Imagine closing the clear glass door to your conference room and walking to your seat at the table to begin your meeting. While your eyes look to the fourteen people in the room, their eyes don't return your gaze. More than half of them have their eyes on their computer screens typing away. Several others have their eyes transfixed on their phone screens and, amazingly, some individuals are talking audibly on their phones. As you begin to speak, not one person seems to acknowledge that you are doing so. Mike and Sarah are actually leaning back in their chairs looking right through you as they talk on their phones! I'll grant you that this crazy scene would NEVER happen in your face-to-face conference room meeting. Never. Why? Because there is a basic level of human respect that we afford each other when we are in another human’s presence. If that is true, then why do we let this happen every day in our virtual meetings across the globe?
I'm positive that you've been an attendee in one of these virtual meetings or have run one yourself. As an attendee, you may have asked yourself, “Why am I even in this meeting?” You may have been frustrated that topics are beat to death or a colleague is sucking the air out of the call with a continuous rant. You have probably also muted yourself, walked out of the room, answered emails, talked on the phone, or made Internet purchases.
My question to you is why is this OK on a call when you work virtually but not tolerated in person? It's because we secretly have this trust that the attendees are listening. The challenge is that many of you rarely check-in with attendees, which allows you to perpetuate this fantasy of total engagement. Do you believe that, because you've said it in a virtual presentation, your responsibility of communicating has been fulfilled? Not so fast.
For communication to be fulfilled, retention has to happen. One of the keys to retention is full engagement. People actually have to be giving you their full attention and you have to check in with them and have them acknowledge that they understand.
Based on our experience with our clients, here are three cures that will improve your virtual meetings and help attendees retain information:
1. Plan for immersive engagement. For some reason, virtual team meetings receive less planning time than in-person meetings. Ask yourself, what you are doing to mitigate the scenario that I asked you to "imagine" at the beginning of the article? What plans do you have in place to ensure that you have their full attention? Believe me, it won't happen by accident. You want to make sure that everyone on the call has an opportunity to be heard in some way. I would agree that in a call of 20 or 30 attendees, it's not efficient to have everyone speak. That's why any virtual platform worth having provides a chat area as well as basic engagement tools, such as raise hand, a check for yes and an X for no. The call leader or current speaker should encourage all attendees to use the chat box and check-in with the attendees every three minutes or so to continuously encourage communication and collaboration. Treat the chat as an attendee! Don't look on it as an interruption. If your company has disabled chat, then use a questioning tool if available. Your platform should also have a pointer or marker that allows the speaker to highlight areas on the slide. Using a pointer or marker makes it much easier to follow what the speaker is saying and it draws the eyes of attendees.
2. Set and strive to meet clear meeting objectives. As early as the agenda in the invite (yes, you put a high level agenda and clear objectives in the invite), the meeting objectives need to be clearly defined so that the attendees know what the group is striving to achieve during their time together. These should be so clear that, as you wrap up the meeting, you could go back to them and see how you did in achieving them. This is also important as it gives the leader the power to move things along if conversations get mired. The leader can step back and say, "That was a spirited conversation. In order to achieve our meeting goal, we are going to need to discuss that item at a later date." This is why it's critical to take the time to create a clear objective, goal and agenda BEFORE you invite attendees. Honor their time by showing that you have taken the time to let them know how their valuable time will be used. Invariably, when we send out an empty invitation, the leader waits until the last minute to scrawl a high level agenda on a napkin. While this obviously shows poor planning, it also doesn't allow time to plan for immersive engagement.
3. Leading a meeting means being a facilitator. So that we are on the same page, let me provide the definition of a facilitator: one that helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision. This means that you can't run down an agenda and let the meeting happen. You have to make it happen. As a facilitator, you must ask good questions, listen, summarize and drive toward outcomes. You have got to be a relentless manager of the discussion. Keep the discussion moving. Don't let one voice dominate the discussion, including your own! Summarize what was said and transition to the next topic or go deeper with the same topic. Make sure that you pull the quiet folks into the conversation with questioning them by name. Don't let folks hide in the shadows because that's where many good ideas die. It's easy to focus on the most vocal attendees. Drive unobtrusively toward your outcomes like you were being graded on achieving them. You ARE being graded. Your word of mouth reputation as a leader in the virtual workplace is at stake.
These three cures will enable you to have better virtual meetings. Stay tuned for our next blog that will offer a few more ways to make your virtual meetings better.