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Silence in space: How to make virtual meetings more interactive

Do you, too, want to make virtual team meetings more interactive? Very often, tis is what happens:  You chair a virtual meeting, you present a few ideas, you ask for discussion and – silence in space. In today’s blogpost, I suggest a few solutions to this scenario. By the way, you can also listen to this as a podcast here:https://www.brainfood-for-leaders.com/schmooze-or-lose/

In over a decade of hosting virtual meetings, I found out the hard way what researchers also tell you: Between face-to-face interaction and online interaction there are far more differences than I initially assumed. Knowing these differences and taking care of them is key for lively online interaction. So – what differences are we talking about? And how can you take care of them? 

Use extra clarity for making virtual team meetings more interactive

To have clarity in a meeting – no matter if it is face-to-face or online – people need two things: A) clear signals, B) redundant information. In face-to-face meetings, much of this is given implicitly. In online meetings, however, you need to provide both – clear signals and redundancy – very explicitly. If people do not have that, they are rather uncertain about what is going on and when and how they can contribute. Clear signals let us understand:

  1. When is a good time to speak? When am I not interrupting someone who has not finished?
  2. Who else shares my opinion? Who doubts what I am saying? Who feels threatened?
  3. Between which other team members is a certain tension or conflict? How serious is it?
  4. How seriously does someone mean a statement? Who is making a joke?

60-80 % of all communication is non-verbal: facial expression, gestures, posture of the body, tone of voice, hesitation, change of breathing speed and many more signals, including even subtle changes of body smell. Often, people cannot label these signals. Yet, subconsciously, most of them base their interaction on the resulting gut feeling regarding the situation.

Even if we involve webcams, we only get some of the signals, which we would get face to face. So people have no clear idea when it is welcome or safe to speak and how they should best frame their statement. As a result, they remain silent.

The logical conclusion is: As facilitator, get the mandate from the others to address all issues mentioned under 1-4 more explicitly. Here a few examples for the corresponding numbers: 

How to provide clear signals in virtual meetings verbally

  1. Excuse me Tina, before you continue, let me just ask Sandra if she has finished
    Dan has made his point now – I am looking for reactions to this now
  2. Before we continue: Let’s have some more voices to what Irene just said
    (you can also ask every person to use the reaction tools like emojis)
  3. I am not sure if you, Adam and Ron, are already in agreement. Is there something we can do about it right now? Or do you two want to schedule another meeting 1:1?
  4. This is an online meeting, I am not getting all the clues here. In which sense did you mean what you just said? Just making sure…

Use redundant information for making virtual team meetings more interactive

Therefore, it is the other element producing clarity. Did you know that managers are distracted for 47% of their time? 70% even say they are not focused during meetings of any kind? In 2010, the Mindful Leadership Institute researched that worrisome figure.

When people have momentarily lost track in a face-to-face meeting, they can refill the lack of information by using at least three sources simultaneously:
1. The speaker / facilitator including all nonverbal signals,
2. Others in the room, including nonverbal signals e.g. if they understood what the speaker said
3. A visual presentation of the content on slides, flipchart or other media
4. And maybe there is even an agenda on a wall or on the tables in front of everybody.

In most online meetings, however, people can only use one source of information at a time.

If you hold an online meeting like a face-to-face meeting, someone who got lost for a moment very probably will not be able to refill the missing information. Usually, they also find it awkward to confess that they have no clue what everybody else is talking about at the moment.

Seven best tipps for making virtual team meetings more interactive:

  1. Give as many explicit signals as possible, especially regarding goals and tasks:
    – Create and share a clear agenda ahead of time.
    – Show the agenda on screen at the beginning of the meeting, also briefly read aloud.
    – Explicitly point out who has which role during which part of the meeting:
    (facilitator, expert, presenter, sparring partner, whatever).
    – Explicitly point out why you need to get which agenda issues done by when.
  2. Provide clear, explicit signals for discussion. I have 4 options for you:
    a) Initiate discussion with an attractively designed slide. Show that picture about every 5-10 minutes. With the picture, verbally invite people to discuss. You can also add a clever question (spoken and visible). Like the question of a talk show moderator.
    b) Initiate discussion via chat, using a clever starting question, spoken and visible.
    c) Buy and use one of the many available online voting tools. Prepare questions ahead of time and invite the team to vote when appropriate. Depending on the tool, you have many options from multiple choice over 1-10 rating, free text fields etc.
    d) Try asking groups directly: “What do the Dutch colleagues think?” and “Do the British agree?” It creates some pressure to speak, but less then when asking individuals.
  3. If you do something that the others cannot see, keep talking. Explain what you are doing, what they will be seeing in a moment and what they are expected to do with that.
  4. Use different slides than for face to face presentations – check out the podcast “presentations designed for online audiences” to learn more.
  5. Visualize whatever you or someone else is saying.
    – either have someone write discussion notes in the chat
    – better: use an online whiteboard or kanban board, ideally interactive.
  6. On the agenda, on the to-do list or any kind of notes use VERBS for clarity and redundancy. For example, the topic on a list shoul not be “resource plan” but “inform about resource plan” or “together create resource plan”.
  7. Operate with repetitions. At intervals, sum up what has been said by you or by others. Or ask team members how they would sum up what has been said, just to check if you are still all on the same page. In that case, announce at the beginning of the meeting that you are going to request these summaries from team members.

Add “social glue” to the “mental glue”

In another blogpost (“schmooze or lose”) I already mentioned another factor influencing online interaction. Let’s call it “social glue”. Social glue has a high impact on the motivation to focus on the online meeting so check out the tips, which I give there.

Carefully planned virtual meetings have advantages

Last note: Have you noticed? Carefully planned online meetings even have two advantages over face to face: A: they include shy people better as they can write rather than having to speak up. B.You can efficiently collect opinions of very big groups in a short time via voting tool.

If you want become a pro in online meetings, check out my related blogposts and podcasts. Or let me support your team directly. Find my offers for virtual teams here: https://www.drtheresiatauber.de/moderation-workshops-fuer-teams/workshops-fuer-virtuelle-teams/