Online meetings have a bad reputation for being full of technical problems, strong personalities, going in too many directions and having unengaged participants. In this episode, I give my favorite tips for hosting great online meetings.
Facilitation tips and techniques
For most of us, meetings are a regular part of the way we do business. The same holds true for remote teams. However, the quality of online meetings is usually subpar, to say the least. There is a lot that we can do as facilitators of remote meetings to make them go more smoothly and to enhance the overall quality.
- USE GREAT EQUIPMENT. If you want to run great online meetings with smooth communication, you simply need great equipment. This means investing in a good headset, a good microphone, and a good camera (for yourself and/or for your conference room).
- ARRIVE EARLY AND TEST YOUR EQUIPMENT. In person, we can slide in at the last minute, sit down, and be present. If you try to do that online, chances are that some piece of your equipment won’t function. With online meetings, we simply have to plan for tech time. The bonus part of this is that arriving early gives you some social time with other early participants. Some teams make it a part of the meeting.
- START WITH AN ICEBREAKER QUESTION. Icebreakers get everyone talking before the meeting starts And science shows that if people have spoken once, they are more likely to speak again. The second benefit is that it gives people time to get to know each other.
- DEFINE YOUR ETIQUETTE. Are there behaviors you want to encourage during your meeting like putting yourself on mute when not speaking or raising your hand to indicate you want to speak? Establish meeting etiquettes before the meeting starts.
- USE ELMO. ELMO stands for “Enough! Let’s move on.” In remote meetings it can be difficult to verbally interrupt each other. ELMO is a card that you hold up when you want to let people know that you are ready to move on to the next topic.
- MAKE SURE EVERYONE GETS THE CHANCE TO SPEAK. A good facilitator makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard.
- SELECT PEOPLE TO ANSWER QUESTIONS. often in a group meeting will say ‘okay does anybody want to answer this?’ and then you either get a bunch of people talking on top of each other or you get crickets. So one way of solving that is to ask somebody to respond and also remember that it should be perfectly okay for that person to pass on answering the questions, some people feel very uncomfortable when they are called upon and put on the spot so they should have the option to just say ‘I’d prefer if you go on to somebody else at the moment.
- USE A BACK CHANNEL. In video conference calls, it can be handy to share information with each other while someone is speaking (links to references, or asking for clarification). Chat functionality lets a team communicate with each other without speaking or interrupting.
- KEEP THE TIME. A good meetings starts on time, and ends on time.
- USE PARKING LOTS. When topics come up that are not on the agenda, use a virtual parking lot.
- KEEP PRESENTATIONS TO A MINIMUM. In online meetings, presentations can be especially difficult to focus on for long periods of time. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes of presentations and then plan a more engaging activity like a group discussion, poll, or breakout session.
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- The seven secrets of successful virtual meetings by Penny Pullan | PMI
- Sign up for the Collaboration Superpowers newsletter to get our “36 Great Tips For Online Meeting Facilitation“
- Virtual icebreakers – great ways to break the ice during an online meeting.
- 11 tips for hosting problem free online meetings (blog)
- Live In Greatness Core Protocols – a way of checking in with people before and during a meeting.
- How to Manage Your Meeting Parking Lot and Assign Action Items – by MGRush
- E.L.M.O. – ELMO stands for “Enough! Let’s move on.” Everyone has been in a meeting where someone went on too long and it was difficult to interrupt. An ELMO card is a friendly, visual sign that shows you get the point and are ready to move on.
- Judy Rees recommends starting meetings by asking “What would you like to get out of this meeting?” It brings everyone to the here and now and focuses them on where they’re at and why they’re there.
- Pilar Orti recommends “A long silence after, ‘Is there anything that anyone wants to say before we move on?’ is the best tool you can find for checking in.
- The ultimate guide to remote team meetings via Miro
Lisette: Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers podcast, my name is Lisette and I am interviewing people in companies doing great things remotely.
Hey everyone thanks for being here, today what I want to talk about are some of the tips that I collected about how to be a good online meeting facilitator. For most of us meetings are a regular part of the way we do business and we’re having meetings all the time with various colleagues, whether we are remote or not but I think that there is a lot that we can do as facilitators of remote meetings to make them go more smoothly and to just enhance the quality overall. So that’s what I’d like to discuss today. Now I want to give a tip that applies specifically to online meetings but not necessarily to facilitation but I want to say this because it’s so important and the more I give workshops the more I realize that most people don’t have great equipment and if you want to run great online meetings and you want to have smooth light weight communication, you simply need great equipment to make that happen.
What I mean by great equipment is for one have a great headset, have a noise cancelling headset so that the person can hear really well and so that the people listening on the online meeting can’t hear the person really well. But on top of that using modern computers with modern browsers and modern apps, make sure that you’re not still in the stone ages with the kind of equipment that you’re using because online, it makes a big difference. Okay so you get the idea use great equipment, now let’s dive into some specific online meeting facilitation tips that I have come across and the first one is sort of a social facilitation tip which is to arrive early if possible and appropriate, arrive five to ten minutes early and that way you can catch the other people that are coming on early and sort of build in personal time that way or if it’s something that’s part of regular meetings then your team knows that you’re on early and will often join you. So those that want the personal time have a way that is already built in to the meeting and those that want to just start the meeting on the regular time also have that option, so that’s the nice thing about this technique.
Next I really encourage starting with an ice breaker question that’s for two reasons one is that so that everybody gets a chance to speak and that’s very important because research shows that if a person has spoken once during the meeting that they are more likely to speak again. So just the opportunity for everybody to go around and introduce themself with a favorite question like favorite food, favorite holiday place, favorite smells. These short small questions can help you really learn a lot about each other over time and they are quick. So the point of an ice breaker is to be very quick about it and have everyone say something about it. You can also get more elaborate with icebreakers tools for example [inaudible – 03:18] who’s on episode fifty two of the podcast built virtualicebreakers.com. So if it’s appropriate and your team needs it then you can do a more extensive icebreaker to help build trust and bond the virtual team. This is great for new teams or as a fun way to get to know each other, when you’ve got somebody new who’s just joined the team, one meeting facilitation tip that’s gaining popularity is one that I learnt from Mark [inaudible – 03:46] who interviewed in episode number nine and Mark taught me about the technique called Elmo, which stands for enough let’s move on and the idea is that everybody on the team has either a sticky note or a piece of paper or maybe a cut out doll of the Sesime street character Elmo and when they raise that that’s an indication that they’ve had enough and would like to move on in the meeting. This is good for those situations where you have strong personalities in a meeting and sometimes it’s hard to get a word in edgewise and sometimes you get it and you want to just move on. So to have a way of visually indicating that you’d like to move on this can be very useful. Now I admit that it can be awkward to start in the beginning, people feel a little bit hesitant for showing that because they feel its rude but these are the kind of meeting protocols that you can establish in advance and the more that people are used to it the less mean it becomes and it becomes just an indication of feeling because we all miss those social cues sometime and some more than others right.
The other facilitation technique that Mark highlighted; make sure that everybody has the chance to speak. As a good facilitator it’s important to scan the room when you’re in person and of course I think of it as scanning the room when I’m online, we use zoom for most of our online meetings which allows you to see everybody on video at the same time. It’s sort of a brave bunch view on the screen and it’s very nice for meeting facilitation because you can see how everybody is doing. You can see if somebody is tired, you can see if somebody is raising their hands, you can see if somebody wants to speak because of the way that they use their breath. So making sure that as a facilitator that we give people the room to speak in a meeting. Now when you are using video there can be very easy indications that you want to speak, one could be that you simply raise your hand and people know that you want to speak or you can also use a back channel which is another tip. So in a back channel you can actually write things or you can post links, you can indicate if you want to speak, so that back channel can be used for wider things as well. Very simply it’s used for asking questions without interrupting the conversation and I also recommend it for teams that have multi-lingual teams, where everybody is speaking a second language. Having a back channel can be very useful for people to ask questions about what was said or what the translation means, these kinds of things. Most online meeting tools offer some sort of back channel but it’s easy enough to set up Skype or an instant messaging system, just a way for people to be able to communicate via text, it can be important. Now I consider the responsibility of an online meeting facilitator to set the rules of the meeting and then also enforce them. So for example on the Happy Melly team we have a rule where if you’re not speaking then we ask that people mute themselves, this cuts out a lot of background noise and of course you run into the problem of people forgetting to unmute themselves when they want to speak these things just happen and its quick enough to solve, but it’s up to your own team to set which meeting rules that you’d like for your own meetings and it’s up to the facilitator to encourage that those rules are followed. I think another important role of the facilitator is to keep the time and make sure that meetings don’t run too long for example or that perhaps there is a break that’s needed. The physical break where people stand up and do something, look outside a window to get that vision, focused on something that’s far away instead on having being focused on the screen that was up close and by keeping time I also mean that all the things on the agenda have a place in the meeting and that there is room to speak about everything. Now along with keeping time there is also keeping on topic because sometimes meetings can start to diverge on to a number of different things and go off in a number of different directions. So there is something that we call the virtual parking lot where all of the [inaudible – 08:01] topics go to wait until their turn. So sometimes things will come up in a meeting you put them in a virtual parking lot and then at the end of the meeting you have reserved five or ten minutes to address any of the items in a virtual parking lot. This is a way that you can keep the agenda and also keep deviations in check so that they don’t overpower the meeting.
So another great rule for an online meeting facilitator to follow is to keep presentations to a minimum and if you’re going to present it all then to make sure that you have some sort of video component to the presentation because without a video component it quickly turns out into a webinar and those are inherently and by nature boring because we can’t see each other, no matter how great the information is or how engaging the slide is, when we don’t have the video component it quickly becomes easy to get distracted. So keep presentations to a minimum and use video, one of my favorite presentation tools for online presentations is personify which allows me to project an image of myself in front of my slides, it’s just a 3d camera that sits on your computer and projects you inform of your slides on the screen, very easy to use, great tool, complete increased engagement during presentations and not very expensive. So if you’re giving a lot of online trainings or presentations I highly recommend you check these guys out, personafied.com and no I don’t get paid by them, I’m just a true super fan and if you want to learn more about them I interviewed them in episode number thirty one. Okay so after keeping presentations to a minimum the next tip is to select people to answer questions, often in a group meeting will say ‘okay does anybody want to answer this?’ and then you either get a bunch of people talking on top of each other or you get crickets. So one way of solving that is to ask somebody to respond and also remember that it should be perfectly okay for that person to pass on answering the questions, some people feel very uncomfortable when they are called upon and put on the spot so they should have the option to just say ‘I’d prefer if you go on to somebody else at the moment.’ So that way pointing to a person doesn’t become an intense thing but rather when we are online it’s a way of starting a conversation that’s not chaos or crickets.
So the last tip that I have for online meeting facilitation meeting is at the end to sum up any of the action items or topics that were discussed, so people really get a chance to process the information and now I’m going to do the same thing on this podcast. I’m going to sum up some of the tips that we’ve mentioned today. So from the top, use great equipment, arrive early and build in some personal time, start with a quick ice breaker question, use Elmo and have a way of indicating that you want to speak, making sure that everybody gets the chance to speak, having a back channel, setting rules and enforcing them, keeping time and using a parking lot, keeping presentations to a minimum and selecting people to answer questions and sum it all up.
Okay there’s a couple of extra resources I want to recommend that first is a website called lucidmeetings.com and they help online meeting facilitations through a number of templates that you can use and their software, I haven’t interviewed them yet but I recommend checking them out and the second resource is a flyer that I’ve put together called thirty six great tips for online meeting facilitation and it’s a pdf that you can get on the website on the page for this podcast and this is episode sixty seven of the Collaborations Superpowers podcast.
Once again thanks for joining I really appreciate that your here, if you want to get in touch visit collaborationssuperpowers.com. Stay tuned next week when I interview Colleen Johnson the co-founder of Scatter Spoke which is a tool that helps conduct remote team agile retrospectives. So we talk about the tool and we also talk about some of the tips that they use on their team for successful remote working which is to minimize multitasking, setting clear expectations and giving feedback so stay tuned for this one. A huge thanks to the ever awesome Nick the podcast monster who produces this podcast and makes it high quality, thanks Nick. You can hire him to make you a star at podcastmonster.com. Alright everybody until next week be powerful.