Think about the last in-person meeting or conference you attended. Close your eyes and visualize the space. Was there a stage? What was on the stage? Was there a notepad or a glass of water at your seat? A tablecloth? What was the lighting like in the room? What was the temperature? Who was sitting at the head of the table? Was there a whiteboard or a big screen?
When you walk into a room, there are so many visual cues that prompt you to behave in a specific way. Sitting around a table with your team in a well-lit room with a pile of whiteboard markers will probably prompt you to participate, pitch in, throw your ideas on the board. A large, dark ballroom with a stage and spotlight on the lectern will probably inspire you to sit back, open your mind, and try to learn from the presenter. A formal setup might cause you to sit up a little straighter, take notes, be quiet—while a casual, more comfortable vibe might invite you to relax a little, have a little fun and maybe bring some creativity.
Now think about the last Zoom or other virtual meeting you joined...there are none of the same visual cues. You just join, and there's a slide or a person's face or maybe many people's faces. You don't know if you are there to participate, listen or what. Should you crack a joke in the chat, or is that frowned upon? Are you free to unmute yourself, or is this listen-only? The last virtual happy hour you attended probably visually looked exactly like the last budget meeting you were in. As Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, mentioned in a recent interview, "Zoom is not a room or a host."
As the facilitator, you have to create the meeting space with intention. Just as you might have specifications for a physical meeting—the way the tables and chairs are arranged, who sits where, what kind of technology set up you need, or supplies you want to have on hand—you need to think about and prepare for your virtual meeting in the same way. You have to provide the norms, define the rules of engagement and set the metaphorical table for how you want people to show up in your meeting.
How to be the virtual host with the most:
- Begin with the end in mind. What is the purpose of gathering together for this meeting? What will make the meeting successful? What are you trying to achieve? How do you want people to feel in this meeting? Maybe the purpose of your meeting is to create an inspiring plan for your company in 2021, and you want your team to feel energized and focused. Maybe you want to have an informal brainstorming session to get ideas on the best employee engagement strategies to pursue, and you want people to feel connected, warm and valued. Your vision will help you create the right environment for your virtual meeting.
- Craft your content carefully. With your purpose to guide you, what topics do you need to cover in this meeting? What format will best achieve your purpose? Consider timing and breaks carefully to help you manage the energy of the meeting appropriately. After three uninterrupted hours of budget projections, will your team feel energized and focused? Probably not. How can you time the agenda to cover the important topics, leave enough time for breaks and have some space for the team to connect informally (if that's part of your purpose)? Also, plan your visual content with intention. Is it important to highlight your company's brand? Should you have a virtual background with your company logo? Or do you want it to be more informal and fun (maybe have everyone select a background to represent the year)? Should you do a Zoom icebreaker or keep the agenda tight on important business topics?
- Invite only the right people. Who needs to be in the "room" for this discussion? Invite only the people who are essential to achieving your purpose. Don't waste anyone's time who does not need to be there. Virtual meetings are actually great when you may want to have stakeholders participate in just a portion of the meeting. For example, if you want to dig deep and discuss your customer retention goals for the next year, you may want to hear from your head of customer success, but that person probably doesn't need to be in the meeting for the whole day if that's the only topic pertinent to them. Inviting people to join only portions of the meeting makes orchestrating the right timing for the agenda even more important.
- Communicate in advance. Once you have your guest list and the right agenda, invite the team in plenty of time. Give them clear and specific instructions on how to prepare and what to expect. Share the agenda and meeting link, let them know how to be ready for the discussions you'll be having, and provide some ground rules for how to participate. Do they need to be on mute the whole time? Should they use the chat for questions? Is it OK for them to join from the car or will they need to be in front of their computer? You will have a much better meeting if you let them know well in advance that you expect them to be on video the whole time and that they'll have to share a 5-minute update on their departmental KPIs.
- Choose the right technology. How will you connect? Will you be using any collaboration or document sharing tools? Eliminate technical friction by sharing the technology you'll be using in advance, too. Instruct the team to test out their audio/video settings, to check for any updates they may need, to have their computer plugged in or fully charged. Verify everyone can access your collaboration tools of choice so you're not taken down a rabbit hole of Google Doc permissions during your well-crafted meeting time.
Sure, it's easier to fire up that Zoom link and wing it. It takes a lot more intention and preparation to have an effective virtual meeting. At the end of the day, if it's not worth the time to ensure the meeting is effective, you probably don't need to have that meeting. If the meeting is important enough to do it right, take some extra time to be thoughtful about how you want people to participate, what you want them to get out of the time, how you want them to feel, and what you can do as the facilitator to set the stage for a great meeting.
Any great virtual meeting tips to share? We'd love to hear from you in the comments!
Here are other blogs to help with virtual meetings:
Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images