3 Tips for Holding Non-Agonizing Virtual Meetings

Last Updated Mar 4, 2010 9:47 AM EST

Virtual meetings are a great way to save time and money. You don't have to travel, people can participate from anywhere they have a decent connection, and they can even make you feel very "green business." Problem is, they're too often boring, hard to sit through, and unproductive. Here are some simple tips for making your webmeetings and conference calls more effective and less agonizing. 1. Write an agenda. No, a good agenda. I know you think you do this already, but a good agenda is more than simply a list of what you want to talk about. You need to send it out ahead of time so people can prepare. (Bonus advantage for managers: When people don't properly prepare for meetings, you've eliminated the excuse that they didn't know what was expected. You can address that later as a performance issue.) Not only do you want to send the agenda in advance by email, but you want to clearly state it at the beginning of the meeting so people know what's expected of them and what to expect from their time together. A good webmeeting agenda contains:
  • What are we trying to achieve and how will we know when we're done? An update on a project is very different from a brainstorming session. Do we have to actually make a decision? Will this be interactive, with my input requested, or can I use part of my brain to answer emails and IMs? Attendees are only human and will occasionally succumb to other distractions, but giving them a valid reason to stay engaged is critical to not letting it become rampant among the team. Knowing the agenda, desired outcomes, and expectations will help people stay on track, and it also allows team members to keep each other accountable with comments like, "That's not the goal of this meeting. Take it offline and let's get back to work."
  • How long will this take? If you've ever sat in a meeting thinking about all the other things you should be doing, you know how hard it can be to focus and be constructive. If I know that the meeting will take 45 minutes, I can mentally block out the time and dredge up enough attention span to be productive. But if I don't know how long it will take, I'll fidget like a 5 year old in church.
  • What should I do about it? If you want people to actively participate, tell them so and specify by how you want their input (chat, voice, signal flare). Hold them accountable for their participation by calling for input throughout the program, especially at the beginning. Create an excuse for people to participate by asking everyone for a quick update early in the meeting. This demonstrates that they shouldn't just put you on mute and answer email -- there's stuff they'll have to think about and contribute to.
A great tip to make this less onerous on you is to create a template in Outlook or whatever email tool you use, and just fill in the blanks for each meeting -- but don't skimp on the detail.

2. Balance the flow of communication. Rather than give your audience too much information all at once and then take questions at the end, encourage discussion, debate, and questions after each short segment. Calling on people by name is fair if you give them a head's up: call their name first, and then repeat the gist of the question, in case they didn't hear it the first time. This will keep people from tuning out. When folks see their peers contribute and take part, they're more likely to do so as well, if only out of the fear they'll be called on next. Bear in mind it should be an expectation of being on the call and part of the way your team always operates, not used as a blunt object to punish the inattentive.

3. Don't fear online chatting. Adding a chat-room functionality is a great way of keeping people connected and also monitoring the mood and engagement of your meeting attendees. Many inexperienced meeting leaders fear chat, partly because of the multitasking involved in monitoring it, and mostly because they think people will just make jokes and be snippy with each other. Well, good. It'll be just like a real meeting then. Also, you can use chat as well as the phone. When people have to mute phones to keep out airport announcements, crying babies, and annoying coworkers, it actually can encourage more active participation than keeping the phone lines open. Allowing and even encouraging chat will tell you a number of important things:

  • Who's paying attention and who isn't?
  • What are their concerns? Many a true word is spoken in jest, so don't discount the jokes and asides.
  • Who's buying in and who's resisting?
  • Who haven't you heard from in a while? If they're not contributing to the chat, do you know they're paying attention?
What are your best tips for pain-free virtual meetings? Post your comments below.