Creating an effective virtual meeting. Introducing Jackie Black.

Jackie is an expert digital communications and virtual team working trainer, who has kindly shared with us her top tips for leading virtual meetings and building virtual relationships within your team.


Virtual communication: What’s the big deal?

Whenever I run a training course on meeting skills I always ask, “What makes an effective meeting?” and after a short reflection participants come up with some key success factors, like a well-written agenda, or good time-keeping.

My follow-up question is this, “So, what makes an effective virtual meeting?” Of course, they come up with a similar set of factors since the two are so closely linked. The main difference seems to be that effective virtual meetings demand twice as much planning and effort than face to face meetings. Facilitators of virtual meetings also seem to need to be twice as mindful when managing this type of meeting, it’s not as easy as you might first think!


So, what does it take to become a good facilitator?

Face to face meetings can be a real challenge, especially if time is limited and decisions need to be made. In a virtual environment this challenge can become even greater. The facilitator must have a keen eye on the time, allow everyone to participate and ensure that a consensus is reached whilst simultaneously managing any technical issues that may arise.

Obviously, it goes without saying that a good facilitator will have a well-prepared agenda which will be circulated in advance and any technical issues will have been minimised by thorough checking of equipment ahead of the meeting. However, facilitation involves significant use of soft or interpersonal skills too.

I’d like to touch on a few aspects of virtual facilitation, which I believe are important for those who are new to the virtual environment. Even if you have been facilitating face to face meetings for years, virtual meetings are very different to host.


Building virtual relationships.

Being able to develop and maintain virtual relationships with team members is a vital starting point for any virtual facilitator. This may require getting individual team members to introduce themselves and establish relationships via social networking pages, which the facilitator sets up or the facilitator can encourage people to create personal presentations which provide a snapshot of themselves for the kick-off meeting. There is a vast array of collaboration suites to explore which may also work well with those younger members of the team who are more engaged with social media.

Knowing what information will get people to ‘connect’ with each other is also important. It could be that the team will work well based purely on shared technical knowledge. On the other hand, there may be a need for a more personal insight. A facilitator will only start to understand how the team functions best by listening carefully to how the team interacts and by asking for feedback from individuals and the team as a whole on how they feel the relationship is working. It is therefore a good idea to allow time for regular feedback of this kind at the end of a meeting. And, of course the importance of small talk should never be under-estimated.


What it takes to an create effective virtual meeting.

In the first part of her blog, Jackie discussed the importance of virtual meetings and how certain steps must be taken in advance of the meeting to ensure that the team are all on the same page. She also introduced her ideas around what she thinks it takes to become a strong virtual leader, starting with building virtual relationships.

In the second part of her blog, Jackie talks about how to keep people on board during virtual meetings, effective communication strategies, managing diversity and native speaker traits.


Keeping people on board

Once a strong relationship has been built and the facilitator is confident of maintaining it, there is a danger that meetings will become routine, even dull. The facilitator really must make an effort to keep the team engaged with the meeting at all times.

This involves a range of skills from the handling of talking time, to the use of attractive visual aids to keep people’s attention. It is so easy for team members in different locations to be distracted by phone calls or colleagues around them, so it is a wise idea for the facilitator to establish a set of meeting guidelines and ask the team to respect them. This will hopefully keep everyone focused on the task in hand.


Communication strategies

In a virtual meeting the use of voice becomes critical since it is the only element of our personality we can convey. It sets expectations for the meeting and can have a lasting impact on your team, so pay attention to how you use your voice.

Make a real effort to vary the pitch, avoid filler words such as “erm” and keep repetitive language to a minimum. People respond better to a warm and friendly voice, a voice in which you can hear the smile. They are often prepared to trust that voice even if they’ve never met the person.

With a distinct lack of visual cues to assist them, virtual facilitators rely on communication strategies such as active listening, clarifying and reformulating far more than in face to face meetings. In this case, non-native speakers need to build up a stock of phrases to help them manage this area of communication effectively.

There are of course other communication strategies which help facilitators run meetings successfully. A change in pace is always good, but by far the most effective, is the use of questioning.

Facilitators who ask questions which involve all the meeting participants are more likely to keep them focused and encourage discussions.

Questions have many uses and varying the form will undoubtedly produce more interesting results. A good facilitator may employ overhead questions directed at the whole group first, followed by questions aimed at specific people. There will then follow a variety of open questions to stimulate debate and closed questions to summarise or obtain agreement.

Hypothetical questions can be used to get someone to reflect on how they would handle a particular situation and reverse questions will allow the facilitator to throw a participant’s question back to the group to be answered.

The significance of silence is also something which must be considered. In certain situations, silence can signify disagreement, or even anger. In others it is simply a pause for reflection. However, one must not forget it could also signify confusion or incomprehension.

It is the duty of the facilitator to interpret this silence and deal with it accordingly, but a word of warning – don’t be in too much of a hurry to fill the silence yourself as it may be valuable thinking time for everyone.


Native speaker issues

One of the most difficult aspects of facilitation is that of dealing with the native speakers in the meeting. All too often it is the native speaker who causes the most communication problems through speaking too quickly, using idiomatic expressions, or simply having a very strong local accent.

Dominance by native speakers needs to be kept to a minimum and the facilitator should monitor this carefully otherwise the meeting may become one-sided and non-native speakers will feel excluded and their levels of engagement will fall.


Managing diversity

Virtual meetings are often attended by people in different geographical locations and from different nationalities. This means that there will always be an element of cultural diversity which the facilitator needs to be aware of and handle accordingly.

For example, some people expect meetings to be very task-focused and get frustrated with those who enjoy small talk which they see as inconsequential chatting. In some cultures, the facilitator is seen as wholly responsible for making the decisions and consequently may find participants take a relatively passive role in the proceedings.

Preparation for such meetings therefore requires a certain amount of information gathering. It is always handy to know if the nationalities involved have different (perhaps conflicting) attitudes towards meeting protocol, timekeeping, or even degrees of tolerance towards conflict.

In addition to the cultural differences which may affect the way a meeting runs, there is the matter of diverse communication styles amongst the team. Some people prefer a more direct approach to discussion which may make others feel uncomfortable. The role of the facilitator then is to optimise the leverage these differences provide and encourage individual team members to adapt to this diversity and use it to create synergy. Once again, this is something I feel is best done at the kick – off stage of a project when members of the team should lay their preferences on the table. It saves a lot of time in the long term!

In summary, if you wish to become a strong virtual leader, preparation is key. You need to be prepared to lead your team meetings in a positive, proactive manner and effectively handle any situation that may arise during a meeting, be that confusion, disagreements or feelings of exclusion. As well as understanding your team well enough to ensure that everyone gets the most out of the meeting, preventing people from losing interest.


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