How to Improve Those Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Virtual Meetings

Jake Wilder
May 20, 2020 · 7 min read

Simple Actions That Yield Significant Results

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

You just spent an hour hosting a virtual meeting. One hour of awkward silence and forced conversation. One of your team members somehow managed to post eight pictures of her dog to Facebook during your presentation. It makes you wonder whether, given this new virtual environment, it’s even worth hosting these meetings any longer.

It’s hard enough to run productive meetings in the best of times, but trying to foster engaging discussions with ten virtual participants is near impossible. Put people in a virtual meeting and everyone sees it as a license to multi-task. It’s much easier to check email, read some choice Medium articles, or take a quick power nap without the disapproving looks from others in the room.

Now, let’s not pretend that most of our in-person meetings were great either. They weren’t. But in those, at least you could rely on some coercive eye contact. People felt obliged to at least pretend they were paying attention. So even if people weren’t engaged, it wasn’t as obvious.

And this engagement’s critical. We hold meetings for three main reasons: you’re either looking to share information, gather input for a decision, or make a decision. Or perhaps some combination of those three.

You can’t achieve any of this without an engaged group. Yeah, maybe you can preach information while everyone else’s minds wander, but if that’s what you’re doing, save everyone some time and just send out an email. It’s not as though they’re going to remember what you’re blabbering on about.

It’s interesting that while people love to complain about meetings, they’ll be even quicker to complain if you stop inviting them. It shows that people do want to be involved. They’ll engage in a topic that’s engaging. And they’ll contribute their ideas as long as they feel safe to do so.

Which gives us all two targets for virtual meetings — give people something interesting to engage in and reduce the barrier to their participation.

“The secret of boring people lies in telling them everything.” — Anton Chekhov

The only thing worse than a boring meeting is a boring meeting full of PowerPoint slides. Nothing mentally checks people out faster than slide after slide of long-winded bullet points and mind-numbing data.

If there’s someone out there who enjoys looking at overly complex charts, I haven’t met him. And while some people may find it interesting to read bullet points from a slide while a narrator reads them as well, the majority of people equate this with low grade torture.

People engage when there’s discussion. And that doesn’t happen when endless PowerPoint slides put people into a catatonic state. Worse, if you’re always talking, other people aren’t. And as unfortunate as it may be, people get bored quickly if they aren’t talking or interacting in some way.

In one of my favorite books, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries discusses the idea of a minimum viable product. The premise is simple — create a product that lets you complete the build-measure-learn feedback loop with the least amount of development time. A worthwhile meeting parallel is to focus on minimum viable PowerPoint. Develop a presentation that provides a case for action with the least amount of data and slides.

The quicker you can move from presentation to discussion, the better chance that the other participants still have a pulse. Now you just need to make sure it’s interesting.

“There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.” — Michel de Montaigne

2001: A Space Odyssey is a tough watch. I know it’s a game changer for science fiction and yes, Stanley Kubrick is a genius. But trying to sit through nearly three hours of astronauts going about their daily lives or floating wordlessly in space makes me nostalgic for those drawn-out PowerPoint presentations.

The problem is that for the vast majority of the movie, there’s no conflict. There’s nothing to pull you in and engage with the story.

Conflict is interesting. Problems are interesting. Few things grab peoples’ attention like an unsolved riddle.

This same formula applies to meetings. Conflict draws people in. When you can give people a problem to solve, they’re more likely to move out of their observer role and become a contributor.

What problem do you need this team to solve? Instead of having an agenda with a list of topics, try making them questions to answer. Instead of planning a meeting around status updates, focus it on how to improve performance and recover to plan.

You don’t need to chair your own personal debate club. You just want an issue that the team can discuss and will foster some worthwhile back-and-forth.

And you already have these problems available. Just because no one’s talking about them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Pick a nagging technical issue, or a slipping schedule that needs to be turned around, or a cost reduction initiative that can’t seem to gain any traction. If nothing else, employ their efforts on how you can make your virtual meetings more engaging.

When people can spend their time solving problems, they’re more likely to see it as time we’ll spent. Which means they’ll be much more likely to stop reading random Wikipedia pages and start contributing.

“In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly.” — Mark Sanborn

When people consider whether or not you should jump into a group discussion, they’re likely going to make that decision based on two questions:

  1. Will they have something meaningful to add?
  2. And will their input be appreciated?

Despite what cable news may insinuate, most people don’t like talking just to talk. They want their voice to have some meaning. They want their input to be appreciated and taken seriously.

This creates a significant burden for virtual meetings. When you’re sitting in the same room as people, its easy to get a sense of when to jump into a conversation. When you’re limited to virtual interactions, you can’t make that initial eye contact and wait for a head nod. Instead of wading in slowly, people need to jump right in with their thoughts.

Absent these nonverbal cues, many people consider it safer to just stay quiet. Hence, the awkward pauses that now plague our virtual meetings. It’s critical to lessen these barriers if we expect people to offer their input. Mainly, we need to make sure they’re prepared, invited to talk, and appreciated.

Pre-work for meetings is one of those things that everyone hates in the moment, but everyone comes to appreciate later.

Having people read and consider a topic in advance helps them gather their thoughts and mentally prepare to discuss their views. It could be as simple as sending out the presentation with a detailed agenda. If people come prepared for a discussion, they’ll be comfortable speaking up in front of the group. Which means you’ll have less boring meetings.

People hesitate to chime in if they lack confidence in their answer. If you can set people up to think about their input in advance, they’ll be better prepared to voice their ideas. And less likely to defer to crickets.

If you’re having a medical emergency, you’re better off telling someone specific to call an ambulance than making a general request. When everyone’s responsible, no one’s responsible. This diffusion of responsibility lets people defer individual responsibility to that of the crowd. You can counteract this by calling on specific people.

“But I don’t want to embarrass people if they don’t know the answer,” you might be saying, if you’re the kind of person who argues with an online article. Good point. But you’re not calling on them to recite pi to 100 digits or test their knowledge of nuclear physics. You’re asking for their perspective. And everyone has a perspective.

Make it clear that there’s no wrong answer. In fact, the more diverse the better — it helps bring about better discussion and better decisions. Show people that you value their ideas and you’re interested in what they think. If they see that, they’ll be more likely to contribute.

The biggest factor in whether the next person chooses to speak up is how you treated the last person who did. If people recognize that everyone’s ideas are appreciated, they’ll be more likely to volunteer their own. It’s that simple.

Volunteering your ideas isn’t easy. Show people that you recognize that and appreciate it. Consider each idea. And thank them for offering their thoughts.

It’s not difficult. But it is crucial.

As our working environments continue to change, we need to adapt our own practices to fit them. While I don’t know what the future of work will look like, it seems a safe bet that virtual work, as well as virtual meetings, will continue to be a staple.

It would be a mistake to believe that we can continue to do the same things over a webcast and expect everything to be just as effective. You know where that path leads — awkward silences, frustration, and a poor use of everyone’s time.

The good news is that people do want to contribute. Use that to your advantage. Give people something interesting to engage in. And reduce the barriers that keep them from speaking up.

Given the horrific state of most virtual meetings, even the slightest investment will yield a substantial improvement. And while none of these actions are difficult, they will help people engage and contribute. Then you can sit back and let everyone else complaining about awkward pauses.

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