It is hard enough to get participation in large meetings of, let’s say, more than 15–16 people. When these meetings become virtual, it gets even harder to engage people. Too often, these large meetings consist of one presentation after another, and even if you ask for questions, what you get in return is silence. Crickets. Over time, this gives the impression that your organization is run completely “top down” with information being force-fed into people almost against their will. Worse, all the really interesting conversations happen after the meeting when you don’t get to hear them.
Here are six tips to help you improve engagement and participation in virtual meetings. All of these suggestions will take time; you can use one or several or all of them together. (The more you use, the better it gets.) If you’re willing to plan ahead and make the investments necessary to create a participative meeting, you can change your meeting culture for the better.
Polls work because people can respond anonymously. They are ideal for fairly sensitive questions. For example, you could ask, “How enthusiastic are you about our expansion on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 is ‘Not enthusiastic at all, I’m dreading it’ and 7 is ‘This is wonderful news, I’m excited!’
You can get the results of polling in the meeting in real time, to take the pulse of your audience, and you can steer the conversation accordingly.
Questions intended for use in chat.
These responses are NOT anonymous, so don’t use chat questions to get at sensitive material (see above). One creative way to do this is to tell people you want to produce an FAQ on the subject. Ask them to put in the chat the questions they think other people will have. This gives you the chance to answer those questions in the meeting. You probably DO want to produce an FAQ document if you get a number of questions, then circulate it as follow-up to the meeting. At least you know you are answering real questions.
Another way to use chat is to ask a specific question of the group. “Do you think we should do X or Y?” is a better question for a group than a general, “Does anyone have any input?”
Who is speaking?
Distribute different speaking roles on the agenda around to different people to make presentations. This is especially valuable if people can hear about something from one of their peers instead of from “the boss.” When the messenger isn’t always the leadership, it builds the understanding that initiative is coming from many places in the organization.
Plant questions in the audience.
Before the meeting, think of a set of legitimate, even tough, questions and then recruit 4–5 people to ask these questions in the meeting. It breaks the “fourth wall” problem where people listen passively. Once your recruits get the ball rolling, often others will follow suit.
Let people know ahead of time that you are going to highlight an accomplishment of theirs, so they can be prepared to turn on their camera and respond. This pulls members of the “meeting audience” into the spotlight (and they will dress up from the waist up)! Ask them to say a few words so they have a speaking role.
Try to create a “cameras on” culture for your virtual meetings. You can do this by requesting it generally at the beginning of EVERY meeting, but you can do more. Make sure that everyone in leadership, all the recruits, and anyone who can be a role model is asked in advance to turn their camera on at the meeting. That will give you a nucleus of people who are on camera.
Consider doing all six of these techniques for meetings that are really important to your organization. When you create an active, engaged meeting, your people will thank you.
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