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5 Things That Make Virtual Meetings Work (Or Not)

Virtual meetings are a fact of life for most of us, at least occasionally. Most of them are modestly successful. They accomplish the bare minimum--information is shared, decisions get made and that's about it. What makes a good webmeeting work when others don't?

Recently INC. magazine ran an article on the 5 factors that make a good virtual meeting. The full article is a decent, if way too basic, introduction to the topic. Here are the five factors they identified:

  • Prepare for the meeting. Really. The fact is that running a meeting at the best of times is hard work, but much of it comes naturally to us out of habit. Online, you need to make sure people can connect early, make the best use of the time you share and stay engaged. An agenda with easy links and instructions for the technical end of things is a must. One good tip the article mentions is to use a co-facilitator to handle the technology while you run the meeting. That's a great idea.
  • Use the right technical tools and technology. The best advice here is to think small- use only the amount of technology necessary to accomplish the desired meeting outcome. You don't need high-tech video conferencing to solve some problems, and the phone won't be as powerful as true collaboration tools. Form follows function.
  • Stay focused. This advice is for both the audience and the presenter. Among the tips is the most obvious but also the most abused- single topic, short meetings are far more effective online than long rambling ones. People have a limited capacity to maintain attention and there area lot of distractions out there. Make it easy on each other by controlling background noise using the mute function on the phone. One small quibble I had with the advice is that it said to mute all phones and use the chat feature instead. That's often a good compromise, especially with large groups, but the vocal/audio component of communication is important. With a little practice and willing participants you can facilitate discussion by call on folks and lettingpeople unmute their phones when they want to participate.
  • Use good meeting etiquette. Virtual meetings have different dynamics than live meetings. For one thing it's easier to let yourself start answering email and do other tasks that you'd never do if you knew the meeting leader and other participants could see you multitasking.
  • Engage your participants. If you held a meeting in the conference room and said, "Okay, I want you not to talk to each other or to me. Sit there quietly and hold all questions until the end while I club you to death with this PowerPoint presentation", how well would that go over. (If that sounds like your regular meetings you have larger problems to be dealt with another day). Yet that's how many presenters run virtual meetings. In the name of managing time they restrict their ability to truly interact and leverage the participation of attendees.
One thing that's not listed in the article, but absolutely needs to be mentioned is the necessity for people leading virtual meetings to learn the ABCs of the tools before they attempt to solve problems or lead important discussions . As I point out in "10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations", fewer than 25% of people who are asked to lead virtual meetings and presentations ever receive any practice or coaching with the tools--The first time they use them is with innocent victims on the line, and then people are surprised that the meetings don't go smoothly. You can't run a decent meeting if you're worried about which button to push. It's not fair to the presenter or the participants. All meeting leaders should know the basics of good web presenting before they're expected to run high-stakes presentations and meetings.

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photo by flickr user Jan Tik CC 2.0
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