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Four tips for leading online meetings

“Remember, technology doesn’t make things easier; it just makes them possible. The good news is that with more meetings being held virtually, we have more opportunities to improve these practices as we go about the work of getting things done in the digital age.”

— Rachel Smith

A person leading an online meeting

With online courses, in-home offices, and community groups finding new ways to connect, conducting meetings online is definitely trending. How to do it well, though — now that's the trick! Here are four tips to grow your skills and confidence for leading meetings online.

Check in

Let’s be honest — because online meeting participants aren’t in the same room, it’s easier for everyone to get distracted. Leaders need to be intentional about engaging everyone to serve the meeting’s purpose.

Start the meeting with a question that gives each person a chance to speak. In addition to setting the tone for active participation, this helps the group get to know the voices of people in the virtual room. The question could be a personal check in — “What made you smile this weekend?” Or it could relate to the topic at hand — “What is one thought you’ve had since we last met on this topic?”

Then, to keep that active participation going:

  • Check in regularly throughout the meeting.
  • Invite responses to the information and ideas shared.
  • Use the participant list to be sure that you’ve asked everyone to contribute.

The goal is to create more conversation and less monologue as you accomplish the meeting’s purpose.

Share the air

If the only voice participants hear is yours, it’s tough on both you and your participants. To create more shared air:

  • Invite someone in your group to lead a part of the meeting based on their knowledge or experience. You can support this leadership by incorporating ways for participants to engage with that co-presenter (see Tools next).
  • Ask others in the group to help the meeting run smoothly by playing other roles. Examples include a chat pod monitor, agenda keeper and time keeper.
  • Consider sharing information before the meeting rather than during, especially if a lot of information needs to be shared. Meeting time should focus on discussing, deciding and getting everyone involved.

Use the tools

If you are new to your online meeting platform, take some time to get to know the available tools it offers to make the meeting more productive. And remember to clue your participants in, too, since some may be new to using online tools.

Following are some features your online meeting tool may offer:

  • Chat pods allow participants to share thoughts and responses during an online meeting. Some chat boxes give participants the chance to encourage the speaker with a “thumbs up” or “applause” icon. Participants can also raise their hand to ask a question.

    Note: some platforms automatically delete the chat pod when the meeting ends, so if you want to save any of the information, consider an online document.

  • Online documents store meeting notes so they can be shared later and won’t get lost when the meeting ends. An example is Google Docs.

  • Polling can be useful for opening check-ins or to invite participants to vote on a decision. A poll can also be used to gather a range of perspectives when you ask, for example, “To what extent do you think X is the direction we should take?”

  • A whiteboard uses virtual pens that gives participants the chance to share ideas and images during the meeting, and lets them build on each other’s ideas.

  • Short video clips help share information and provide an opportunity for discussion. Be careful, though — videos require bandwidth that some participants may not have.

Prepare a backup plan

Even with good planning and advance practice, it’s a good idea to develop a backup plan in case a technical problem occurs.

  • Include a phone call-in number on the agenda for people who have trouble accessing audio via internet.
  • Involve a technical assistance person who can devote his or her time to coaching and helping participants. It’s tough to both lead a meeting and provide technical assistance. If you don’t have a technical assistance person available, consider throwing problems out to the group. We are all learning to use online meeting spaces better; some of your participants may be able to help others with technical problems.
  • If technical problems occur, take a short break to re-align your agenda. Make sure you stay focused on reaching outcomes.

Other tips:

  • Limit your meetings to 90 minutes at the most. A shorter but focused meeting is best. Focus on accomplishing things, not filling the time.
  • Start with — and follow — an agenda. This is even more critical online since it provides a map of where the meeting is headed. Check in about the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, during transitions, and toward the end to help keep everyone online on task.
  • Plan to ask specific questions that generate in-depth input. For instance, rather than “What do you think?” ask “What are the strengths of this idea? Or “What could improve this idea?”

Online meetings can be useful ways to work and make better relationships across distance possible. Be patient with yourself and with others. We are all learning together.

Finally, making online meetings work also requires leaders to consider what makes all meetings work. You can find more information on our website about planning and facilitating meetings. You might also consider purchasing Committees That Work: Common Traps, Creative Solutions.

Reviewed in 2020

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