afraid to try things out, test, experiment, play. Today you can encourage participation with virtual tools that are much easier, more friendly and reliable than they were only a few short years ago.
Think of a time you’ve been in an online meeting that really worked well. What was it about that particular meeting that made it work? What technology was involved? How was it used? Drop a comment below and let’s learn together.