Anyone who has ever participated in a virtual meeting with several people can report communication problems that do not occur in face-to-face meetings. Since many of us are currently sitting in such conferences and perhaps sometimes suffer a little from them, I would like to offer some practical and straightforward tips on how to solve them. 

Clarify the purpose of the meeting 
It is beneficial to have a common understanding of what the goal of a meeting is. So, at the beginning of every session, but especially in online meetings, you should have a clear idea of the purpose for which it is to be held. This idea should be communicated to all participants at the beginning, preferably already in the invitation. 

Create an agenda 
There should be a clear plan in line with the purpose of the meeting. In the simplest case, a meaningful schedule is simply a list of those issues that need to be addressed. If you also put them in order and then share it with participants, everyone will know what to do in the meeting.  

Work with a faciliator 
Since the visible part of communication (facial expressions, gestures, body language) is mostly omitted in online meetings, you cannot see whether everyone agrees with the content or wants to say something and does not get a chance to speak. 

To be able to react better to this situation, it is helpful or even necessary to appoint a facilitator for the meeting. This could be the host of the meeting, for example. The participants must agree at the beginning on who will facilitate the session. 

The main tasks of a facilitator are: 

  • Pursuing the aim of the meeting, 
  • Ensuring that the plan is adhered to, 
  • Keeping time, 
  • Distributing the right to speak well, 
  • Regularly ask whether everything has been understood or whether there is any need for clarification, 
  • Opening and closing the meeting 

Visualization, as much as possible 
A virtual meeting can be arranged with sound or video. Regardless of how it is held, it is always helpful to offer as much visual information as possible to the other participants in the meeting. There are several technical possibilities to provide a visual record of what has been discussed. This allows several sensory channels to be addressed simultaneously.  

This way, the agenda, supporting pictures and graphics and much more can either be shown on the screen or, if this is not possible, this content can be sent to all participants in advance by e-mail. However, as much as possible must be displayed visually. The focus is not that the material is “nice”, but that there is supporting visual information.  

Communication Rules 
In principle, it is also impolite in a face-to-face meeting, not letting other participants finish. While we can deal with it well in everyday life, this behaviour leads in a virtual meeting unfortunately quickly to chaos. Here it is essential to let others finish. One person talks, the others listen. The facilitator should help to ensure that all people relevant to the topic are involved in a goal-oriented way. 

Long breaks when asking questions 
Usually there is a bit of delay when somebody asks a question. In a real live situation, you can see, when somebody wants to say something in advance. In an online meeting this is much more difficult. Therefore, the facilitator is of big help, when he organizes in which order people should answer.  

Long pauses are in this context about three seconds. Count “21, 22, 23” before continuing. 

Short statements, no long monologues 
When the meeting is about exchanging ideas with the other participants, everyone should keep it as quick as possible and not give long talks. Keeping the attention in online sessions is much more difficult than in face-to-face meetings. 

Muting the microphone 
Usually, there is background noise in any location, and each person generates additional small sounds. You type on the keyboard, give spontaneous answers, like “Yes”, “hmm”, “Ok”, etc. All this multiplies with every additional participant in the virtual meeting room, which is why there are very quickly far too many small background noises. To prevent this, it is best to mute the microphone of all participants who are not speaking. This helps to bring calmness into the meeting and take stress out. Besides that, each participant must then switch on his or her microphone before he or she can say anything. This significant side effect, allows more time for thoughtful answers.  

Plan more time 
Online meetings need more time than a face-to-face meeting. In addition, starting a meeting with unexperienced participants can take at least 10-15 minutes until all their technical problems are solved, and everyone can concentrate on the meeting. 

With these straightforward tips, I wish You a productive online meeting. 
For further questions please contact: Bernhard.Fink@coverdale.at