Meetings aren't what they used to be. Thanks to the power of the Internet, more often than not, some people are in the room and others are on the phone or participating through a virtual meeting platform online.
While virtual meetings have their challenges—from the temptation to multi-task to being derailed by technical issues, you can still accomplish things at a good meeting that you can't when you're sitting by yourself at your computer. Meetings harness the energy of multiple minds around a topic. They nudge people to think more expansively and creatively than any one mind is likely to do.
If you are responsible for planning and facilitating virtual meetings, here are some tips that'll help you make your meetings more productive.
Tip 1. Don't Forget the Essential Ingredients of a Good Meeting
Good meetings don't just happen. They're planned. And even when you are meeting on Skype or a conference call, the basics of good meetings apply.
- Consider whether you need a meeting in the first place.
- Think through the meeting's purpose, outcome, and process in advance.
- Invite the right people and no one else.
- Set an agenda that uses your meeting time for discussion, not reporting.
- Plan to end the meeting with clear outcomes and plans for follow-through.
- Limit the meeting time to no more than 90 minutes.
- Start on time (whether or not everyone is there) and end a few minutes early.
Tip 2. Virtual Meetings Require Iron Fist Facilitation
The biggest challenge of virtual meetings is that people can't tell when it's their turn to speak. Even with video, it's hard to tell when it's your turn. So again and again, people speak at the same time.
Appoint a facilitator to function as traffic cop, spelling out the rules of engagement and calling on people when it's their turn. Because people can't see body cues or the interactions between participants, the facilitator in a virtual meeting plays a forceful role, both making sure that people don't talk over one another and also ensuring that everyone has a chance to speak.
Tip 3. Special Tips for Combined In-Person/Virtual Meetings
Many meetings today have both people at the table and people on the phone or Internet. Unfortunately, the telephone participants often forget they are a presence in the meeting, and the people in the room forget the phone people are there at all.
Two simple strategies will help in combined meetings.
First, contact those who will be present through the phone beforehand to discuss how they will participate. Warn them explicitly about background noise and not putting the call line on hold. And let them know that they will be called on to participate.
Second, assign someone in the room to be the "bridge facilitator.” His or her role will be to connect the people on the phone or online via a computer with the people in the room, making sure they get called on and acknowledged throughout the meeting.
Tip 4. Use Available Technology to Its Fullest, but Be Prepared for Problems
If you've been in a virtual meeting, you've probably witnessed or experienced tech problems. Connections fail, audio crackles, people can't figure out their systems, and shared documents are unreadable. These are common occurrences.
Try these simple solutions.
- If it's the first meeting using the platform, schedule a tech check 30 minutes or more before the meeting.
- Be aware that different people may have widely different Internet speeds. If that's likely, don't ask everyone to be on video. It's not necessary.
- Good audio is essential. Ask people to use landline telephones rather than their computer mics, cell phones, or wireless. That alleviates most of the problems.
- Take full advantage of some of the features of your platform. Try real-time note taking and new apps like Sticky Notes. But be sure you try them out beforehand so you know how to use them seamlessly.
- Assign a technical person in advance to solve any problems that arise during the meeting, so the issues don't derail your meeting.
Tip 5. Keep Participants Focused and Engaged during the Meeting
One of the biggest challenges of virtual meetings is that people are distracted. They listen with half an ear while they scroll through their e-mail. Here are some simple things you can do to keep people's attention.
- Start the meeting by asking people to remove distractions. Be clear and specific. You might even make a no-multi-tasking rule for the meeting.
- Don't use more than 10-12 minutes for presentations and encourage people to write their thoughts and comments in the chat box.
- Assign people roles. You might have a moderator, facilitator, note-taker, and timekeeper.
- Unmute everyone during the discussion.
- Have the facilitator both respond to the chat box and call on everyone, not just the people who speak up.
Tip 6. Shut Off the Computer and Plan a Walking Meeting
Finally, when your group is all together in one place and you can, suggest a walking meeting. You'll be amazed and delighted at how much you can get done in a mile. The relaxed, side-by-side nature of walking with a small group lends itself to creative thinking and open discussion in a way that few sit-down or virtual meetings do.
And give people permission who are participating virtually to do walking meetings on their mobile phones or while pacing in their offices. Most virtual meeting platforms have phone apps.
Make the Meetings at Your Organization Effective and Fun
Using these simple tips, you can transform your nonprofit's virtual meetings from frustrating and boring to effective and fun! Try out a few of these ideas at your organization's next virtual meeting.
What are your virtual meeting tricks and tips? Let us know.
The preceding is a guest blog by Andrea Kihlstedt and Beth Kanter. Andrea is a writer, blogger, trainer, and cofounder of CapitalCampaignMasters.com. You can reach her at email@example.com. Beth is a master trainer, speaker, author, and blogger. You can read her blog at www.bethkanter.org or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.