Virtual meetings and video conferencing have been around for quite some time now, but everyone would agree that this year we’ve engaged in more than ever before. We adapted to uncertainty with aplomb, and powered ahead, making the best with what we had. We’ve downloaded unfamiliar software, found a way to remember 10 new passwords, and figured it all out.
Yes, we’ve figured it all out, except for that pesky little part about getting people to actually participate. That’s right. Virtual meetings have the potential to be more than just one guy giving a presentation, or meeting attendees reciting a list of their To-Dos for the week. Online meetings can be effective, engaging, and even fun.
At this point, a lot of us are used to waking up, logging in, and zoning out. Sure we “go” to meetings (and sometimes go to GoToMeetings), but what happens when we “arrive,” and do we really need to “wear pants” if no one can see below our torso? All kidding aside, yes. Yes to the pants, but also yes to paying attention and maybe even meaningful participation. There are indeed ways to get people involved.
You have the power to run effective virtual meetings. In fact, you’ve always had the power, Dorothy. But rather than click the heels of those ruby red slippers, all you need to do is rethink your approach and remember your purpose.
Why, why, WHY are you calling this meeting? Is it to receive input, inform team members of a change, brainstorm features for a new product? Think about what you want to achieve ahead of time, and then work backward to find a good way to get there. Lay out your own yellow brick road. If it looks like you know where you’re going, people will be more willing to follow your lead.
We’ve thought about online meetings a lot, and are always happy to share what we’ve discovered. Feel free to draw from the following eight great ideas about how to increase engagement and participation among virtual meeting attendees.
See Related: How To Fight Virtual Meeting Fatigue
#1 What’s the purpose?
Luckily, this question is not asking you about your own purpose in life or what the purpose of life is in general. Phew. You dodged a bullet there. This is simply a question of why you’re calling the virtual meeting in the first place, or, if you didn’t call it but are leading it, are you clear about its purpose?
If you did decide to call the virtual meeting, do you know why you need it? Maybe it’s so obvious that this question is annoying, or maybe this question seems annoying because it’s not actually obvious. Wait what? Sorry if that word salad just made things more complicated, but here’s the bottom line: all you need to do is ask, what’s the purpose of this meeting?
If your answer is, “well because, we have this meeting every Monday” then you probably need to go back to the drawing board, or whatever the modern equivalent of that would be (digital whiteboard?). Doing something out of habit isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it might not get people moving forward or inspired to innovate. If you need to get feedback from team members about messaging and the new ad campaign, then make sure it’s clear whether it’s an open brainstorming session, or if there’s only room for small tweaks.
If the purpose is to report back user experience stats, can these be sent with the agenda ahead of time so people can come prepared with questions? If you want a quick update from five team members you manage, but their work doesn’t necessarily have to do with one another, then maybe, just maybe, your meeting could be an email instead.
Before you schedule another virtual meeting and invite everyone to watch Fred’s presentation on signal processing plug-ins, ask yourself, does this require a meeting, and if so, whose presence and participation is required? Your team members will appreciate it when they see how you respect their time. And when Fred finishes his speech, hopefully he’ll receive a virtual standing ovation from people who actually understand that stuff.
#2 Check out this Check-in
Okay, so sometimes there is no way around those must-have meetings, either because the boss says so, or because they really do help set the expectations for the day. A lot of companies have “stand-up” virtual meetings or quick check-ins designed to let team members know what everyone else on the team is up to.
It might go something like this: each team member states what they worked on yesterday, what they plan to accomplish today, and if there are any obstacles or blockers in their way. There may be quick clarifications to better understand or remove an obstacle, but generally, the idea is for everyone to get a sense of who is doing what, and see if anyone needs help. It’s sort of like show and tell, except nobody brings anything and there isn’t a lot of smiling. But it doesn’t have to be so dull.
If you want to add a little something extra, here’s an idea. You can boost morale and ensure attendees stay engaged by adding “appreciation time,” where each person offers a compliment or appreciation of another team member. Make sure you let people know ahead of time that you’ll be doing this, so they can find out who their person to appreciate will be and can jot down something prior to the meeting. This is a great way to improve engagement and keep people listening. People appreciate being appreciated, and even if it seems a little forced or awkward the first time, after you try it a few times, the compliments will just keep coming. An attitude of gratitude can be contagious.
#3 You can’t always fix it in post
There’s a phrase in filmmaking that annoys editors to no end, and it’s: “We’ll fix it in post.” Basically it’s when a filmmaker has messed up a shot, but rather than reshoot it, they assume it can be figured out in post-production where an editor presumably waves a magic wand and rights all wrongs. The point is, if you can plan and execute something as you originally intend, then there shouldn’t be a need for following up on a million loose ends. As a general rule, it’s best to prep a few minutes before every online meeting.
While planning a meeting isn’t exactly movie making, it does help to set the scene and prepare your script before you begin. Send out an agenda ahead of time if the meeting has complicated ideas or data to discuss. Ensure everyone has the information they need to make well-informed decisions and stay engaged.
In virtual meetings just as with traditional in-person meetings, people sometimes lose focus because they can’t comprehend what’s going on. Many of us do better when we can sit with information for a while first. If you want to keep attendees attention, make sure they are well-informed. A primer prior to the meeting is much better than going over everything again afterward, and “fixing it in post” as it were.
And if you don’t plan things out ahead of time or stay on top of details during the process, well, that’s how you end up with a Starbucks coffee cup in an episode of Game of Thrones. Or maybe that was more of an oversight by the Script Supervisor or Prop Master? I’m not sure, but they’ll fix this paragraph in post.
#4 Delegate good times, come on!
If you’re the boss, team leader, or frequent meeting facilitator and are tired of talking to a bunch of boxes in virtual meeting after virtual meeting, imagine how your employees feel. They might be drained and distant and doing their best not to nod off. Maybe it’s not that bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s that good either. Why not feed two birds with one seed (the kinder, gentler version of the old saying), and hand off the controls to a co-pilot?
Sharing the role of facilitator with another team member shows that you trust others in the group to lead and want to encourage people in their professional development and skill-building. If you want to really mix things up, have a rotating facilitator each week. That would let attendees take the reins in a real way.
It could encourage introverts or those who are slightly shy to step out of their comfort zone. If you do decide to have other team members lead a virtual meeting or become a keynote speaker, make sure they understand and are comfortable with their role. Provide them with tools, tips, or tricks to make the virtual meeting move along smoothly, or see what they bring to the table using their own ideas.
Acting as facilitator will not only keep that individual actively participating, but having someone new who does a lot of the talking might get people to take notice. Perhaps it’s just because people pay attention to anything different, or it could be because this new facilitator is able to get people to participate throughout the meeting without ever nodding off at all. Success!
#5 Say their name, say their name
One way to encourage participation in virtual meetings is to ask for participation. Seems obvious, right? But rather than simply asking “any questions?” at the end of a statement or meeting, it’s important to call on people. Someone may be sitting there with an idea, but doesn’t think it’s important enough to share.
If you call on a few meeting participants with more pointed questions, you’re likely to get better feedback. And, here’s a key part, when a person hears their own name it immediately sends signals to their brain to be on alert. It’s also a great way to get everyone on the team to pay attention since they could be up next.
Hearing your name perks up your ears and gets your heart pumping a little. And if you don’t know when it’s coming, you’re likely to be listening for it. There are several regions in the brain that become activated when a person hears their name (as opposed to other people’s names), which suggest that hearing one’s own name provides a unique brain response.
There are cognitive and emotional attachments we have to our name, and when people use it, we’re disposed to perk up, pay attention, and participate. Science! Now…wouldn’t it be interesting to know if hearing your first, middle, and last name all together triggers activity in the “am I in trouble” lobe of the brain?
#6 Help attendees stay anchored and present
An anchor is meant to hold you steady, not drag you down with it, according to some words on a pillow I saw once, and also probably sailors. Even though we are physically distant from each other in virtual meetings, we can still find ways to be present and connect with fellow employees.
One way to help everyone get mentally prepared and focused is to start with a physical exercise. There are a variety of options to get meeting attendees moving, but physical anchoring is a practice that helps people be present and arrive in a space, even if it’s at their own desk. You could lead the super short session yourself, or use those newly developed delegating skills and have another team member take over.
A physical anchoring exercise starts by alternately shrugging and relaxing your shoulders, and stretching your neck a moment. Next, slowly stretch your arms up, like you’re trying to touch the ceiling. Then open your arms wide, out to the side, trying to take up as much room as you can as you do little arm circles in each direction.
Of course, you can mix up or add to these motions, but the main point is to get circulation going and help people fully occupy the space they’re in. When that happens, people should feel more comfortable and free to participate.
Here’s a video with an example, as well as some other tips for virtual meetings that make for better online group engagement.
#7 Break the ice, and let it flow
If you have a small team or group whose virtual meetings occur multiple times a day, an ice breaker isn’t essential every time. However, for most virtual meetings, it’s a good idea to begin with a check-in to connect on a more personal level. An icebreaker can get attendees to open up, which will likely keep the conversation flowing more easily throughout the meeting.
There are as many ideas for icebreakers as there are virtual meetings in any given month, which is somewhere around what seems like infinity. You can try playing Two Truths and a Lie, in which team members try to pull one over on one another, or Would You Rather, or share a fun fact, or literally any (work-appropriate) question to get attendees talking. Whichever approach you take, you’ll encourage participation, and maybe even lighten the mood.
#8 Watch how it’s done by a pro
If you’re a person who learns by watching and wants to observe someone who knows how to get people to participate, you should think about bringing in a professional virtual entertainer for virtual meetings. A professional meeting facilitator you ask? Well yes, I answer. It could be a meeting facilitator for a year-end town hall type meeting, an emcee for an upcoming event, or a clean comedian for a virtual awards ceremony to keep the spirits up.
In addition to the service provided, you’ll be able to pick up some excellent examples of how to get attendees to participate. A professional Emcee or Clean Comedian can completely revive virtual meetings and events. It’s a wonderful way to increase participation amongst team members, since a professional knows how to read the virtual room and crank up the intensity if the energy starts to slip. Remember the lessons from #3 on this list, and be sure to prepare a plan for your virtual meeting ahead of time alongside the professional facilitator you hire.
Keep Reading: 5 Ways To Effectively Lead Virtual Team Meetings
Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speaker.