Could Your Meetings Be More Effective with Visuals?

Meetings can be painful. Nobody pays attention, hardly anyone remembers what was accomplished (if anything) and follow up is spotty at best. It seems to be even worse with conference calls. The problem may not be with what they say in that meeting, but what they see. Your meetings might need better visuals.'

People are primarily visual creatures. When we see something we remember it better and it engages our attention better than just a voice on the phone. When it comes to action items, like anything else, "if it ain't written down, it didn't happen". In many studies, experimental psychologists and educators have found that retention of information three days after a meeting or other event is six times greater when information is presented by visual and oral means than when the information is presented by the spoken word alone.But how do you create good visuals, especially when you're meeting remotely?

Dan Hoffman is the VP of Marketing for SmartDraw Software, a company in San Diego that helps capture visuals during virtual meetings and turns them into PowerPoint slides, reports and even enters data directly into Microsoft Project and other tools.

"It's important that you visually capture information in a number of ways because the correct visual "template" provides structure and know-how that makes it easier to understand and the likelihood of capturing the correct information is much higher - but it also makes it easier to re-purpose and communicate this information to others at a later time. There are very good reasons why a flowchart looks like a series of steps, why an org chart shows hierarchy visually, why a decision tree has split paths, and why a mind map is so effective in brainstorming sessions," he says.

So what's the connection between visually displaying information and making your team more accountable for action items? Well, some of it is that if it's written down, people no longer have "plausible deniability". More than that, visuals can be a very powerful way to gain consensus and get everyone on the same page, which with distributed teams is especially critical since follow up meetings can be costly and in some cases, not possible.The benefit of increased engagement and information retention of team members is often increased accountability.

The ways to capture and display information range from the very low tech (everyone takes notes and hopefully someone remembers to send out a synopsis of information and who is responsible for what) to sophisticated and powerful tools like SmartDraw. In between are tools like the "white board "function in web presentation tools, PowerPoint slides and mind mapping applications like MindJet, XMind and dozens of others.

Why would someone want to learn a new software program instead of just taking good notes? According to Hoffman, "PowerPoint is a very effective tool at presenting information in a one-way, broadcast manner. The whiteboard function in GoToMeeting and others allows some interactivity with commenting and sharing of a "picture" amongst remote team members for recording purposes, but the real question is what do you want to do with the information, knowledge and action items that are captured in a real-time collaborative session?"

"Tools like SmartDraw provide easy, real-time capture of information in a visual way. Thismakes it possible to see the context and relationships between topics, people, and processes. The information is real structured data that can be exported, transformed, and easily converted into action items. " One very cool feature is the abiliity to capture all the information and import it instantly into a variety of other applications so there's less chance of transcription errors.

At the very least, you should be using tools like shared applications and the "white board" to document ideas, capture input and make sure everyone sees their action items as well as who's responsible for what tasks. At best, you're creating an engaging picture of your team in action that makes your meeting memorable and actually drives people to take action.

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picture by flickr user ~Dezz~ CC 2.0