Online Meetings That Sizzle (Really!)

For more than two years, we’ve been running online meetings, attending online meetings, making online presentations, and participating as audience members in online presentations. And I’m sure we’ve all seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I’ve been delivering online presentations since 2009, so I have a lot of experience in this area. Of course, online meetings and presentations didn’t become mainstream until 2020, when COVID-19 forced so many people to work from home for the first time. And now, with so many people still working from home, it’s become more important than ever to run online meetings well.

Of course, this isn’t only about online meetings. But after two years of a global pandemic, I think we’re romanticising the idea of being in the office. You never hear people say:

‘Oh, I get Zoom fatigue from days of back-to-back online meetings. I just can’t wait to get back to the office for those days of back-to-back meetings in person!’

That said, online meetings offer some unique challenges. Here are five ways to lift the quality and outcomes of your next online meeting.

1. Understand the challenge!

In a physical meeting room, the environment works in your favour. People turn to face the speaker, their slides show up on a big screen, you notice when others aren’t paying attention, and people have set aside the time to attend.

In an online meeting room, it’s exactly the opposite. People are interrupted by kids and pets, they are distracted by other things in their environment, it’s easy to do other things secretly, and their time isn’t dedicated to the meeting. In fact, the meeting they are attending is just in a tiny flat rectangle on a laptop screen in the middle of everything else in their life.

That’s the biggest challenge you face with online meetings, which is why it’s even more important to lift your game.

2. Accept their frame of mind

We never really know what’s going on in anybody else’s head, but at least in an office you probably have a better idea – from their body language, interacting with them during the day, and so on. But with an online meeting, it’s not so easy.

In an online presentation last year – while most of Australia was struggling with another COVID-19 lockdown – I asked attendees to tell me how they felt at the time. We put their answers together into this word cloud:

It’s nice to see a lot of optimism, but there are also people who are ‘languishing’, ‘isolated’, and ‘ok…ish’. Don’t assume everybody is feeling the same way as you – especially if you’re upbeat, positive, and optimistic.

3. Schedule for 45 minutes

Many meetings are scheduled for an hour, but I recommend you set them for 45 minutes instead. You can probably get through the meeting agenda in 45 minutes as well as you could in an hour.

More importantly, many people have back-to-back meetings (sometimes all day!), and many of those meetings are scheduled at the top of the hour. If yours is only 45 minutes – or even stretches to 50 – they have 10-15 minutes before their next meeting. That means they are less likely to be distracted and multi-tasking during your meeting.

4. Let people drop in and out

If you have a clear agenda with start times for each item, allow people to attend only the parts of the meeting that are relevant to them. For example, if a senior leader is attending only to present some news, she can ‘drop in’, present, answer questions, and then leave.

The same applies to other attendees. Don’t force everybody to attend the entire meeting – especially if you’re recording it. Most offices don’t have a culture of people regularly ‘dropping in’ to in-person meetings only as required. But with online meetings, it’s easy.

5. Step out!

If you’re the most senior person in the room, consider whether you should attend at all. People with higher perceived status (that is, you!) tend to dominate a discussion, and others are less confident to express their opinion or disagree with you. Like baby ducklings staying close to their mother, they don’t want to stray too far from you.

Even your presence changes the meeting’s tone and direction. Unless it’s essential to attend, stay out of the meeting and simply ask for the outcome. Or just attend at the beginning, say what you need to say, hand over the online hosting rights to somebody else, and leave.

Finally, be an avocado leader.

In June 2020, when COVID-19 was in full swing, Macquarie Business School and We Are Unity surveyed senior leaders in Australia about the way they were handling the pandemic, and identified the things most successful leaders prioritised. They coined the phrase ‘avocado leader’ to describe a new leadership style for successfully navigating through crisis.

Like an avocado, this kind of leader has both a hard inner core (the commercial focus on business outcomes) and a soft outer layer (the empathetic people skills).

Apply this to your meetings – especially your online meetings. Your meeting has important business outcomes, but it also needs emotional intelligence to lead people.

Plan from the head and lead from the heart.

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