Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Fixing Virtual Meetings?

Although the signal-to-noise ratio is regrettably poor, every now and then I get a random PR email that piques my interest. So it was with one titled “Workplace Story Idea-Study Shows Professionals Lack Virtual Meeting Skills / Avoiding 5 Common Pitfalls.”

It caught my eye because I’m seeing more and more attempts to run virtual events of various types. And, in my experience, even the best ones have problems.

In any case, the email in question was followed by a copy of the book The Hamster Revolution for Meetings by Mike Song, Vicki Halsey, and Tim Burress. It’s written in what for my taste is an overly cutesy style but it’s a thin book and a quick read that I got through in a short evening.

It gets into a number of common-sense recommendations for meetings: have an agenda, stay on course, schedule meetings for  less than a full hour, and so forth. However, a lot of the book deals specifically with virtual meetings. On the one hand, the authors make some good suggestions such as:

Technical glitches slow the flow.

Tip: If it's an important web conference, shut down and restart your computer before it starts. Arrive 20 minutes early and encourage participants to get there 10 minutes early. Do a sound, mute, and visual check with a colleague. Create a virtual meeting cheat sheet that lists all web and teleconference features such as "mute all" and customer service line. A free "tech glitch cheat sheet" can be downloaded at: http://infoexcellence.com/icfreelessons.htm.

(I believe this is called documenting around a bug.)

I also think they’re spot on about some of the problems associated with virtual meetings and events (even if some of  the suggestions related to this problem reflect the aforementioned cuteness).

Virtual distance makes relationships go cold.

Tip: Remote meetings make it harder to build warm productive relationships with colleagues. Adorn your presentation with photos of presenters and participants so people connect faces with names. Use the chat function to ask quick, fun questions of the team at the meeting's start to break the ice and get acquainted. For example: "Type the name of your favorite movie into the chat box."

However, much of the authors’ focus seems to be on making virtual meeting a more immersive experience. For example:

Participants email during your webinar.

Tip: Jazz up your visuals to distract them. Use web conferencing tools like Webex and Go to Meeting to turn graphics on instantly. Pepper your presentation with a parade of charts, slides, and competitor's websites to keep them engaged--and invite them to email comments at the end.

People tune out of web conference and chat on Facebook instead.

Tip: Transform your meeting into a social networking event by asking participants to use your web conferencing tool's chat function to comment in real time. You'll get great ideas, instant feedback, and lively, entertaining banter.

Web meeting fatigue is setting in.

Tip: Take a 5-minute surf break! Invite everyone to take visit a relevant, humorous, motivating, or topical business-appropriate website that you've bookmarked ahead of time. Examples include NASA's astronomy picture of the day site, motivational quote sites, or a site that features a fun quiz or survey.

Now, there may indeed be meetings in which it’s important to keep participants engaged as fully as possible. Perhaps it’s a brainstorming session for a new product launch. (Although, this is a case—as we recommend when we do consulting days with clients—where it really makes sense to do face-to-face if at all possible. There are also more advanced telepresence systems such as HP Halo that go way beyond web conferencing.

However, given that the book describes these as “common webinar pitfalls,” the insistence on maintaining single-tasking engagement seems misdirected. Sure, the occasional poll and the use of chat can help keep the session from being a pure one-way broadcast. But I have yet to see mechanisms to make web conferencing a truly interactive medium. And, given that even attendees at a real, live conference are multi-tasking more often than not, trying to force virtual interactions to be even more focused seems misguided.

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