Many of you have become quite good at putting on a virtual meeting or event. But few of us actually look forward to participating in them. When coworkers fail to mute their lines, are inattentive, constantly interrupt you or commit some other virtual sin, your motivation to take part deteriorates.
Since it looks like meeting remotely and attending virtual sessions are here to stay, at least occasionally, it’s time to look at what we’ve learned over the past few months on what works—some best practices. By following these simple principles, and coaching your co-presenters in advance to do so as well, almost anyone’s virtual gathering can improve.
Less Is More
To present an interesting, informative meeting or event remotely requires significant preparation. Just like a well-produced show has a quality script—a well-designed meeting has a well-designed agenda. The agenda should contain one to three high priority items at the most. The more specific your agenda, the more likely you will stay focused. Instead of just a list of speakers and topics, an agenda should encourage participants to start thinking about the topic. Consider having them do a little pre-event work, such as:
- Ask some questions for them to consider in advance.
- Have them bring their own topic-related questions to the event.
- Assign reading to make sure they are well-informed, which will save in-meeting time as well.
- If decision making is involved, have them prepare arguments for/against in advance.
Virtual events should be short—30 to 40 minutes maximum. (Zoom has a 40-minute time limit for a reason.) It is better to have two 40-minute events than one 90-minute event. A virtual meeting is not the time to just dump information on people. If it can be emailed, email it to participants ahead of time. And when it comes to sharing screens or slides, remember the MVP rule: “Minimum Viable PowerPoint.” In other words, use the least number of slides possible. And limit what you put on each, once fact or point is enough.
In addition, prepare an activity for the early arrivers while waiting for the meeting to begin. This could be a poll, a read of the last meeting’s minutes, an ice breaker question or anything that will ensure you don’t lose people who come early but allows people who join late to do so with little disruption.
You Set the Tone
You are the host. Your energy and performance set the tone for all participants. Urge them to put away their phones and shut down their email accounts. Turn on cameras, they increase accountability. Turn on microphones in small groups to facilitate discussion but mute them in large groups (more than 10 or so) to reduce interruptions and distractions.
As the event begins, be sure to:
- Ensure your background has nothing odd or distracting.
- Look at the camera, not yourself, or other faces.
- Project voice power and vocal variation.
- Use your body language—it’s contagious. Animate the performance physically whenever possible with your gestures and postures.
- Use strong openers to set the tone:
- Tell a quick story that relates to agenda.
- Begin with a quotation that sets up a theme.
- Pose a question that you answer at the end.
- Offer a startling statistic.
Look for ways to give the topic a personal context for participants. Ask them what they already know or have experienced in regard to the topic. Ask what they hope to learn from the event.
Ask good questions, they’ll elicit good dialogue. Avoid yes or no questions, which require no thinking. Instead, ask open-ended questions to engage their brains by making them think. These questions start with how, why, when, in what ways, to what extent? Consider planting a questioner to get the discussion going.
Assign roles—it engages people and allows the leader to lead the meeting. Some common roles are:
- Notetaker—you have to pay attention to do this well.
- Timekeeper—short, tight meetings need someone to move us along.
- Summarizer—relays the main takeaways, decisions, or next steps.
- “Devil’s Advocate”—someone to take the alternate point of view, when applicable.
Check-in with attendees throughout the event. But avoid the “How is everyone doing?” closed question; you are sure to get a meaningless “fine.” Check in by sharing a new challenge, a recent success or an amusing anecdote.
And be sure to state the goal of the meeting at the beginning, several times throughout and at the end to remind people why they are there. First, we’re going to discuss why ________. Then we’ll review possible _______. And finally, we’ll decide on __________________.
Tech Is the Sizzle, Not the Steak
Don’t use the technology as a crutch—content is still king. If the event is short, you don’t need many bells or whistles. Plus: if the new technology fails, it can be a disaster.
But, the newest capabilities can be a nice change of pace. Consider these guidelines:
- Polling is good for quick, simple questions. It offers a nice change of pace, is good for both extroverts and introverts, and activates the crowd.
- Chatting is best used at specific times, but not throughout the entire meeting or event because it can be distracting.
- Breakout rooms are a great way to engage introverts. They are also a nice change of pace. When using breakouts, put the prompt onscreen. This should be an open-ended question for them to discuss. Give them a sample answer before the breakout to help them know what is expected. Before you place everyone in a group, assign a person to start (by alphabet, birthday, etc.) After you bring everyone back to the full group, ask only one or two people to share their thoughts
- The co-host screen allows you to play talk show host by interviewing a guest or conducting a friendly point-counterpoint between experts with different points of view.
Who knows where this technology will lead us. But for now, these tips should make your virtual meetings something all your coworkers will put on their calendars and make sure not to miss.
Curt Stedron is NCSL’s director of legislative training.
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