Virtual meetings and virtual classrooms are here to stay no matter what happens with the coronavirus or any other virus—or tornado, or earthquake, or blizzard. If you have not yet presided over a virtual meeting, maybe to touch base with your team, or discuss a product or project with a prospective client, the tea leaves say that you will. So let’s get you ready so that you’ll perform at your best.
Everything done to prepare for a face2face meeting will likewise be done to prepare for a virtual meeting. Propose a draft agenda. Invite the stakeholders and any others who have the authority to impact the initiative that will be discussed. Suggest a meeting date and time. Decide who should be invited to speak at the meeting and include those persons on the agenda.
If Power Point slides will be used by any speakers at the meeting, ask for their slides to be sent to you 48 – 72 hours in advance of the meeting, so that you can have them ready for each speaker. Send the confirmed agenda and necessary hand-outs to all participants one day before the meeting (so they don’t get lost in anyone’s email).
The facilitator of the meeting, whether face2face or virtual, has a few unspoken duties to ensure a positive outcome for the meeting and it is in these fine points that the differences between face2face and virtual emerge. Meeting participants are not in a room together and while it is tremendously more convenient than traveling to the meeting venue, communications will be adversely affected.
Reading nonverbal cues, facial expressions and even tone of voice can be difficult and cause misinterpretation. Those who are not scheduled to speak can easily turn themselves into virtual wallflowers and say not a word beyond the initial round of greetings.
For those reasons, virtual meetings require a higher level of facilitation skills. If the meeting platform you’ll use has a tutorial by all means take it, so that you’ll know how to use tools that will enhance the meeting experience, and therefore outcome, for everyone. Give yourself an hour, or even two. There are just a 4-5 simple things to learn, study up to ensure that you’ll be at ease when implementing them.
Meet & greet
First, ask participants to sign on 5 minutes ahead of the announced start time to make the introductions easy and avoid the need to introduce late arrivals. Late arrival is more awkward in a virtual meeting because it’s not possible to see that person slip into the room and a new face popping up on screen may not be noticeable to everyone.
As close to start time as is practical, thank participants for attending and give a general greeting. Then kick-off a round robin of introductions and greet everyone by name. Better still, if you’re at the controls, flash each person on screen and invite him/her to self-introduce. Here is when you get people talking. This step is an ice-breaker.
If there are participants who have not met before, request that self- introductions include first and last name, plus title and department. Announce late arrivals as soon as is practical. If it’s not too disruptive, invite late arrivals to introduce themselves.
Walk meeting participants through the virtual tools, because some participants may not be especially proficient. Chat, hand-raise, yes or no, break-out room and poll are the most common items. These tools are very useful in keeping meeting participants focused on the agenda and discourage the temptation of wandering attention.
As you plan the agenda, think about how you can judiciously create an opportunity for a poll, a hand-raise, or even a break-out session that will allow small groups of two or more participants to have a short, tightly focused discussion and then take their findings back to the main meeting for a general discussion.
Strictly speaking, a hand -raise sign indicates that a participant would like to speak, just like in a face2face meeting. You, facilitator, will acknowledge the hand raise as soon as practical and give that the individual the floor. The hand-raise can also be used as a vote or poll, but you have other tools for those questions and as a way to keep the content interesting, I suggest you use those.
The green Yes and red No checkmarks are useful for a quick, general question that you, or a presenter, puts to the group. The question can be as easy as “Would we like to cover this one additional subject and keep the meeting in session for another 15-20 minutes?”
The chat function allows for public or private chats and participants should get a tutorial on how to utilize each. A chat can be used to ask a question to the presenter and s/he can address the question during the presentation. One participant may have a question for another participant and can use the private chat function to do so.
There may be times when a speaker may want to get the opinion of those in the room and polls allow participants to express opinions anonymously, which encourages honesty. The facilitator will type in the question, or prepare a question in advance and have it ready. Click and all participants will be given time to indicate and submit their answers.
If there are perhaps 8 or more participants it may be useful to allow groups of 3 – 5 people to discuss a specific question. Break-outs are good for relationship building because their use allows a small group of participants to get to know one another in a safe, small space where they may be more comfortable speaking freely.
Power Point slides
The facilitator must learn how to operate the slides, since s/he will be at the controls. As in any meeting, Power Points will visualize and enhance the speaker’s presentation. A short slide presentation will be yet another way to maintain the focus, attention and engagement of your virtual meeting participants.
Lastly, I recommend that virtual meeting facilitators request that a technically adept person be on- site during the meeting. Regardless of what the facilitator understands to be a correct technical set-up, crashes can occur and someone with better than average IT skills may be needed to re-start the platform. I know this from humiliating personal experience.
Yet if your virtual meeting tanks, all is not lost. Another useful tech back- up is our old friend, the conference call. Have a dial- in conference number ready. If disaster strikes, email the conference number and Power Points to participants. A/V material can be downloaded and opened on laptops or tablets as you work through the agenda on your mobile.
Thanks for reading,
Photograph: Kim Clark