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7 Takeaways for Facilitating Effective Virtual Meetings

30 March 2020

Several weeks into physical distancing, folks are getting the hang of their mute buttons. We’ve seen our share of cute kids and cats. Everyone understands that virtual meetings take careful planning and execution. Many of us count ourselves lucky that we can keep our work going in these unprecedented times—albeit online.

My years facilitating virtual meetings at Meridian boil down to two main pieces of advice: first, thoughtful planning and meeting design are critical. There is no substitute. Second, the tenets of effective in-person facilitation apply to the virtual environment—though a few peculiarities demand some additional attention and skill.

Make the meeting worth it.

#1: Don’t waste people’s time.

The ultimate faux pas? Showing up to a meeting without an impactful agenda. Develop an agenda well in advance, so you have time to send pre-readings, integrate an interactive collaboration tool if needed, and pull in the right participants. Make sure to start and end on time, building in an extra minute for people to get settled on your virtual platform.

#2: Have a clear purpose.

My colleague Robyn discusses this point in depth, but it bears repeating. If the objectives of the meeting could be met through a more efficient method, don’t hold the meeting. Should we really nitpick a document as a group, or could everyone provide comments on their own? Do we need to listen to a presentation at the same time, or could I just circulate a slide deck, briefing materials, or a pre-recorded video?

#3: Engage and listen.

Every 3 to 5 minutes, stop talking and listen. Check for understanding. Ask a question. Engage participants in some way. In addition to building agreement and rapport, this helps maintain focus and energy. Consider strategies that draw in quiet participants (such as polling or chat boxes) so they feel comfortable contributing.

Prevent technology snafus.

#4: Know the technology, inside and out.

Discomfort with technology can ruin a meeting and rattle your confidence as a facilitator. To avoid tech disasters, stick with tools you know: this will always be more effective than using fancy tools you feel shaky about. Make sure to do a dry run, especially if you’ll be using interactive tools, screensharing, or splitting participants into virtual breakout rooms.

Once the meeting starts, keep your focus on facilitating: close out of all unnecessary applications and turn off notifications (to avoid embarrassing screensharing pop ups). If you can, have a colleague on point to troubleshoot technology problems participants may encounter.

#5: Prepare your participants to use the technology.

Send instructions and troubleshooting tips beforehand. Offer to do a test run with participants, particularly if anyone is scheduled to present. Finally, develop virtual meeting norms or guidance. I generally ask participants to shut down other applications—and I commit to building in periodic breaks so they can take care of email throughout the day. Clarify how you want people to participate. Should participants send in questions via the chat box? Should they physically raise their hands? What should they do if they urgently want to comment? This will help you manage the conversation efficiently and make your participants feel more comfortable and valued.

Adapt to the peculiarities of the virtual environment.

#6: Facilitate assertively.

Back to my first tip… don’t waste people’s time. Stick to your agenda and keep the conversation moving. Sometimes, this means being more heavy-handed than you would be in person. In person, if I want someone to speak up or step back, shooting them a look or chatting with them during a coffee break usually does the trick. In a virtual meeting, you might have to explicitly call on people or send someone a private message. I generally check agreement and energy levels more frequently and overtly, since I can’t pick up on visual cues as easily as I could in person. Asking “Does everyone agree with that?” often leads to radio silence. After a pause, switch to a negative rephase: “Does anyone disagree?”

#7: Build rapport.

One thing that makes in-person meetings so powerful is relationship-building. This is much harder to replicate virtually. Simple actions can help: if you have a small enough group, start with introductions (and send around a participant list in advance). Use humor; if appropriate, fun elements like memes and videos can infuse levity (perhaps when returning from a break).  Don’t miss openings to make connections—even as you move through your well-designed agenda with aplomb. Through your meeting, you have the opportunity to offer a sense of normalcy, progress, and human connection to colleagues and partners around the country and even around the globe. It may sound corny, but these are the times we are in.

I hope the tips I’ve shared help you, especially as you navigate our new reliance on virtual environments. For advice on specific technology tools and platforms, check out these recommendations of technology tools and platforms, curated by our friends and colleagues at ArloSoul. From years of doing this, I also know good virtual meetings can be easier said than done! Feel free to reach out if Meridian can help you design and execute a successful virtual convening or help you advance your mission in a digital context. 

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