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Structuring Effective Virtual Meetings: A Counterintuitive Approach

Donald Cowper 07 March 2017 3 comments

effective virtual meetingsThis is a guest post from meeting experts Rick Lent and Nancy Settle-Murphy, the presenters of our free webinar on how to lead effective virtual meetings, which you can watch anytime you like

Wouldn’t it be great if all we had to do to run an effective virtual meeting is to use the exact same structures and techniques that we use for face-to-face (F2F) meetings?

Great for the meeting leader, maybe, but not so great for the meeting participants who have to muster every ounce of energy to pretend they’re engaged.

Sadly, many people run their virtual meetings pretty much the same way they run their face-to-face meetings, which, truth be told, aren’t that engaging to begin with.

After all, it takes a lot less time to simply ignore the unique challenges and opportunities of virtual meetings than it does to accommodate them. After several years’ worth of practice, many of us have learned how to design and lead virtual meetings that manage to get the job done, sometimes just barely. Even the most seasoned facilitators are still looking for that magic formula to keep virtual participants engaged and actively participating. 

We believe that the structures that work for great virtual meetings are many of the very same ones that work for successful, large, F2F meetings. Why? In large F2F meetings (think 30-100 or more participants), we need to keep everyone productively engaged, give them opportunities to speak and be heard, and sequence all activities perfectly to make sure everything gets done on time.

And, as is the case with virtual meetings, in a large F2F gathering, we often have little ability to influence or even observe what participants in the far corners of the room are doing.

Any effective meeting needs “good bones.” Supporting all types of meetings is an unseen structure that influences behavior, which is made up of various physical, temporal and procedural elements that influence how people talk and work together. Think of this structure as a skeletal framework, or the “bones” around which all activities and conversations take shape. By their very nature, virtual meetings pose different challenges and opportunities than F2F meetings, calling for different structural choices.

Here we look at five specific structures to consider as you design your next virtual meeting, all borrowed from large group F2F meeting best practices.

1. Start with a well-defined task

Sounds obvious, but most meetings neglect to use the power of a clearly-structured task to frame the discussion. The more well-defined the task, the more engaging and productive the discussion. A clear task is one that is focused on a specific topic with specific boundaries. For example, in the wake of a serious safety incident, a management team convenes a meeting to discuss “Last week’s safety incident.” Participants have no idea whether they’ll be reprimanded, lectured or quizzed. Most people come unprepared, apart from one or two who spent hours poring over historical safety data, just in case.

Imagine how much better-prepared participants could have been, and how much more productive the conversation, had the task been stated as: “What can we learn from last week’s safety incident that we can apply to improve safety in the future?” Since we have few opportunities to clarify confusion for virtual participants, we have to be exceptionally explicit right up front.


2. Make questions and directions crystal clear, both verbally and in writing

As is true for large F2F meetings, we must make our instructions and discussion questions clear and easily accessible. This is especially important when people speak different native languages, to ensure that everyone has the same understanding of what’s needed, even if they weren’t listening closely at first.

An example: Instead of asking for “feedback” on a new proposal, ask specific questions like: What do you like best about it? Where do you need more information? Without such specificity, participants tend to focus feedback on the negative vs. the positive. Try sending out important questions and directions in advance, and make sure to include them in the meeting notes as well (see section on visible note taking, below). Sending out questions in advance gives people more time for reflection, allowing you to jump into a spirited discussion at the outset.


3. Build in opportunities for quiet reflection 

Pausing for a moment of silent reflection can feel awkward, especially for virtual meeting participants, who can only guess what others are doing during a silent pause. (Did I miss a break? Is everyone else multitasking? Are people on mute?)

Still, building in time for reflection is essential to an insightful discussion. That’s because it helps to “level” the field, between those who dominate discussions and those who like to think before speaking; between those who speak the shared language fluently and those who don’t; and between those who feel self-conscious about offering opinions and those who just can’t stop themselves.

So, allocate time at critical junctures to ask a question and invite people to quietly reflect before responding aloud. Make sure the question is clear (see section above) and that it invites a concise response. Example: “Think about the top challenges facing our team when it comes to recruiting new members. Jot down a response or two, using up to three words for each one.” 

4. Provide frequent opportunities for each person to speak to the group

When we’re forced to listen to others for long periods of time, we become bored and easily distracted, almost without noticing it. But the more opportunities we have to contribute ideas or ask questions, the greater our level of engagement. That’s why we recommend that virtual meeting leaders avoid presentations (unless it’s compelling and concise) and instead, open up opportunities for discussion every 6-8 minutes to get some input.

One example: Do a quick “go-round” where you ask each person to share his/her thinking on the topic. (For example: “On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is low and 10 is high, how passionate are you about this new program?”) Be vigilant about keeping responses brief so you don’t short-change anyone if your time is limited.

Other options: Ask for a show of hands, without discussion. Invite a representative sampling of people to respond to a question, diplomatically keying in on those whose voices you haven’t heard much. If you’re using some kind of shared note-taking technology, invite people to key in responses or questions at the same time, and then invite a question or comment to someone else who wrote a particularly interesting response.

5. Record discussion notes visibly

One of the most effective ways to keep any discussion on track is to maintain a visible record of key points, including questions, decisions and actions. (Notes taken during the meeting to guide discussion should not be confused with the meeting summary, which is usually a different document that typically includes the discussion notes in some way, shape or form.)

Not all virtual discussions require the same kind of note-taking. For example, a brainstorming session might be best done with all participants contributing notes simultaneously using an electronic flipchart or a shared Google doc. A problem-solving session might be best aided by one note-taker who records ideas on a shared whiteboard or in an open document.

Regardless of the type of meeting, visible notes help confirm that ideas have been heard, something especially important to virtual participants who sometimes feel isolated. It’s helpful to provide a disclaimer and ground rules at the start of the meeting, such as: The note-taker’s job is to capture the key points of the discussion as it unfolds, vs. attempting a real-time transcript. Please refrain from making corrections out loud during our discussions, unless doing so will be crucial to ensure shared understanding. Otherwise, you can send the note-taker a private note with the suggested change.

These are just a few of the structural approaches to help ensure you're creating an effective virtual meeting. To learn more practical strategies you can use, be sure to watch our free webinar “Leading Great Virtual Meetings That Actually Get Work Done."  You can watch it for free here anytime you like. 

RickLent-smilingDr. Richard Lent has spent the last 20 years identifying structures for more effective meetings and coaching leaders in their use. He facilitates meetings around the world in business, non-profit organizations and communities. He received his Ph.D. from Syracuse University in Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation and is the author of Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success.  Rick's website: Meeting for Results.

IMG_4429_compressed_for_web - CopyNancy Settle-Murphy is the author of Leading Effective Virtual Teams by CRC Press and a renowned expert in the fields of virtual collaboration, global teams, and planning and running engaging virtual meetings. In 1994 she founded Guided Insights, where she continues to design and facilitate intense working sessions that tap into the best thinking of key contributors working across time zones, locations and cultures. Sign up for Nancy’s monthly e-newsletter, Communique, which is loaded with practical tips to help people collaborate more effectively, no matter where they work. Nancy's website: Guided Insights
Donald Cowper

Posted by Donald Cowper

Published Tuesday, 07 March 2017 at 10:00 AM


  • Michael Goldman, Facilitation First said:

    Tuesday, 07 March 2017 at 10:56 PM
    Hi guys. Thanks fir the article. My only feedback is that all of the techniques described are applicable to all types of meetings. They are in fact foundational. I find the biggest differences in virtual vs. F2F are two-gold; managing all of the parts of web based tech including chat and managing resistance specifically through 'tone' based indicators. Because we don't always have visuals. Thoughts?
  • Nancy Settle-Murphy said:

    Wednesday, 08 March 2017 at 2:42 PM
    Hi Michael, great question! You’re right that all of these are vital steps for ANY kind of meetings. But in the virtual world, where attentions spans (and meetings) tend be very short, coupled with lack of visual cues, certain of these steps are especially important in a virtual setting. In this article, we detailed how, exactly, one can take these steps when working virtually vs F2F. For example, when it comes to building in opportunities for quiet reflection, we gave tips about how to do this when you can’t assess understanding, agreement, interest, etc. through visual cues. When we mentioned the need to provide frequent opportunities to interact, we described how to employ tech tools as well as verbal “go-rounds.” Recording discussion notes can be done a number of different ways when working virtually, and we gave a few specific examples. For me, the greatest challenges in working virtually vs F2F include: the absence of virtual cues; the need to keep people engaged and away from multitasking; the brevity of virtual meetings, which leaves no margin for error; managing problematic behavior (much tougher when you can’t use your own body language or see theirs!), and before you even get to the virtual table, it’s finding that optimum blending of technology and verbal participation to help the group achieve its goals. After all these years, it’s by no means a cakewalk even now.
  • Rick Lent said:

    Wednesday, 08 March 2017 at 4:30 PM
    Michael, You are right, they are foundational. Too bad then that so many meetings are run without these basic techniques.
    When it comes to virtual meetings the situation is compounded. In fact I think of virtual meetings as the wild west of group engagement...we get away with all kinds of poor meeting behaviors and no one seems to be able to change things. But, these simple, foundational practices can really make a difference. What's more, they all work without requiring the adoption of new behaviors...they just naturally produce more effective participation and outcomes.
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