• Colin Doyle CFO

Better virtual meetings

By Cheryl Meyer

As organizations become more dispersed, virtual meetings are a necessity. Here are tips for overcoming distractions and technology glitches to help attendees interact successfully:

Use video if possible. Meeting attendees are more engaged when they can see what's happening. With the use of webcams, participants can usually see the facilitator's and attendees' faces on the screen, making it harder for them to zone out or multitask. "It keeps people on their toes," said Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., founder of the training and coaching firm Productivity Psychologist in Savannah, Ga.

Prepare and practice. Craft a detailed agenda with time allotted for various topics, and focus on what's important. State the objectives and goals, and why you are meeting, Gratias said. Distribute the agenda and other materials to attendees well in advance, and explain why they need to review them before the meeting. Practice your presentation, figuring out where you need to pause and when you should ask questions. "Be super vigilant about doing the prep work," said Nancy Settle-Murphy, a virtual collaboration expert who is president of the consulting firm Guided Insights in Boxborough, Mass. "Even for an experienced person, it can be hard to wing it."

Minimize distractions. Remind attendees to use their mute button, if necessary.

Keep it interesting. Try different tactics to maximize engagement: Include shared documents, employ multiple speakers, ask attendees pointed questions by name, present a few key slides, or conduct a poll.

Embrace technology. Meeting facilitators have plenty of options available for creating virtual audio- and video-based meetings, including BlueJeans, Cisco Webex, GoToMeeting, and Zoom, to name a few. Also, consider using online collaboration tools, such as SharePoint or online mind-mapping application MindMeister, Gratias said.

Stay focused. During the meeting focus on not only your presentation, but on what others are saying as well. "As a meeting leader, I physically clear my desk," Settle-Murphy said. "I take out a pen and paper to make notes of what people are saying, and I listen very deeply."

Set ground rules. Participants should agree on the ground rules, especially if the group meets regularly. For example, everyone must attend, be on time, stick to a timeline, read the agenda, say his or her name before speaking, stay on task, and minimize background noises such as crying babies or barking dogs. Facilitators then need to enforce these rules. "As a leader you have to set the tone," said Jennifer Brown, CPA, CGMA, consulting CFO at Iowa-based livestock-raising consultant NutriQuest.

Do your homework. When you attend a virtual meeting conducted by someone else, pay attention. Teach yourself by observing. "By doing this, you can create your own checklist for steps you want to include when planning your own virtual meetings — and things you definitely want to avoid," Settle-Murphy said.

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