A Practical Plan for Better Virtual Meetings

For years, we’ve helped clients get more out of their meetings by activating our trained facilitators, and over time, we’ve discovered some key tactics that make any meeting more productive – especially the virtual variety.

One of the memes that’s popped up in response to current circumstances is one that reads, “I guess we’ll find out which meetings could’ve been emails after all.” True as it is, you will also find yourself still needing to have meetings while your team is socially distanced.

You’re probably envisioning the coming days like an ongoing Conference Call in Real Life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little preparation and leadership, you can have productive meetings, move projects forward and maybe even learn a few things to apply to your next in-person meeting (whenever that may be).

Here are 10 steps to ensure your meeting isn’t meme-worthy:

  1. APPOINT A LEADER

Meetings that flow easily in person without one individual in charge aren’t going to unfold as naturally on the phone or video conference. Volunteer or ask someone else to be the leader of the call. Rotate the responsibility as needed so no one’s overburdened. The duties of the leader are as follows:

  • Curate the agenda
  • Send out the pre-meeting communication
  • Be the early initiator of the call or chat
  • Guide the discussion so everyone is heard
  1. WHY ARE WE HERE?

You should be able to answer this question about any meeting, but let’s focus on the virtual meeting. It’s crucial to address the elephant in the (chat)room: if this could be an email, why not? Be able to articulate the purpose of gathering people together live, engage them with why they are necessary to the purpose, and empower them to accomplish the goal at hand.

  1. 3-D AGENDA

Free-style meetings don’t tend to go over well virtually. The collaborative energy that happens in a room is much harder to manufacture remotely and takes a lot of practice. One simple way to look at your agenda is in 3-D:

  • Download – What information needs to be shared with the group? You can opt to share this ahead of time in a pre-read, but assume no one read the pre-read and share the essential information people need to participate.
  • Discuss – What does this unique group of people need to discuss or problem-solve? Draft thoughtful questions to prompt the team to think through the issues.
  • Decide – Don’t skip this step! Meetings feel most worthwhile when participants are confident that something was accomplished. What decisions need to be made? Clearly communicate to the team what they will decide by the end of the meeting, so progress is apparent.
  1. COMMUNICATE BEFORE THE MEETING

Send an email to the participants ahead of the meeting that includes the dial-in information or video link to the meeting, materials needed for the meeting and the agenda. Some people like to put this in the meeting invite, but I find that people often miss attachments and information after they’ve accepted the request.

  1. BEGIN WITH A BUFFER

Ask the leader to start the meeting 2-3 minutes ahead of the actual start time so the conference call line or video chat is live when participants log in. It’s discouraging to dial-in and be put on hold or told the meeting has not yet started.

  1. WELCOME & WHY

Welcome participants, thank them for their time and start by acknowledging that these calls can be awkward. Especially in this moment where people may be interrupted by their barking dog, bored child or the roommate who’s just on their way to the fridge. Get that out of the way up front and give everyone grace for those interruptions. Follow that with the why – state the purpose clearly so that participants can be focused on the task at hand.

  1. MAKE USE OF MUTE

Encourage participants to mute during other’s presentations or if they aren’t actively talking. This minimizes those awkward interruptions, feedback loops or distracting background noises.

  1. SAY YOUR NAME, SAY YOUR NAME

This practice applies to phone calls more than video chats, but say your name as you interject into the conversation. If you’re meeting with a familiar group, this may not be necessary, but if it’s a new or multi-functional group that doesn’t work together all the time, this will help with two things. First, people won’t get sidetracked trying to figure out who is commenting during your virtual meeting. Secondly, if you have two people who talk at once, it makes it much easier for the leader to step in and say, “Jim, you go first, and then we’ll go to Pam.”

  1. THE SOUND OF SILENCE & ROUND ROBIN

If you have a few dominant personalities that do all the talking, you can ensure that everyone is heard by using an individual ideation and sharing technique. Pose a question and ask everyone to think about it on their own for 1-2 minutes. Then, call on each person in turn so that everyone gets an opportunity to respond.

  1. CAPTURE THE ACTION

In addition to the decisions made, capture any action items to inform participants what’s next. If you use the 3-D model for your agenda, you can easily use this for notes back out to the team: high-level overview of what was shared, what was discussed, what was decided along with the action steps and who is responsible for each.

However much we might prefer face-to-face gatherings, virtual meetings will be the norm for the immediate future. Don’t let the shift from face time to FaceTime keep you from accomplishing big things.

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