Icebreakers for Getting Virtual Meetings Off to a Great Start

Last Updated Feb 25, 2011 10:41 AM EST

Virtual meetings can be good ways to bring a team together, build morale and brainstorm. Or they can be boring, painful and have participants praying for the sweet release of death. Sadly, the second scenario is most common. We're not suggesting that you can make a webinar have the feel-good energy of a rock concert, but you can help kick them off a bit more successfully than usual.

There are basically three things you want participants to come to a meeting prepared to do: use the information you're providing back on the job (or why bother holding the meeting?), participate (if that's what you want), and make good use of everyone's time.

The meeting kickoff should happen in a way that actually helps participants realize this will not be painful, focus them on the task at hand and encourage them to contribute positively. Fun is a nice option.

Here are some little things I've seen teams do that help kick off virtual meetings for real results:
  • A quick (brief, appropriate) burst of humor. Business is serious, but a little levity helps. We're not talking big yuks here, just something to lighten the mood. Ron Holohan of the PM411 podcast gave me a great example the other day. He started a virtual meeting with a picture of doughnuts, since all meetings start with doughnuts. Because the team is also based in China, the next meeting started with a photo of a yummy Chinese treat. Now every meeting starts with another "virtual snack". You wouldn't think this matters but heaven help the meeting leader who forgets to bring "treats" to a meeting. Fun, quick, harmless but lightens the mood.
  • Rotating meeting leadership. Humans are amazing creatures. Anything routine tends to put us to sleep. The slightest novelty reengages us. One technique for engaging people is to have a different team member kick off the meeting each time. They can use things like a quick update on what's going on in their facility or work. Not only does this add some variety to the meeting, it allows team members to get to know each other. It also alerts them to the fact that their turn is coming. Empathy and Karma go a long way on teams.
  • Competition and contests. Friendly competition and contests can help give people a boost of energy and aid in reward and recognition. Just be aware that the contests should change frequently and allow everyone a fair chance. A spelling bee when your team is scattered in foreign countries might be a problem (especially if half the team is American and the rest speak and spell in real English).
  • Spotlight individual accomplishments. Reward and recognition all too often comes as an afterthought to the meeting and gets tacked on in a burst at the end. Recognizing individuals at the beginning of a meeting (without dragging it out) can engage people and give them a little feel-good shot.
  • Find a reason for them to participate early. Ask a question that gets them to actually chime in by voice or use the chat feature. (Anything from "how's the weather where you are" to "what resources do you need to meet that milestone" are acceptable.) The sooner they interact with you, each other and the technology, the more likely you are to keep them engaged longer.
  • Tell them the agenda and time frame. This might not seem like an "icebreaker" of the fun sort, but the biggest barriers to participation in a webmeeting are relevance (what's this about, what am I doing here) and return on time invested (how long will this take and what else could I be doing instead of hanging on the line not saying anything). Give people realistic, positive reasons to be there and respect their time. If you do this often enough (and you have to stick to your promises) people will come into the meeting ready to go. Okay, at least they'll be less miserable and that's a start.
  • Actually know what you're going to say and get on with it. As i point out in "10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations", the biggest problem with most webmeetings is that they start too slowly. If the first thing your particpants see and hear is you fumbling about with the technology, sounding unprepared and not leading the meeting with authority, nothing will dig you out of that mental hole you've dug for them. Script out, or at least outline clearly, exactly what you're going to say , take care of any housekeeping you have to take care of and get them involved early. Start the meeting on time. If people come in late, too bad, next time they'll make more effort. If people feel that they're in good hands,it goes a long way to encouraging positive input and breaking the ice.
Ice breakers don't have to be cute, charming or particularly creative. They do have to set a tone of team spirit, professionalism and respect for participants' time and brain power.

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photo by flickr user Ian Sane CC 2.0
  • Wayne Turmel

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