Tips for Holding Effective Remote Meetings

04/14/2020
by Tina Manzer

Since social distancing became our way of life, there has been a surge of virtual meetings among people who normally communicate face to face.

Businesses, civic and church groups, friends, families and neighbors are using platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts to come together to make decisions, solve problems, or strengthen relationships. Done right, online meetings can be even more effective than in-person meetings. A study conducted by Harvard Business Review revealed that 86 percent of participants in a remote meeting reported as high or higher levels of engagement as in face-to-face meetings.

But there’s catch: facilitating engagement is difficult, and not every leader of a meeting has that skillset. “Poorly run group discussions are a serious concern even in normal times,” says Howard Tiersky, author of Impactful Online Meetings: How to Run Polished Virtual Working Sessions That are Engaging and Effective. “In times like these, they can be disastrous. It’s crucial that leaders get meetings right, right away.”

Here are a few of Tiersky’s tips that you can apply in your next virtual meeting – whether it’s with employees, vendors, customers or service providers.

Build social bonds

Meetings are held to share information, brainstorm solutions, coordinate activities, and assign tasks. But in order to work well together, remotely located people need to build social bonds. It’s more important now than in “normal” times, because everyone feels very isolated and disconnected.

“The more you can build a sense of community right now, the better for everyone’s emotional health and work performance,” says Tiersky, who suggests that more frequent virtual meetings may be a solution. “A well-run meeting can actually be a bright spot in an otherwise dreary and depressing day.”

Establish the mood up front

When they arrive, attendees are coming from a wide range of emotional “spaces,” some of them negative. Take control of their mindset and mood by encouraging casual conversation before the official start time. Avoid awkward silence dominated by a side conversation between just a few of your group on the line.

“If you were face to face, you’d start out by chatting about sports or vacation plans,” says Tiersky. “You can’t NOT acknowledge the pandemic – it wouldn’t be authentic. The trick is to keep topics around it as positive as possible. Don’t let it overrun everything. You might ask if anyone has a funny story to share, or if they’ve seen creative ways their community is pulling together or giving back.”

Keep your purpose front and center

Make sure you know what that is ahead of time. Before you hold a meeting, identify your “why” and stay on message. You might say, “Today’s goal is to plan a schedule for the next 30 days. We can take turns answering the phone, picking up mail, and accepting shipments. It’s important to maintain relationships with our vendors, customers and community so we can transition quickly and easily to ‘business as usual’.”

Have people introduce themselves

It’s necessary when people don’t know each other, but even if they do, it’s helpful if individuals can provide a 60-seconds-or-less presentation about the headline in their life right now, advises Tiersky. “This can be an interesting exercise, especially in extraordinary times.” According to a study by Slack, a chat room app for entire companies, workers who share a funny or embarrassing story about themselves with their co-workers produce 26-percent more ideas in brainstorming sessions compared to workers who didn’t.

Keep the cameras on

Turn an audio call into a video conference, and expect a 200-percent-plus improvement in the effectiveness. With their cameras on, people remain engaged because they know what they’re doing is visible to everyone else. These days, most of your participants will have sufficient bandwidth, and nearly all computers have cameras.

Strategically sequence activities and announcements

The first item on your meeting agenda should be a restatement of the purpose of the meeting. After that, strategize the sequence of your activities.

  • If there are any “elephant in the room” topics, deal with those early or they will be a distraction.
  • If you have a fun or exciting announcement to make, you may want to hold it until the end. Let the participants know it’s coming, but keep the outcome a surprise to create suspense.
  • If an agenda item is intense or may create some heated discussion, put it in the middle. Get people warmed up and feeling productive first and then hit them with the challenging topic.

Find creative ways to keep people engaged

  • Polls: many online meeting platforms have the ability to issue multiple-choice polls and then show a graph of participant responses. The same can be done with chat questions.
  • Presenters: make everyone a presenter, even if you simply ask them to read a slide to the group.
  • Breakouts: breaking people up into smaller groups to do work creates more participation. Several of the major online meeting platforms including Zoom and Google Hangouts now offer breakouts.

Assign a task to everyone

It’s possible for one person to present content, facilitate questions, ensure the meeting stays on time, and take notes, but why? There are others who can take on some of these responsibilities. Seek to distribute the roles of facilitator (responsible for running the agenda), presenter (responsible for sharing specific units of content), timekeeper (watches the clock and alerts facilitators and presenters how to adjust their speed and content), and the note taker (documents the meeting).

“If you have a standing meeting, it can be rewarding to rotate these roles to different members of the team for each meeting,” says Tiersky. “Or, you may discover that someone ‘finds their home’ with a particular role and wants to play it on an ongoing basis.”

Gear up with a good headset

If you will be participating in or leading online meetings with any regularity, Tiersky recommends purchasing a headset that you plug into your device’s “aux” port. It will make your voice sound both clearer and richer and will eliminate more of the background noise. Furthermore, if you are using a laptop and plan to type at all during the meeting (for example to take notes), microphones embedded into laptops amplify typing noise, which can be distracting to those on the call (and make it sound like you are multitasking even if you aren’t). This problem is largely eliminated with a headset.

Keep your background visually clean and professional

Pay attention to what is behind you in the shot. Ensure the background is neat and professional. Alternatively, some tools such as Skype for Business will blur the background or allow you to automatically insert a substitute background. Avoid very bright areas such as a window on a sunny day as it may put you in shadow.

Avoid accidentally sharing sensitive documents or revealing a messy desktop

“If you’re going to be sharing your screen, close extra open applications, confidential documents, email, or other material you would not want to reveal,” says Tiersky. “If you have one of those desktops with 10,000 random icons on it like me, either clean that up or maximize the presentation screen so the audience will not see that mess.”

Sharpen your presenting skills

  • Use story: talking in bullet points puts people to sleep, so find a way to make your content into a story.
  • Keep it brief: look to the meeting outcomes to determine what the audience really needs to know and present only that.
  • Vary your tone: change up your pitch, rhythm, and volume. It will make your presentation more interesting to listen to.
  • Use body language: This can help you tell your story.

Record your meetings

One highly valuable capability of web conferencing platforms is their ability to automatically record meetings for playback later. It’s useful for participants who may have to miss the meeting, and others who want to capture all the action items. “I often listen to missed meetings at 1.5 times speed on playback for greater efficiency,” says Tiersky.

Use “chat” to help facilitate discussion

The “chat” function on your online meeting platform can serve as a queuing system when people need to speak. Ask them to type “I have a question” and wait to be recognized by the facilitator. That way, everyone can see how many participants wish to comment.

Wrap things up with a polished completion

Leave time for at least a two-minute “ending” during which you remind everyone what the objectives of the meeting were and to measure progress against the objectives. If the team fell short, indicate what the plan is to address the remainder. Thank the participants and especially anyone who presented or made a particularly big contribution, and ask the rest of the group to thank them as well. Applause is perfectly appropriate.

“As a result of the coronavirus, the concept of ‘business as usual’ has gone out the window for most organizations,” concludes Tiersky. “But it gives us all an opportunity to learn more about virtual meetings and the ways to make them most effective. In the long run, it will help strengthen your business or organization and prepare it for the future.”


Howard Tiersky coauthored Impactful Online Meetings with Heidi Wisbach. He is also the founder of two companies that enable large brands to win in the digital world. His clients have included Verizon, NBC, Nutrisystem, Viacom, the NFL, Facebook, Spotify, and more. Visit impactfulonlinemeetings.com for access to helpful supplemental resources

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