Hopefully, one of the positive effects of remote working is that meetings have been pared back to what’s strictly necessary. This has probably helped everyone’s productivity. But there are still plenty of meetings going on (judging by the number of Zoom fatigue posts and articles doing the rounds).
And we shouldn’t forget that meetings sometimes have a value beyond their immediate purpose in helping to build team cohesion and identity. This often comes out of the small talk and casual asides, both of which can become casualties in the world of online meetings.
It’s also harder to make spontaneous interjections when it involves unmuting or catching the eye of the chair from your tiny corner of their screen. Meetings risk becoming a more passive experience for many participants.
So here are a few tips that might help everyone feel more engaged, and make meetings more productive and maybe even enjoyable.
Try to Shake Things Up
The normal approach is to have a conventional structure: here’s the agenda, here’s who’s taking the lead on each item, chip in if you have any comments. Is that the best way to get everyone’s input in an online meeting?
Why not be creative and look for opportunities to get people to speak or participate in some other way? Maybe circulate questions in advance and ask for verbal feedback on these during the session. This could stimulate debate and interaction and get more ideas and different perspectives out on the virtual table. Participants will be more actively engaged with the subject matter.
Keep tabs on the time though. This type of exercise can easily run away with you if you’re not careful. When I use this approach I explicitly set a time range for the discussion. Don’t be afraid to let it run on for a couple of minutes though (if the content is very good), or cut it short if things look to be drying up. Better to end on a high and cut it short before it loses its momentum.
Try to summarize what was said and by who. People will definitely stay engaged if you set yourself a challenge to accurately summarise their input. It also recognises their input – and who doesn’t enjoy that!
Get Slides Off the Screen Quickly
It’s likely that you’ll have to do a bit of screen sharing to show slides and visuals. Leaving these on the screen when they’re not needed can cause engagement levels to drop off. Get them off ‘shared screen’ as early as possible and let people see one another again. You can always flash the visuals back up again if somebody wants to pick up on a particular detail.
It’s important to guard against people disengaging and getting distracted by doing another task (like checking email or social media) when they think they’re out of sight or if that part of the meeting doesn’t interest them.
More positively, having faces rather than slides on the screen helps improve engagement with one another. That is especially important in these times of so much social isolation and home working.
If slides or other visuals must be shown for a significant portion of the time then try to make them more engaging. One of the easiest ways is to ‘build’ them so that when your key message changes so do the slides. Of course this is good practice in any situation, and is particularly important when working remotely.
Another great way to keep people engaged is to ask them to pose questions to one another about themselves or the topic being presented (whichever is most relevant). You could even set up a couple of quizzes or polls.
Explicitly ask people for their thoughts, rather than waiting for them to offer opinions. You should only do this if you know they will feel safe to be explicitly asked. By exploring thoughts and opinions everyone learns something. This could potentially help identify where to focus your next session or the remaining time within the existing one.
My final tip: keep it short. In my experience 30-45 mins is the optimum length. Any longer and you should think about a break so that people can rejoin the conversation feeling refreshed.
Did you read the title of this article and tune in hoping for a magic bullet that would transform every presentation and client meeting into a sure-fire winner? Sadly, life is never quite that simple. The only advice I can offer to make sure you never fail is to never set objectives for the outcome in the first place.
Fortunately (or not), this is the approach that many businesses seem to adopt - even if not by design. They don’t set objectives for what they want to get out of a client meeting so, by definition, they cannot fail. But, even if risk of failure can’t be eliminated, there are steps you can take to make it much less likely.
Most businesses find it easier to accept the need to set objectives for what they want their clients to get from meetings and presentations. Most tell me this is blindingly obvious – ‘we are just presenting a business update,’ or ‘we want to secure the contract.’ Too often they are content to leave their measurement of success at these bland and non-measurable levels.
Accurately measuring whether a session was successful from the presenter’s perspective needs far more detailed consideration. The presenter will (or should) have put a lot of effort and preparation into the session. Probably there are considerable rewards on offer to them personally or their business. Defining what success would look like calls for a detailed plan of objectives that match the importance of the event.
What Might Your Priorities Be?
When it comes to priorities and objectives, it’s impossible to generalise. They will be specific to the client, contract and the depth of your existing relationship. The sorts of things you could target are these:
Itemise what you need to achieve from the session and you can then add appropriate trigger statements or questions to the presentation or discussion.
Structure Your Desired Outcomes
Instead of coming out of a client meeting and convincing yourself that it ‘went OK,’ try to add a bit more structure to your evaluation. The way I do this is to explicitly write down what I need to achieve – probably no more than 5-8 things – sometimes fewer!
I then rank these. I set myself a base of what I absolutely ‘need’ to achieve and I expect to be successful in realizing these at least 80-90% of the time. This sets the lowest level of success I would be satisfied with. It could be whether I communicated my key messages to the audience and confirmed this based on feedback (both verbal and non-verbal) during the session.
Assuming I achieve the base level of “Must” the next level up is my “Intend” level. These objectives should be achievable anywhere between 50-30% of the time; they are becoming much more of a stretch.
Finally, I have my “Like” level. These are the things that I only succeed in getting 5-10% of the time. When absolutely everything goes to plan and the audience or client I’m with is 100% attuned to what I’m saying. You could look at this as being the ‘magic wand, all the stars aligned level.’ But it still helps to shoot for the stars.
Hopefully, this type of structure will help you plan to get more value from meetings and presentations, and have a clearer idea of whether you’ve actually made progress.
And don’t forget, the same applies to internal meetings where your goal might simply be to elevate your profile and standing with colleagues and stakeholders. Understand the outcome you want and plan how you will make it happen.
I wonder if there’s a tendency to believe that different rules apply for online presentations. Maybe it’s tempting to think that unfamiliarity with the technology or the environment gives you a little leeway if things aren’t quite as professional as normal.
If that was ever true, it was only for a very short period of time. And why take the chance of looking poorly prepared or, worse still, not that bothered? The world has got tired of telling each other that we’re ‘still on mute.’ And ‘I hope my screen sharing works,’ is wearing a bit thin.
Online presentations are a fact of life for many of us. And they are likely to stay that way. I don’t see many clients clambering to give up the convenience and efficiency even when we no longer have to socially distance.
Opportunities to Connect With More People
Looked at more positively, you have even more opportunities to make an impression and build relationships through virtual face-to-face meetings, without having to waste days of your working year driving or flying to client premises. So maybe it’s a good idea to brush up on how you present a professional and calm image on screen.
When working from home we are (quite literally) letting people see a part of our lives that they have probably never seen before. It’s a window into our private lives.
So what will they learn? First rule: make sure there's nothing you don’t want them to see. Study your picture on the screen. Look past yourself to the background of walls, ceiling and floor because what you see is exactly what they see!
Consider the height and angle of the camera on your pc. This should be set at approximately eye level. You are then looking at people ‘on the level.’ You’re not straining your back and they’re not looking up your nose or at your ceiling!
When I started doing a lot of video calls I propped my pc up on books to get the camera to the correct height. This was OK for a few weeks but it was hardly doing it properly. I now have a stand and I’ve acquired another keyboard so that the setup is more stable. Little details that the audience doesn’t see but which make the whole thing look more professional and natural.
Control the Lighting
Next question: where is the light coming from? Try to get as much natural light shining on your face as you can. Having a window or outside light source to one side or behind you is likely to mean your face is at least in partial shadow. People won’t be able to distinguish your facial features very well. Even remote cameras aren’t very good at allowing for such light contrasts.
Placing yourself close to windows comes with potential challenges. For example, is it a window that people walk past regularly? What if they walk past and try to get your attention by waving or the like when you’re in the middle of a serious conversation? If they are behind you might they become a distraction to your audience?
Kids photobombing online conversations make great viral social media clips but is it really what your clients want to see? It’s an unwanted distraction at the very least.
Dress the Part
For any video call I always wear a work or formal shirt. It puts me in the right frame of mind for the call. Wearing formal work clothes is my norm – it isn’t for everyone I know, but it makes me feel right and I hope it also creates the right impression with the work colleagues, customers, stakeholders that I’m communicating with.
Just like a face-to-face meeting I always prepare my notes for the key messages I want to get across and I also set my own objectives for what I want to achieve from the call. The next thing I do is close any programmes that I don’t need during the call and open any that I do. I’m then not using unnecessary memory from my pc - as using the video does - as well as eating into the internet band-width. Having the programmes open that I do want means I can find them quickly and easily, making me look prepared and professional.
Working over the internet has one risk that’s harder to control: whether the technology will remain robust throughout the call. No matter how good the internet connection is normally, when you most need it it lets you down. This could be either a complete failure and loss of connection or buffering – so that the audience loses your picture or part of the words you are speaking.
Unless they tell you, you will not be aware. So I try to have a co-host work with me so that if I lose connection they can tell me and, if necessary, they can take over while I reconnect.
Like any presentation or meeting, the secret of success often lies in the preparation. Online meetings and presentations are now a standard part of working life for many of us. So let’s keep our standards high!
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.