Setting up online meetings for engagement

Photo by Compare Fibre / Unsplash

Why do so many online meetings suck? People muted, cameras turned off, low levels of engagement or attention from participants. Is it that we don't know how to run good engaging meetings? Have we slipped into some uninspiring norms? What does it take to create an interactive and engaging meeting online? What's the best example you've experienced of an engaging meeting?

I like to think about this in terms of meeting culture and how you establish the cultural norms for your meeting. All meetings have a culture, reflected by a mix of the convener's and participant's cultural expectations, practices, and behaviors starting from the first moment they come together. You as the convener of a meeting are in the driver's seat, you can take the wheel and help create a positive and contributory culture for your meeting. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.

Let's look at a typical 1-hour meeting, you're going to lose the first 5-minutes waiting for people to arrive, so why not build some structure into the convening. One way to build a bit of meeting culture is to ask people to record their names in a shared document. Most people know their own name, and most people can type, so this act, isn't really about their name, it is about the norm you're forming for them to contribute via their keyboard. This is just one example of many ways to invite collective participation and set this up as a norm or expectation of the meeting. It is much easier to ask people to contribute to a shared document at the beginning, and when you've activated participants in this way you're likely to have more participation throughout.

When pulling together your next meeting you can think about a few dimensions of the meeting which can help you to build a more dynamic meeting experience, and develop a meeting culture that is rooted in an expectation of and openness to engagement:

  1. Invitation – what are you asking people to participate in? In advance of the meeting can you help potential attendees build expectations for what and how the event will take place? Will you be expecting participation, how can you signal this without scaring away attendees? Consider asking people to come prepared to share something with the group and setting a soft expectation of their own participation when you invite them along.
  2. Convening – When you do come together, what intentionality will you bring to the act of convening these people together at this moment? If I want people to use a shared document I often ask them to do something simple like type in their name on the document. Then I ask them to respond to an ice breaker. This is the act of Whakawhanaungatanga, or coming together and relating. It is a moment for you as the meeting chair, facilitator, or leader to set the tone for how contributions happen in the meeting.
  3. Collective Thought – One of the most amazing possibilities for online meetings, to me, is the magic when we have 10s of people on keyboards in front of computers together, able to share their thoughts in parallel. We can parallelize their ability to think and contribute, all it takes is a good prompt. Using a shared document, miro board, or other collaboration tools, we can create spaces for this collective thinking. This takes a bit of practice and some intentional work before the meeting to consider how you will prompt contributions from the participants. Will you ask them to react to a prompt? Maybe you'll break them out into small groups. There are many ways to go here, but the key question I ask myself is "How can everyone with an idea contribute it via their keyboard and/or voice during the meeting?" Much of how a meeting is able to move at the speed of collective thought comes from the norms you form in your convening step. The best meetings like this create so much content, that the document becomes an excellent artifact of the meeting and a source of much collective wisdom.
  4. Experience – When I think about meeting experiences of attendees, in advance of a given meeting, I try to think of how the meeting might be experienced by different attendee archetypes. Will the more shy speakers find ways to type their responses on their keyboard? Will the overly vocal be allowed to speak, but guided to contributions in more parallel forms like shared documents or chats? When people leave the meeting, how will they feel? Do I have some control over this in the way that I set the mood at the beginning of the meeting? Are there any red flags I should be considerate of in advance so I can head them off if I see them? Overall, a productive, engaging meeting is about feeling that you've had connections and shared ideas with others. Will your Invitation, Conventing, and Collective thought exercises help send participants away feeling these human connections?

Start with something easy, their name, this sets an expectation of contribution, gets them to see others type content while they're typing, and sets the mood for parallelized contribution. After people have contributed their names, keep them typing. Try having an ice breaker or discussion prompt they can respond to. What's your favorite vacation spot? Who's your favorite author? What's the best flavor of ice cream? Are you a coffee, tea, or soda drinker, how do you take it (eg. 2 sugars and cream)? This furthers the normalization of typing contribution. Ok, we've got people typing ideas at the same time. We now have the opportunity to parallelize thought!

With some simple pre-prepared discussion prompts in a shared document, you can have a highly engaged meeting, soliciting contributions from participants. You have a written log that can be used to prompt discussion. This is a meeting that takes its own minutes.

Jonah Duckles

Jonah Duckles