Not (yet) digital natives: five ways to improve your online meetings

Communication and Meetings expert Peter Nilsson reveals 5 ways to improve our digital meetings

By Jesse Karjalainen

Who remembers the first time they heard of Zoom? For those of us who discovered it before Covid, it was always tricky suggesting a Zoom meeting to someone who had never heard of it. For others, it was Teams that came first and for some … let’s just say they still talk about video conferences.

The reality now is that digital meetings are the norm – not the new norm, rather the established norm. And a good question worth asking is: have we adopted our meetings to the digital realm, or have we simply moved our physical meetings into the digital space?

Think of it like this: let’s take newspapers as an analogy. When traditional newspapers first went online – yes, I know that this was back at the dawn of time – the thinking at the time was, well let’s replicate the physical newspaper online in a linear fashion. Being “online” back then was a new medium and few people knew how to make the most of it.

Step forward to today. Online news no longer replicates the physical, instead it serves up something rich and dynamic by taking advantage of every new digital innovation.

Right now, when it comes to online meetings we are in that phase where few companies are making the leap from replicating the linear, physical meeting held online to exploring the rich and dynamic possibilities that come with holding digital meetings.

By switching mental gears, we can begin asking the question: how can we make our digital meetings even better? And then you start thinking about how you can build the meeting in new ways.

Stuck in the past

The problem with holding traditional, presentation-style meetings meeting online is that the limited interaction within “the room” means that people quickly switch off. On the one level, we have gone from presenters in a room to on-screen presenters and our in-person charisma does not always translate.

For participants, who are all too frequently working from home, the sound might be tinny and the connection will frequently lag. At the same time, the realities of the home environment are that the cat wants letting out, your child wants attention or the sound of the neighbour’s new extension being built right next door causes constant interruption.

And let’s not even go near the topic of what happens when everyone tries to talk over each other. Is it any wonder that we all want to join digital meetings with the video off and the mic muted?

“My goodness! What a mess, but whose fault is that?” asks communication expert Peter Nilsson.

“I can guarantee that most people sitting in front of their computers for digital meetings aren’t in their best state of mind from the outset.”

“They start out already stressed, frustrated, bored and tired. These mind states are not the best for having meetings. And long, drawn-out meetings are hard to follow. So, is it any wonder that they switch off – literally?”

The real challenge for leaders and presenters is to hold and maintain attention. The solution that Peter recommends is to make the most of the new medium and turn digital meetings into a rich and dynamic experience.

“You can experiment a lot with digital meetings, but I think too few people are doing it,” he concludes. “So here are my four tips for better meetings.”

1) Start by thinking about what it is you want to achieve with the meeting

The truth is that with digital meetings it is even more important that they are structured into frames and have clear intentions. If you don't start with clear intentions, then you end up in a long presentation meeting that makes it hard for people to follow. And people will, over time, start turning off their videos, mute their voices – and they will get on with doing other things on the computer.

The traditional, linear structure of meetings does not need to be applied automatically when it comes to digital meetings. There is an opportunity to apply new modes of communicating and presenting.

Always start with, “What is it I want to say? And what is it I want to achieve at the end of this meeting?”

Second, think about what states of mind are important for you to create for the participants sitting there at the computer? How could you help and how could you do it?

2) Adapt to and embrace the digital medium

When meetings are held in the digital space, they no longer need to replicate the presentational or linear modes of the physical meeting. So, instead of applying the same old modes, the opportunities to experiment and try something new are endless.

By switching mental gears, we can begin asking the question: how can we make our digital meetings even better? And then you start thinking about how you can build the meeting in new ways.

This could also include challenging questions such as, “Can I do this in just 3 slides?”, “Can I use pictures or graphs with no words?” or “Can I do this without PowerPoint?”

3) Don’t just present: break patterns and vary your activity frames

By thinking of your meeting in terms of frames (specific blocks of time), you might talk for 5 minutes, then ask a question based on the presentation and have mini break-out rooms for another 5 minutes. You could have people engage in pairs or groups of three, for instance. Each group could then give a 2-minute summary of their discussions or findings.

This way, people don’t just sit passively at their computers for 55 minutes without any chance to get up and get the blood flowing again.

You can experiment so much with digital meetings, but I think too few people are doing it. And this all comes down to not focusing on what it is that we want to achieve.

You can experiment with sequencing these different frames, including a Q&A, discussion, presentation, group activity, video, slides and all sorts of “intro/outro”, “are we on the right track?”, “is this true in your department?” engagement and feedback questions – and not necessarily at the end.

By introducing new patterns, new structures and new models, your presentations become non-predictable. This keeps focus and engagement alive. It also means you can’t switch off your video, mute the microphone and vacuum the house at the same time.

4) Pay closer attention to mind-states

Think about how many people around the world are sitting at their computers in digital meetings right now. And think about how they might all be feeling. They are stressed, they are worried, they feel isolated. And what they really hope for is to reach out and be with their colleagues again.

But far too many meetings fail to excite, enthuse or surprise participants – let alone engage and bring people together. This is what makes them ineffective.

It is hard to concentrate when working from home, so one way for presenters to break out of this routine is to build in something unexpected. This gets people’s attention and reactivates their focus. This is how you create new mind-states.

Something simple as doing a quick, one-question poll in the middle of a meeting is a way to fire up the neurons. Or taking a two-minute break to show a funny video gets people laughing. It also engages people and makes them more open to speaking up – because the silence is broken.

5) Cut your meetings in half

Think about how many people spend half a day just on digital meetings, sitting at the same kitchen table or loft space. Think about the poor senior managers who spend almost all day sitting in digital meetings. According to one Forbes article, the typical CEO spends 72% of their time sitting in meetings. And this was before Covid.

This principle can apply to both digital and physical meetings, but what would happen if you simply cut every meeting in half? Think about what else could be done with all that time? It is a potentially radical question … but is it really?

Some companies have experimented with 15-minutes for stand-up meetings and 30-minutes for focused meetings, while some have introduced a 40-minute rule for all meetings. Another variant is the 18/42-minute rule. Meetings can be either be 18 minutes or 42 minutes long.

For those thinking that 18 minutes is not enough, remember that the thinking behind the 18-minute rule for TED talks is that 18 minutes is both short enough to hold people’s attention and long enough to say something that really matters. Therefore, they are designed to keep cognitive overload to a minimum.

And who wouldn’t benefit from just a little of that?

Click here to find out about his courses, Meeting Excellence and Communication Excellence, and discover how to improve your organisation from the inside.

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