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How do you run your virtual meetings?

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Meetings, bloody meetings! We all remember the video John Cleese created many years back (well, some of us do, anyway), and the recent video "“Conference Call in Real Life” that is great for some big yuks. But how do you run effective virtual meetings?  

I felt prompted to write this article when I saw the many comments after a colleague posted a link to the “Conference Call in Real Life”. I thought this demonstrated that there may be a need to provide a few guidelines on how to conduct virtual meetings effectively.  Professional behavior in virtual (and, of course, in-person) meetings is the key to success.

Collecting requirements virtually is becoming more and more common as organizations try to keep costs low.  So it is more important than ever to use virtual meeting tools effectively. But it isn't all about tools.  As is so often the case, it is more about the people who use the tools.  After all, a wise man once said that a fool with a tool is still a fool.  

So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Tips for Meeting Chairs

So, you need to have a virtual meeting.  Well, guess what?  Just a like an in-person meeting, you need an agenda.  Send it out ahead of time and ask that people prepare. Be clear about the meeting purpose and objectives. If it is a recurring meeting, allow people to make agenda suggestions in advance in case there are burning issues they feel need addressing that you didn’t think or know to include. 

When you communicate the agenda, lay out the ground rules for the upcoming meeting.  You can probably derive some ground rules from the following tips designed to help you engineer a successful meeting:

  • Tell attendees you’ll be sticking to the agenda and that “other business” can be addressed at the end of the meeting if there is time, otherwise the item needs to be added ahead of time to a future meeting.
  • Everyone is expected to “arrive” on time. In the meeting announcement, include immediate methods for testing the desktop sharing/presentation software that will be used so technical glitches can be identified and solved in advance.
  • Provide a phone number for road warriors or those who will not be connected. Ideally, though, everyone will join via computer so they can see shared screens.
  • Display action items on a shared screen. If they are not accurate, attendees are expected to speak up.
  • Input is expected, but one person will not be allowed to “hog” the floor.
  • For small meetings, ask people to locate to a quiet area and keep their mics on so everyone can hear what is going on. If someone is interrupted, stop the meeting until they are free again, just like in an in-person meeting when the board room door opens and someone interrupts.
  • Insist that attendees use headsets with microphones. Those built into computers are not good enough – they will make you sound like a robot, or like you are in a cave, extraneous noises will be picked up and echoes may result. 
  • Use a solid internet connection. If your wireless connection is flaky, use a wired connection. 
  • If material is being presented for review during the meeting, ask that it be sent around in plenty of time before the meeting so it can be reviewed, especially if feedback is being sought.
  • Create a collaboration site for storing meeting minutes, or if it is a project meeting use the project repository. I use SharePoint for this.
  • If a formal presentation is to be delivered, ask everyone to go on mute until it is time to ask questions or make comments. This is not a time to multi-task, though. It is only to make sure the speaker can be heard.
  • Record presentations and post them to the collaboration site. Make sure you let everyone know it is being recorded, and remember to click the record button before introduction of the speaker.
  • Start the meeting five-ten minutes early to ensure there are no technical glitches.
  • Check meeting tracking beforehand so you will know who to expect.
  • Send a communication five minutes in advance to all invitees to announce that the meeting will begin in five minutes.
  • Don’t start the meeting until everyone is there, or you have allowed sufficient time for laggards (I use five minutes as a guideline). Assess whether to cancel the meeting if key people are absent or not enough people show up.
  • Let people know how to use the chat window, and whether you will accept private chats.  If questions and comments may be typed in their entirety in the chat window for addressing at the end of the meeting, say so.  This is an effective way in very large meetings to handle Q&A without interruption while allowing attendees to ask questions or make comments while content is fresh in their minds.
  • Consider the use of cameras. They are not usually necessary for meetings where everyone knows one another.  But if there are new people, and they are comfortable with it, you can use cameras for a round-table introduction.  If they are not comfortable with it, consider using still pictures.

As mentioned above, you need to share decisions made and action items to which attendees commit during the meeting with the group. I find most virtual whiteboard tools are cumbersome, so I usually share a document using a word processor like Word or Google Docs. 

If you are an ambidextrous cranial sort who can take notes while thinking, chairing and talking, you can do this yourself.  Otherwise, ask a colleague in advance to take on that responsibility. But watch what is being typed, because it has to be accurate and reflective of what everyone agreed. 

Make note only of important items and action items that have been agreed, including who is responsible and when the item is due.  You can send these notes to meeting participants directly after the meeting.  No more creating minutes after the fact and having people disagree with what was written since they will already have seen what was recorded during the meeting.

Highly visible decision logs and active action item lists on your collaboration site are priceless.

Noise can render a virtual meeting ineffective.  Be sure extraneous noise is addressed politely and firmly. If you have to, force mute.  Occasionally, people are interrupted and don’t control the situation well, talking with the intruder and failing to go on mute. You can mute them and decide to continue the meeting or not.  You may need to use alternate means like their cell phone to communicate with them so they know they have committed a virtual meeting sin. This is the same as if someone gets up from an in-person meeting and leaves the room.  Should you continue the meeting?  Your call… maybe ask the person or the attendees as appropriate.

Having trouble getting some people to contribute? Try doing a round table about a specific issue, suggesting that each person talk for no more than a minute or two and that if they have nothing to say, just “pass”.  Some people are too shy to interject, but are happy if they have time to think about what they want say and know they will receive the “talking stick” eventually.  Start with someone you know won’t mind talking to give the more introverted a chance to collect their thoughts.

Tips for meeting participants:

  • Review all materials sent in advance of the meeting and make notes so you will cover the points you feel are important.
  • Behave as if you were in an in-person meeting. Avoid distractions.    Respond.  Participate.
  • If you have something to say, and you can’t get a word in, use the meeting chat function as instructed by the chairperson or use the “raise hand” function if there is one and the chairperson has said it is in play. 
  • Don’t hog the floor. If the chairperson indicates you are taking too much time, respect the interjection and allow others to speak. Be concise, brief, to the point.
  • Don’t make noise. Be aware of where your microphone is in relation to your mouth.  Heavy breathing is never appreciated.  If you hear it and it is not you, and the chairperson is not reacting, politely, perhaps with a little humour, announce that it appears someone is chewing on their microphone, or an obscene caller seems to have joined the call.
  • Be humorous. It’s alright to have fun at virtual meetings, as long as meeting objectives are met and time is not wasted. This doesn’t mean you should tell jokes.
  • Don’t interrupt speakers. It is up to the chairperson to manage people who are speaking too long. If you feel the meeting is not being managed well, consider private messaging the chairperson.
  • If you see anything inaccurate being shown in the shared action list, speak up, particularly if it is your action.
  • Be respectful. Take notes. Ask questions. Make comments. In a few words – be fully engaged, be present.

There is a certain degree of flexibility with virtual meetings that can save time and money, and you can take advantage of easy to use features (like record and share screen) that are sometimes more difficult to do in an in-person meeting. 

Virtual meetings don’t need to be like the Virtual Meeting in Real Life video, as humorous as it is since it is so very close to the reality of those in first-time virtual meetings. Let common sense, respect and preparedness rule the meeting, and success will be yours – and your team’s. 


Posted on: May 02, 2016 09:56 AM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Hi Mike, I truly like this article. I need this guidance so much since currently, i having so many virtual meeting since my team in Korea and Malaysia even with different time of 1 hour. Yes truly, this guidance make the virtual meeting effective and avoid not productive meeting.

Because a few meetings that I have participated for this couple of months, the VM not that effective since problem of video conf system, voice of the other person not clear, the chairman not able to handle participants, doesnt too many speaks and you can't hear the voice. Using of comp mic as you said, the sound is not clear and very difficult to hear the speech.

Interrupted of the on-going presentation impact so much the presentation and prolong the presentation. Unprepared of certain participant that contributed to lack of preparation and pack presented not according to what meeting target was.

Thank for this great article.

The quality of microphone is also very important for virtual meeting especially when there are few separate group in the virtual meeting. Base on my experience, Polycom is good product for voice. Yes, rule for meeting is also important which is that can be highlighted in the meeting invitation.

Thanks, Muhamad. I am glad you found the article useful. I thought after many years of conducting virtual meetings and webinars with thousands of attendees, I must have picked up the odd tip that could be of help to others. While this post was about conference calls, I must find the time to post one about webinars with hundreds or thousands of attendees. This is quite different from a conference call, of course, and requires much more preparation and discipline before, during and after the webinar.

Ahmad - the microphone is indeed one of the most important physical devices for meetings and webinars. Aside from desktop sharing that won't work properly, there is nothing more destructive to a virtual meeting than poor audio, background noise, low volume voice, crackling and so on.

I agree Polycom makes a great USB connected device. They also make excellent phone devices, although because some people have access to only computers and not phones, often due to long distance charges, I tend to ask people to join only by computer, and with great headsets like those sold by Jabra. I believe headsets are hands down the best way to do, even though many of my colleagues still insist on using their their computer microphones, which always end up making the speaker sound like they are in a cave, and often pick up incoming noise and re-transmitting it, even if only for very short sequences.

On another topic, athough one can conduct conferences with both VOIP (Voice Over IP - or in more plain language, voice over a computer/network) and POTS (Plain Old Telephone System), I tend to stick with just computer VOIP to maintain consistency in the call.

However, the use of both phone and VOIP is possibly these days with products like Skype for Business (formerly Lync), where dial in and VOIP are pretty much indistinguishable. I have just had trouble with many pieces of software when it comes to mixing the two.

Mostly welcome mike..yes I did used too the Skype for Business formerly Lync but the change may need I to use next time is to used earphone mic for better sound and hearing and clearly voice when speak to others parties.

Thanks for this post Mike. A solid list of tips for both meeting chairs and meeting participants. I would add that meeting participants should refrain from emailing, texting, checking their phones or other forms of multi-tasking during virtual meetings which I regret to say I have seen multiple times in face-to-face team meetings. Uggghhh!!!!

I would add one more point - I have found it very useful after face to face and/or virtual meetings to read my handwritten notes on action items into the voice recorder option on Android phones (I suspect iPhones can do the same) that will convert your audio recordings simultaneously (internet connection required) into text. You can then email the text to yourself, make quick edits, as necessary and then send out your meeting notes, action points, deliverables, etc. to participants, within minutes of a meeting taking place.

I agree with all of these points. I realized how important humor is in virtual meetings after starting to work at an organization where the majority of meetings are virtual. One of the PMs I've worked with closely, uses humor very well to control meetings. She can "interrupt" participant that hog the floor, and humor helps her do it in a non-offensive way. I try to take notes.

Thanks for the voice recording tip, Jason. I prefer to show notes on screen during the meeting so everyone can see them and agree or disagree on the spot. My meeting notes usually consist of action items and decisions made. The advantage of this approach is that after adding a few headings and fixing the odd error, you can send the meeting notes out minutes after the meeting. There are usually very few corrections since everyone has already seen them.

Anzor - agree with the humor point you make. And interrupting a speaker who drones on ad nauseum is an important responsibility of the meeting chair to prevent others from becoming disinterested and to provide them the opportunity to provide input. Conversely, calling out those who are not contributing at all is also an important chair responsibility.

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