How Many Is Too Many on a Virtual Meeting?

Last Updated May 11, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

Virtual meetings are a great idea--in theory. You can have hundreds of people on a meeting at the same time without having to get them together, and get it all over with at once. That might actually be the problem. There's a limit to how many people you can have on a virtual meeting and still be effective.

The ease of getting people together online makes it tempting to cram as many people as possible together so everyone gets the same message at the same time. But does it make sense to take the time and trouble if no one's listening, they're just answering email and they aren't really expected to participate?

Here are some points we should ponder when determining the right number of participants on a virtual meeting, and some alternatives.

  • What is the desired outcome of your meeting? Not to be a nag, but form follows function. The number of people who should attend your meeting is dictated by what you want to come out of it. If the idea is to get input or feedback on a proposal, it makes no sense to invite so many people that you can't open the phone lines or facilitate a good discussion. A well-run conference call can handle up to 20 people if everyone uses the mute buttons respectfully (and they're the right 20 people--more on that in a minute). If we need to announce a new policy and want to take questions, we can have a hundred attendees, but should have a co-presenter to take the questions that come in through chat or other methods. Some people use Instant Messaging to take questions on an audio-only conference call.
  • Who really needs to be there? If the topic isn't of interest, and they have no strong opinions about the subject being discussed, are you really surprised there isn't' a lot of input and engagement? Is what's happening on that meeting really important enough to pull attendees away from something else? The beauty of today's technology is that most presentation systems, from conference calls to webmeetings, have a record function. You can always record the meeting or presentation for later reference. If it's really important, like compliance training, you can have people sign off when they've listened or viewed the recording.
  • If it's 200 people, it's not training. One of the most common mistakes companies make is to roll out a product or application, invite everyone in the company to a single event, and then claim they were "trained" on it. Telling is not training. True training involves assessing people's abilities and attitudes, showing them the new skill, allowing them to process that information by either getting their hands on it, practicing the concept, or discussing the heck out of it, then testing whether they learned anything. That's almost impossible to do in large, all-hands-on-deck webmeetings. If we really want them to learn anything, we need to take the time to do several, smaller, interactive sessions. (Don't panic, we're already saving all that travel time and money. The only person who's going to suffer is the trainer or leader and that's our job). A good rule of thumb: limit online training to the same number of people you'd have in a classroom session.
  • Have a strong facilitator-or two. They dynamics of running a virtual meeting are much the same as they are in a "real" meeting, except that you can't see the people and have to build in the communication and feedback that occur naturally when everyone's in the same room. Allowing questions as you go, using the chat feature and polling the audience throughout can raise the engagement and interest level but can cause heartburn for the presenter but it takes time and practice. A co-leader who works the technical end of things and screens input from the audience can free the presenter or trainer up to actually concentrate on leading the session and focusing on the outcome instead of which button makes the slides move.
Just because you can cram everyone into a single online session doesn't mean you'll get the results you need. Take the time to analyze your audience, ponder the situation and make the smart choices that will drive results, rather than focus on just getting the meeting over with.

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