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How to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging and Effective

Dear Justin,

We are learning how to use videoconferencing as our new meeting platform. Do you have tips for facilitating meetings to promote participation and feedback, as many people seem uncomfortable because they can’t read non-verbal cues from others? Also, do you have effective methods for guiding people with interaction? No one is using the “raise hand” feature, so we often end up speaking at the same time and it’s awkward. We aren’t communicating as well as we did with in-person meetings. I’ve also noticed that people tend to rush, maybe because they’re uncomfortable speaking and seeing themselves at the same time. How can we ensure conversations flow more smoothly in a teleconferencing format? How can we encourage everyone to share their questions and concerns?

Needing Ideas

Dear Needing Ideas,

Thanks for your question. I’m guessing many of our readers share your concerns. It’s hard to get people to pay attention in any meeting, but when people aren’t in the same room, it can be especially difficult. And it’s particularly annoying when you make a nine-minute argument, pause for a reaction, and get “I’m not sure I followed you,” which might as well mean, “I was shampooing my cat and didn’t realize I would be called on.”

Meetings are often ineffective because there’s little to no accountability for engagement. There are four primary reasons to hold a meeting: to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems, or to strengthen relationships. Since all of these are active processes, passive passengers in a meeting rarely do quality work. The precondition for effective meetings—virtual or otherwise—is voluntary engagement. Here’s what works.

1. The 60-second Rule. First, never engage a group in solving a problem until they have felt the problem. Do something in the first 60 seconds to help them experience it. You might share shocking or provocative statistics, anecdotes, or analogies that dramatize the problem. No matter what tactic you use, your goal is to make sure the group understands and appreciates the problem (or opportunity) before you try to solve it.

2. The Responsibility Rule. When people enter any social setting, they tacitly work to determine their role. For example, when you enter a movie theater, you unconsciously define your role as observer—you are there to be entertained. When you enter the gym, you’re an actor—you’re there to work out. The biggest threat to engagement in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer. Many already defined their role this way when they received the meeting invite and determined to work on something else while they “check in.” To counteract this implicit decision, create an experience of shared responsibility early in your presentation. Don’t do it by saying, “Okay, I want this to be a conversation, not a presentation. I need all of you to be involved.” That rarely works. Instead, create an opportunity for them to take meaningful responsibility. This is best done using the next rule.

3. The Nowhere-to-Hide Rule. If everyone is responsible, then no one feels responsible. Avoid this in your meeting by giving people tasks that they can actively engage in so there is nowhere to hide. Define a problem that can be solved quickly, assign people to groups of two or three (max). Give them a medium with which to communicate with one another (video conference, Slack channel, messaging platform, audio breakouts). If you’re on a virtual meeting platform that allows for breakout groups, use them liberally. Give participants a very limited timeframe to take on a highly structured but brief task.

4. The MVP Rule. Nothing disengages a group more reliably than assaulting them with slide after slide of mind-numbing data. It doesn’t matter how smart or sophisticated the group is, if your goal is engagement, you have to mix facts and stories. Determine the Minimum Viable PowerPoint (MVP) deck you need. In other words, select the least amount of data you need to inform the group. Don’t add a single slide more.

5. The 5-Minute Rule. Never go longer than five minutes without giving the group another problem to solve. Participants are in rooms scattered, who knows where, with dozens of tempting distractions. If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, they will retreat into that alluring observer role, and you’ll have to work hard to bring them back. Consider wrapping up a presentation or brainstorming meeting with a group-generated list of options, then throw out a polling or voting opportunity to determine the team’s opinion about where to begin.

I adapted these tips from an article I recently co-wrote with Joseph Grenny for Harvard Business Review. You can review the full article here. I hope this helps.

Best of luck,

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6 thoughts on “How to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging and Effective”

  1. Jerry Wilson

    Absolutely the best article I have read on encouraging engagement in on-line meetings. Thanks,

  2. R. Ashton

    Justin, thanks for the article. In the full article link to HBR you cite a study you conducted. The link to the study returns a message, “The file you are attempting to download is no longer available.” Would be interested in reading the study. Thanks again!

    1. Justin Hale

      sorry for the miss on the link. here you go:

  3. Elizabeth

    I have two comments, one for the questioner and one for Justin.

    For those having difficulty switching from in-person to virtual meetings, as an ordinary worker whose team has used Zoom for several years, I would say: hang in there–people will get more comfortable with practice. It’s never *as* good as face-to-face, but you can learn how to adapt–especially when you know your colleagues well. The smaller the group of people (hence, the bigger the on-screen video), the better. Try low-tech solutions like raising your physical hand to the camera! Ask your team members to help brainstorm new protocols for this medium. For instance, when we need to go “around the room”, our team has decided to let each person call on the next person.

    For Justin–to me, this seems like a great article for normal times. These are not normal times. As a working parent, I bring a different perspective to the problem of online meeting engagement. What if the “distractions” are not optional temptations, but family members (especially children), because many of us are still sheltering in place, and our usual childcare options are no longer viable? When your preschooler starts taking apart the living room furniture, or even when he won’t stop chattering to you about his toy elephants even though you whisper “I’m trying to listen right now”, you probably won’t be able to contribute brilliant business solutions.

    Please, on behalf of all of us working parents out there: don’t have meetings that people must actually contribute to unless they are necessary (in which case the need for engagement will probably be obvious), keep them as short as possible, have as few people as necessary to get the job done, and please, please, please, be flexible. As the head of my department said a couple months ago to all of the employees in his area: have grace with each other.

    1. Justin Hale

      Thank you for those additional thoughts. My article was meant to provide ideas for meetings you SHOULD be having, and how to maximize engagement within that context. You bring up an equally important, but different, topic around being more selective about having meeting, when to have meetings, and who to involve. I love your insights around that.

  4. 8020Info Inc.

    […] Apply the MVP Rule:   For virtual presentations, determine the least amount of data you need to inform the group. Consultant Justin Hale calls it using the Minimum Viable PowerPoint, or MVP. Don’t add a single slide more, he urges. (Source: VitalSmarts) […]

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