With restrictions resulting from the new coronavirus outbreak, virtual meetings and videoconferencing will become more common and important. Be it a work-from-home environment or simply being unable to travel to another city or attend a conference, virtual meetings can take many forms. They can be smaller online meetings like staff meetings or committee meetings. Or they can be larger virtual conferences or webinars.
It’s no surprise that people find regular, in-person meetings to be draining and frustrating. (The 2019 State of Meetings report puts the cost of bad meetings at nearly $400 billion per year.) Although virtual meetings have the advantage of allowing people to more easily attend meetings – with no need to run between rooms, floors, or cities – it can also be more difficult to do video conferences well.
There are, of course, a ton of virtual meeting platforms. Online meeting software includes videoconferencing solutions from providers like Zoom, Cisco WebEx, AnyMeeting, Slack, BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Zoho Meeting, Google Hangouts, and Join.Me. While these online meeting software platforms have their individual pros, cons and unique quirks, their common videoconferencing capabilities present shared meeting challenges.
Certainly, it’s one thing to present to a small group of four people in a manageable virtual meeting where you can all see each other. It’s an altogether different beast to do a webinar or big virtual event with hundreds or thousands of people. In a small setting or even in a bigger room in-real-life, you can read cues and body language, gauge a room, and keep people accountable when you’re in front of them; that’s harder to do in online meetings.
Tips to improve virtual meetings and videoconferences
So, what are ways to improve virtual meetings and videoconferences? How can you make a virtual meeting or webinar better? As a professional meeting facilitator and trainer, here are a few tips and best practices to help you be a better presenter in online meetings and webinars.
- Maybe the most important, foundational question with video calls and virtual meetings – as with in-person ones – is the one we often skip: Should we even meet? And, in a related vein: Do all these people need to spend time in a videoconference rather than doing something else? Are there attendees who can drop into the video conference for a short time, do his or her presentation, and then leave without needing to be in the virtual meeting for an entire hour?
- Just because it’s so casually easy to bring people together in a virtual meeting these days doesn’t mean one’s approach to running and presenting in one should be as casual. The people watching you on a video call or webinar don’t need a keen nose to determine if you have a meeting agenda and know where you’re going. Remember, if there are a dozen people on your call and 30 minutes of your own prep time could have reduced the online meeting to 30 minutes instead of 60 minutes, that’s six hours of your individual colleagues’ time you could have given them back.
- On a related point, a lot of the online meeting tools that enable us to connect at a distance basically replicate the same dysfunctions of in-person meetings. If you’re having bad, boring, unproductive meetings in person, it’s only made worse by doing them virtually. If people nod off and the room feels lethargic during an in-person meeting or presentation, it’s probably not going to improve as an online meeting.
- In a way, people presenting in video conferences need to try harder and be more engaging than they would in-person. Especially with bigger virtual meetings and conferences, it’s very easy for attendees or an audience to drift into another browser tab, get sucked into their phones, or decide to fold laundry instead. There’s often less accountability with online calls.
- We know that people chronically underprepare for meetings and presentations. Yet, the people to whom you’re speaking want to feel like you’re respecting their time, even if they’re sitting at home in their slippers. The reality is that most presenters who are speaking for 30-60 minutes are not going through the dozens or hundreds of hours that a TED presenter might do for a watchable 18-minute talk. It’s really hard to deliver a half-hour or more of compelling content. Think about ways to not burden an inexperienced presenter with the weight of being engaging for a long period of time. Or plan to practice a lot more.
- Remember that other humans are more interesting for us to look at than presentation slides. And we get information from looking at presenters and how they’re speaking, not just hearing them. We feel more connected to and invested in someone talking to us. Slides and visuals can be helpful, but don’t forget to show your face and actually make it a meeting between real people who are interacting.
- Faster, more seamless presentation formats may adapt well to online meetings. Think about what a tight TED talk looks like to a viewer versus a typical presenter wandering through a PowerPoint. Or think about adapting Pecha Kucha or Ignite talks. With their rapid 15- or 20-second chunks and short timeframe, they force the audience to stay engaged. Because information comes rapidly but succinctly, it minimizes frustrating, wasted time.
- Think about soliciting more feedback and interaction from your virtual meeting’s audience. This is just generally a good practice to be in, but keeps people engaged and less likely to meander into some other task. It could be a poll, or stopping at the 10-minute mark and asking for questions versus waiting until the full hour is over to solicit feedback. It could be a more collaborative presentation where you ask for ideas or stories from the audience. Maybe you unmute someone and have that person talk about an example or recount a case study. Again, try to avoid hanging one poor person out to dry – especially if that person if yourself – for 30 or 60 straight minutes. That’s a really tough assignment to do well online or offline.
- It’s more engaging to see someone present in front of a room than to just be a floating head at a desk in a webinar. In real world meetings and conferences, the presenter is usually standing and moving. Yet, with video calls, we tend to sit stationary. If you’re using a camera on your laptop, try to mount it on a standing desk and stand in front of it for video conferences and webinars. Even if the audience still only sees you from the neck up, there’s inherently more engaging motion and action when someone is standing versus sitting.
- If your video screen doesn’t give you the feed of how you appear to other people, you may wish to put a mirror in front of you to remind yourself how you’re coming across. Especially when we don’t have the energy and feedback from real people in a room, we can lose our own energy; seeing one’s self can be a reminder to smile, add that energy, or gesticulate more in online meetings.
- Allow yourself to go low-tech even when the video conferencing software you’re using is high-tech. In other words, sometimes using a whiteboard, holding up a printed page, or displaying a model can be much faster, easier, and more effective than trying to get additional online meeting tools to sync documents or virtual screens. Don’t let online meeting technology dominate when it may only complicate.
Yes, online meetings present unique challenges. However, with a little bit of thinking and a little bit of prep, most meetings – online or in-person – can be improved. And while you may find that you’re getting more practice doing online meetings and presentations than you would have thought, taking a few steps to make them better today is inevitably a good habit for all meetings. And your videoconference audience will certainly appreciate it too.