by Kevin Eikenberry
Remember the movie, Alien? The marketing tag line was, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Well, the tagline for remote meetings might be, “On a conference call, no one can hear you check out.” Yes, all the names might be there on the screen as being present, but are they all really there? Or are they playing games on their phones, doing other work, or taking a bathroom break?
For leaders who have to conduct important team business remotely, keeping their audience engaged is a real challenge. Having led many virtual meetings, I’ve found five things that can help make a difference to increase participation and engagement, and reduce distractions for meeting participants.
Let everyone know ahead of time the purpose of the meeting.
Meetings aren’t uniform in purpose. Some are one-way, information sharing events. In this case, consider carefully whether or not everyone needs to be there and how you’re going to present the information. Just verbally rattling off a chain of facts and data may cause those on the other end to check out early. Consider using a video or other multi-media approach.
And if you’re just sharing information, adjust your expectations about engagement appropriately. You’re the one doing the talking, and if you do it well, it could be there won’t be any questions or comments. If you’ve let people know in advance the purpose of the meeting, they can adjust their expectations too, and engage accordingly.
Send everyone an agenda.
This is an offshoot of the first point. Not only are you sharing the purpose, you’re letting everyone on the conference call be able to track the progress of the meeting. It can also let attendees know when they’re expected to participate. Additionally, let everyone know on your agenda what the desired outcome is for each portion. Plant the objective in their minds before you start presenting. And don’t be overly ambitious with the amount of material you want to cover. This can kill engagement, especially as the meeting moves on, if people feel like participating is using up too much time.
Make it clear that you’re expecting people to participate. Too often leaders end up leading “dead” meetings because they don’t specifically voice that expectation. Ask direct questions and make sure you’re intentionally inviting, if not all, at least a large contingent of the audience on your conference call.
Design the meeting with participation in mind.
In face to face meetings, it’s easy to see non-verbally who wants to participate. That’s not possible without cameras in virtual meetings, and even then it’s more difficult. As I mentioned above, ask individuals specifically for input (“Pete, what do you think?”). If the purpose of the meeting is information sharing, it doesn’t all have to be you. Consider parceling out the reporting responsibilities to other members of the team.
Kill the mute button.
One of the “secrets” people have for checking out of conference calls is to turn on the mute button. That way no one else can hear their key strokes if they’re multi-tasking or other sounds that might give away their lack of engagement. Your team members will be less likely to engage “mute” if they know there’s a potential for engagement. It’s kind of embarrassing when you’re asked a direct question and your answer isn’t heard because you forgot the mute button was on. If you as a leader incorporate the above-mentioned ideas, you’ll give your team members a reason not utilize “mute.”
If you are successful in increasing engagement, you have to be more diligent in your role as moderator. “Talking over” people is a common pitfall in conference calls. When two people speak up at once, intervene and ask one person to continue then let the second person in next before allowing the discussion to continue. This makes people feel safe and heard — and improves the chances they will speak up the next time.
Your virtual meetings can be as productive and engaging as you plan for them to be. Now that you have some tips going forward, you can look forward to a much more participative audience on your next conference call.
If you’d like to learn more about leading effective virtual meetings, check out our excellent online training available. Or maybe you would benefit from us providing some on-site training for your managers and supervisors. We’re always here to help you be the best leader you can be.