The advantages of online meetings are to save travel time, convenience, and flexibility while retaining or augmenting the benefits of group interactivity. For interactivity, we need engagement; for engagement, we need encouragement and trust. A one-way webinar is not a lot better than a video or a one-to-many lecture. Here are some points to consider in developing and running an interactive online meeting.
Leverage time together for interactivity and sophisticated communications. Ask your participants to prepare in advance. Be clear on what this means: what they should come equipped with, and what should they be prepared to do.
Minimize large group time, maximize small group time. Large group time is for opening comments and announcements, setting the tone and agenda, for sharing results of small group efforts, wrap-up, and follow-up. Replace lectures and one-to-many instruction and guidance with pre-work sent in advance.
Group management. Small group models suggest optimum group sizes are 5-9. If this is a short ad hoc session, try less, perhaps 3-5. Use break-out sessions or hold multiple meetings if that’s what it takes.
Present structured activities and conversations with targeted outcomes; and be flexible if those outcomes evolve as this is the point of having people work things over: to develop the thinking.
Provide timeframes for working sessions with the Goldilocks model: not too short and not too long. Provide enough time for all to participate, along with a deadline to drive action. Most of the small group working sessions will have specific tasks that can be addressed in five – twenty minutes. If the working session agenda is long, use multiple working sessions.
Have an end game. What are you seeking to accomplish, and what will you do with the results?
If you have unstructured conversations, then make that distinction and ask folks to come with some thoughts on the topic to be discussed.
Have two leaders: One focuses on content delivery (short and succinct) and the other on the chat and looking at participants to get an idea of their engagement. This person then “presents” next. One can play the role of synthesizing with help from the group.
Consider a group participation agreement, formal or informal, depending on the group.
Include an opening round-robin so that everyone has a chance to say something – this will “break the ice,’ and set the tone for full participation. Make sure opening is on topic and relevant, not a timewaster.
Plan carefully to avoid time-zone and cultural snafus.
Use easy-to-use technology and make sure you know how to use it. Offer to train participants in advance.
Be consistent with your start time protocol and start on time. Consider an “unofficial” start time where folks can get set up and say hello. But start on time.
As the leader, show up early and kick off the conversations. Get people comfortable and participating. Try the “one-word” exercise: share a word that reflects how you are and what’s going on.
Let the group know your preferences for interaction. Do you want questions as they arise or at the end? By voice or text?
Keep a roster of participants and take notes on crucial contributions, factoids, and follow-ups.
Put on a show – prepare a solid opening, make it positive and constructive, if not joyful. Make time for people to add their ideas and modify the agenda.
Don’t overuse technology. Tools should serve their purpose without getting in the way. A show of hands might be better than an online poll.
Seek buy-in where possible. Buy-in engenders commitment and commitment fosters participation.
Allow some personal clearing and ideation; these are trust-building and tone-setting activities.
The downside of virtual conferencing is the limited ability to read non-verbal cues. Encourage all to use video so that expressions are readable, and to counteract the narrow “bandwidth,” slightly exaggerate your expressions and tone.
Follow-up. Distribute the results of the meeting with any action items and clear responsibilities as soon as possible following the end of the session. Keep the momentum going.