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Five Hacks Every Leader Needs for Great Virtual Meetings


Yikes, we find ourselves in a virtual world almost overnight. Well, some of us that is.

For others, we’ve been toying around with the mechanics of virtual team experiences for years.

The five hacks I cover are:

Start with great content.

Use cool tools.

Use video.

Use breakouts.

Assign roles, follow-up, and record meetings.


I have a bit of experience 

In 1991 I graduated from USMC computer science school as an officer and was quickly thrust into the middle of the war (Desert Storm). We had to quickly cobble together digital networks where chatting and email became mission critical. We did this in harsh desert conditions and in a way that allowed us to be mobile at a moment’s notice. After the Marine Corps experience I led a Nike team that globalized our digital network and worked on tools and teams where effective virtual collaboration was essential. Following Nike, I worked with an international computer manufacturer and some of my team lived outside of London while I lived in Oregon. From the computer company I launched into a series of startups and led in sales using a number of virtual presenting techniques to help close deals. I then led a technology group of about 80 people for a healthcare/tech company - and those 80 people were distributed all across the U.S. I left the corporate world again to build my own brand. My first client, which was a five-year experience, was headquartered in Connecticut, I lived in Utah, and our software development team was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along the way, I’ve been a lecturing professor for Utah Valley University, City University, Broadview University, and Marylhurst University where a significant number of the courses I taught were either online or I developed online components for live courses to make them more interesting.

Key Lessons I've Learned

Take Risks. You must take risks and try things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you’ll try something and it won’t go the way you hoped. Sometimes you’ll try something new and it will be awesome. Allow yourself to innovate and ignore the fear of trying new ideas in front of people.

Give People a Voice. Engagement means giving people opportunities to have a voice. When people feel their voice is brought into the important part of a topic, they will be engaged, they will be interested, and they will contribute value.

Multimedia Matters. I learned this at Nike. The best leaders could deliver stunning multimedia presentations as part of their briefs, pitches, etc. It was a cultural norm because Nike is a powerful media and marketing driven company. Leaders who are skilled with multimedia gain “street cred” with followers, peers, and their bosses because they do things that others are a little afraid to do.

Always Be Looking. Explore the market constantly for new tools. Keep your eyes and ears open for tools and techniques that can help you be new, edgy, and fun.

Five Hacks

Hack #1: Start with Great Content

Don’t enter a virtual meeting without having prepared and thoughtfully considered who the participants are, what you plan or need to accomplish, and how to give voice to those in attendance. Becoming good at creating slides that help foster learning and discussion have gotten easier over the years. Microsoft’s PowerPoint has an embedded “design ideas” feature that can help you make beautiful slides.

For example, here’s a basic slide.

A picture of a basic slide that provides a routine agenda but does not inspire any imagination.

Pretty boring right. 

Now, here's a slide that draws people in.

A picture of a young man at a table with a large pizza and that inspires communication.

According to the first slide, the agenda for the meeting is to focus on improving communication. In the first slide we see the classic approach to an agenda. In the second slide we see very few words but a picture that will draw people into a collective thinking experience. And that's what you want, to pull them into an experience. 

You don’t need to list your full agenda on the slide either - just have the 3-points you want to cover on a note card by you and cover them verbally. Most of your slides can be handled in this way - with very few words.

It can take a little effort to create an interesting slide. Consider it an investment. The right slide enhances your communication capabilities because you are opening the receptivity of the person you are trying to communicate with. Most people prefer a visual experience with verbal discussion vs. a reading experience followed by a discussion. Developing great content and finding ways to show that content will help a virtual team engage.

Want a great site for pictures? Unsplash is a solid site for free stock images. 

BOTTOM-LINE Hack #1

Bring visually interesting content into the experience as much as possible. Vary the approach. Vary your style. Think about the audience and ask yourself this question, “How does the way I present the content of this meeting help the participants feel they are engaged either in their thoughts or with their words?”

Hack #2: Use Cool Tools and Activities

I’m not just talking about the choice of virtual meeting tool. There are a lot of choices available and no doubt more and more tools will emerge over the next decade as virtual meetings become more prevalent. 

The tools I’m referencing in this hack are tools that create interaction and thought.

My go-to polling tool is Mentimeter. I’ve tried other tools, but I like Mentimeter the best right now. There is a free version that you can do a lot with. Because I liked it, I upgraded to their basic plan and it has given me tremendous capability with my in-person and virtual meetings. The use of a tool like this creates engagement and draws people in by giving them a voice.

What I like about Mentimeter is that it has a super clean interface, lots of templates to choose from, the input for participants is easy, and the output produces visually interesting displays.

Mentimeter is an excellent tool that facilitates engagement for online meetings.

One of the excellent parts of Mentimeter is the ability to do do some open-response engagement where you can ask a question and let people respond in an unstructured way. This is incredibly valuable because they are now using their words to paint their ideas in real-time in front of the group.

I’ll often follow-up a structured poll question with an open-response type of question. I want to hear what people are thinking. You can then use comments to shape the conversation. I like to invite people to comment on the comments - it creates a discussion. Again, that process brings voice into the experience, which means people will engage. 

Open question polling is a key feature of a good polling engagement tool like Mentimeter

Most virtual meeting tools have their own polling-type of solutions and I’ve found them to be adequate. I like to use a specialized polling solution because there is more flexibility and it gets us outside of the meeting tool - that also requires additional engagement.

Mentimeter has a nice blog where they provide lots of ideas on how to improve in-person or virtual meetings. Here are few of their blog posts to help with virtual meetings:

How to use Zoom and Mentimeter for remote working and online teaching.

How to encourage participation in online meetings.

How to host a remote quiz.

Icebreakers to kick-start creative thinking.

How remote teams can promote inclusion.

BOTTOM-LINE Hack #2

Engagement in a virtual world is really similar to engagement in an in-person world. You have to create ways for people to participate. The participation must be about meaningful subjects. The participation has to have a way to be seen by the group. There are other tools worth exploring, we featured Mentimeter.

Other tools we think are interesting:

Slido 

Stormz

Socrative

 

Hack #3: Use Video (and Humor if It fits)

Video is important and it's fun. Use selected videos that are relevant to the topic of your meeting. You can use humor in your videos. It depends on the purpose of the meeting and what you want the video to accomplish. You do need to be careful with humor - what’s funny to one person may be insulting to another so be cautious here.

I've used videos like this before to discuss planning processes, agile workflow, fairness, ethics, and other topics.

The Expert

 

The next video comes from the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA). They produce outstanding content in short segments that can be used in a variety of ways to generate engagement.

I've used the video below to help get team members talking. 

 

We watch the video as a group, then either in a breakout or altogether, we discuss which type of tendency we each think we have. We might even use Mentimeter to show those tendencies with a four-bar chart poll. Then, I have us go to the site where Gretchen Rubin allows you to take her assessment for free. It takes only a few minutes. People discover their tendency and we have a discussion on what they learned about themselves and their peers in the process (Tendency Assessment).

Here are three other great sources for high quality videos on a variety of business subjects that we use frequently, and they can all work in a virtual meeting.

Stanford's eCorner

HBR's Explainer Videos

TED Talks

BOTTOM-LINE for Hack#3

Video is important. Try to use short videos where possible. Make sure your use of humor will be appreciated and not offend someone. Leverage the video to drive home a learning or discussion point by using a polling tool like Mentimeter. Allow time for discussion around what people learned or noticed in the video.

Hack #4: Use breakouts

This hack gets more complicated, but it is very doable. Some of the online meeting tools do a better job of this than others. Zoom, for example, has a breakout group process that works really well. If you use Zoom, go to your account settings enable breakout groups.

I’ve used breakout groups in my meetings very successfully. When everyone has joined the meeting I use the breakout group feature to dynamically create breakout rooms and populate them. 

Picture that shows an example of a breakout group meeting setup process in online tools.

I set it up so that when I end the breakout group, each group will receive a 60 second warning that their breakout room will close. As people exit their room, they automatically pop back into your main meeting. It’s really cool. 

You can configure the rooms to populate randomly or assign people. I normally use a random process. However, there are situations when a planned breakout structure is useful. You follow the same process that you would use when planning team breakout events in an in-person meeting.

Before sending breakout groups away, it is important to give them a specific task to accomplish. I generally allocate 5 minutes to do whatever I’ve asked.  

When people come back into the room, I have one person from each group brief what they discussed. I will capture their comments at a high-level in a notepad, electronic whiteboard, or a powerpoint slide. I display my note taking on the screen so everyone can see what I’m writing.

Cautions

Caution #1: The first time you try a virtual breakout meeting people will not know exactly what to expect. Let them know you are trying something new and that the process will get better as we learn together. Recognize that the first time through a virtual breakout process it will take people a little while to warm up and adjust. I don’t give them extra time in the first try, but I do make the question light and easy. Then, after we reconvene, I post a more complicated topic for them and have them breakout a second time. This time they are skilled at the process

Caution #2: Not all tools have a breakout feature. If your tool doesn’t use breakout groups you can still do this exercise. You can ask the teams to go offline for a brief period of time by setting up separate calls for them in advance that they can join. This takes a little more coordination, but it’s worth doing. 

BOTTOM-LINE Hack #4

The first time you do an online breakout, the event may be awkward. However, the more you use breakout features, the more rapidly you will increase the engagement and the quality of the meeting. Always harvest the value of the breakout process by documenting what gets reported back to you. Always integrate breakout inputs back into the meeting or into a future meeting so that people will want to continue to engage.

Hack #5: Assign, Follow-up, Record

Assign Roles in Advance. One of the best ways to drive up engagement is to give people opportunity. It is important to note that generally people are not at their best when you surprise them, especially in front of their peers. Be planful and ask one or two members of the meeting to come prepared to share thoughts or findings on a specific topic. Give them a named spot on the agenda and give them time to present. 

Use Asynchronous Tools to Follow-Up. Synchronous communication is what happens when everyone is together either in person or in a virtual setting. An idea can be discussed in real-time. Asynchronous communication happens when there is a delay in responding to someone because you are not together in real-time.

Asynchronous communication techniques are important to retain engagement after the meeting is over. Tools that facilitate asynchronous communication are discussion boards, email groups, and text groups. Of the three, discussion boards are the best for retaining long-term information and having a longer discussion. Text groups are actually the best for having fast asynchronous communication and retaining the highest level of engagement.

Make sure to have after-the-meeting follow-ups. Not every meeting requires follow-ups, but some do. When a follow-up is required use a discussion forum or a team site to help facilitate the ongoing discussion. 

Record Your Meetings. Not everyone can join every meeting. Recording meetings and then publishing those recordings to the group allows people who didn’t participate to have an opportunity to engage at the next possible level and to participate in any asynchronous follow-up. 

BOTTOM-LINE Hack #5

The way you plan for engagement directly affects the quality of the engagement you get. Avoid last-minute planning. Every meeting you have, whether virtual or in-person, should be important. Schedule time in your calendar to prepare for your meeting. Then, give people a role and allow them to contribute. Find ways to stay engaged in between meetings on important topics. Be considerate of those who can't make it and make sure they are also engaged by giving them the ability to catch-up. 

Continue Learning

We know that leading people in the modern, and often virtual, world is complicated and challenging. Our tools help leaders zero in on what's most important. If you are interested in learning more high-impact communication and engagement techniques, check out our LeaderPod on Communication and Other Soft Skills.

Communication and Other Soft Skills


 

Gordon Whitehead

Written by Gordon Whitehead

Gordon Whitehead is the founder of Leaders247 and specializes in leadership and organizational development with a particular interest in helping emerging leaders accelerate their leadership growth.