Friday, June 19, 2015

How to encourage engagement in virtual meetings?

Virtual meetings are here to stay. Increasingly, organizations in our sectors are promoting the use of online web conferencing and web gathering tools to organize learning events, team and project meetings, information sharing sessions, etc. Budget cuts, the increasing availability of technology solution, and the way we are more and more working in decentralized, virtual teams, all ask for online meetings that are well designed, facilitated, and engaging.
webinar by Jules on Flickr

So how to make this happen? What are the options and techniques to make a virtual meeting more productive, participatory and engaging?

To explore this questions, yesterday I joined a webinar organized by CORE Group and the Knowledge Management Task Force of the TOPS FSN Network. Even if it was late at night for me, I was very happy I joined the event. Both the conversations that emerged, and the way the event was designed, were a great learning experience.

Virtual meetings are… 

Even if I joined the meeting few minutes after it started, I immediately knew I was in the right place. A slide in the middle of the screen was asking me “When you think about virtual meetings, what’s the one word and feeling that comes to your mid?”. And the answers I was hearing from the other 20 plus KM and communication professionals that were in the room, they all resonated well with me.

Virtual meetings can be unpredictable. For as much as we may like virtual meetings, there’s always the possibility of a technical failure. Your keynote and presenter may be late or not show up, or you may have a lower attendance that you had expected. Users may not be familiar with the conferencing platform, making it more difficult for them to engage with the technology and the other participants in the event.

Virtual meetings can also be very demanding, with a lot that goes into preparing and delivering, in terms of time and manpower. You need at least one producer, a chat host, a note taker and an MC. Sometimes these roles can overlap, but it works better if the various tasks are split between different people.

On the other hand, virtual meetings are a necessary, and they’ll be even more in the future. And they allow a great deal of experimentation in the way you bring people together to interact online. 

Engaging participants to speak up 

We were brought into separate breakout rooms according to the answers we had provided to a pre-event survey. While one group discussed how to create engaging content for webinars and online meetings, in the room I was assigned to, we looked at options to stimulate participants using their microphones. Different techniques and approaches can be used to make this happen:

  • Users’ need to know how to open their microphone, so sending some pre-webinar information on how this work may bring you a long way when they have to start interacting. 
  • There’s a clear and understandable sense of ‘fear’ when talking to a group of strangers online that you don’t know and can’t see. So creating trust amongst participants and a safe environment for everyone to feel comfortable with is very important. 
  • The use of breakout rooms is an excellent way to create safer and more intimate spaces for conversation, where participants may be less afraid to contribute their opinions. 
  • Also a progression through different means of communication can help in building trust. You start with introductions via chat, then move into breakout rooms, and then in plenary. 
  • If you want participants to contribute, have clear, open ended questions they can relate to and engage with. 
  • Most important, don’t be afraid of silence. There’s often a few seconds where nobody wants to speak, that awkward, short but long moment of silence. If you’re the facilitator, let it be. Eventually someone will take the floor. 

Preparation, design and facilitation are the key to success 

The webinar was very practical and participatory from the very beginning. The organizers had gathered our inputs before the meetings, and this info was used in defining the questions we addressed in plenary and in the the breakout rooms.They also made great use of the conferencing technology (Adobe Connect - the platform we use ourselves for online and blended meetings), using polls, chats, different meeting layouts and progressing swiftly through various techniques and tools in facilitating the session. Moreover, they made attendees take responsibilities for facilitating parts of the session and reporting back to the whole group.

It’s true that the participants make the webinar, and a webinar is good only as the participants engage with it. But what yesterday's webinar demonstrated to me once more is that investment in preparation, event design and good facilitation techniques are the things that will make or break your next virtual meeting.

I’d love to hear what are your obstacles in producing and facilitating virtual meetings, and what you’ve learned from your own experience. Have something to share? Please drop a line in the comments below here!