Virtual Meetings That Work

By David Strom  |  Posted 2010-08-17

It’s well-known that video conferencing and telepresence technologies can save money and alleviate the hassles and time involved in traveling to meetings. After the Iceland volcano disrupted European air traffic earlier this year, demand for these services tripled. Even now, demand levels remain higher than a year ago.

There are numerous technologies that can handle virtual meetings, ranging from the no-frills, nearly free Skype to the pricey Cisco and HP Halo telepresence rooms featured in many movies and TV shows. What’s often overlooked when managers discuss these technologies is the best way to plan and conduct a productive meeting that cuts across continents, time zones and cultures.
To remedy that, here are several tips, culled from IT managers who run frequent virtual meetings.

• Be brief. Alan Elmont, an account manager for technical-staffing agency Peak Technical Services in Woodland Hills, Calif., regularly uses video conferencing to connect with people around the country. He has found that both variety and brevity help keep his virtual meetings engaging. He thinks this works because, in short: “The typical adult has a 20-minute attention span.”

Jerry Hertzler, Internet strategy coordinator for the Orlando, Fla., headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ, agrees, but proposes a little more time: “Sixty minutes is usually as long as most people can stand [a video conference].”

• Make the meeting interactive. Don’t just read the bullet points on your slides; think of ways to engage your audience, as the best professional speakers do. Use the camera controls as if you were a movie director and vary the images on the screen, alternating between faces or different PC screens.

“You have to change things up to break the monotony and get people’s attention,” says Peak’s Elmont. “One way to do this is to pan around the room to see who is there, which reminds remote speakers that there are others in the video conference.” It also keeps participants more alert. “People are less likely to drift off if you can see their faces,” adds Bob Matsuoka, principal at MokaMedia Partners in New York City.

Another way to introduce interactivity is to encourage use of the text chat feature to collect questions from the audience, making sure to address the questions at some point during the meeting. “You can group similar questions together to be answered,” says Elmont.

• It’s a matter of trust. Take Billy Joel’s advice and try to build some level of trust among the participants before you gather your group together virtually. “Trust seems to grow best [when people meet] in person,” says Campus Crusade’s Hertzler. “It helps if you get to know someone for the first time before [a virtual meeting], especially if his or her manner of speaking—accent, language, style, etc.—is very different from yours.”

This is especially true for sales presentations. Accord-ing to Tony Maro, CIO of EvriChart, a medical-records management company in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.: “If someone is interested in selling me a new $50,000 piece of hardware, I guarantee you that having only virtual meetings won’t be enough to build my trust.”

Building trust is what the metal foundry Consolidate Precision Products of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has done with its video conferencing system, which has been in use about 18 months. It connects 10 different plants that are located mainly in Southern California. 

“We hired a new IT administrator at one of the plants in June and were able to get all his peers together in a video conference so he could meet everyone,” explains Louie Soria, one of the plant’s IT managers. “Before we got the system, we would have had to drive him around to each plant. This way, he quickly got up to speed and felt as if he knew everyone.” 

Be careful, however, not to play favorites with any of the participants. “One of my conference planning teammates lives in the same city that I do,” says Campus Crusade’s Hertzler, “so I found myself talking with him more frequently about our project because it was easier. 

“The others on the team began to feel that they weren’t getting the entire communication stream, and they began to reduce their participation in the planning process. Once I realized that, I went out of my way to bring those team members back to being committed to the project.”

Another way to build trust is to make sure everyone gets introduced at the beginning of the meeting. Then be clear so that all participants know what the agenda is right up front.

At EdisonLearning, a New York City-based firm that operates hundreds of charter schools around the country,  student information manager Carrie Wells is a big proponent of virtual meetings. She uses these meetings both to connect to her team and to provide training and support for dozens of school administrators using a common software platform. 

“I always let the participants see the names of all the others who are on the call,” she says. “When I take attendance, I don’t just read the list. I also thank them for participating. I try to greet each member with something special so they feel welcome and part of the group.”
• Focus on the audio quality. Yes, the video gets the most attention, but the workhorse of any virtual meeting is the audio connection. This is where the free or cheap products fall apart. For example, while Skype is free (or nearly so), you do get what you pay for in terms of dropped calls, poor audio or video quality, or worse. “Sometimes people appear to be offline when they are actually online and waiting for the meeting to start,” says Campus Crusade’s Hertzler. 

EvriChart’s Maro also had problems with the audio. “I attended a virtual class where there were occasional audio problems for some of the users, and it was extremely disruptive,” he recalls. “That’s why we always use an integrated PSTN [public switched telephone network] conference call for any meeting with customer participation.” Others use their telephone system’s audio-conferencing abilities as the audio track for their virtual meetings.

“If audio quality is poor, other factors must be better to compensate,” says Hertzler. “For example, initial trust relationships must be better; familiarity with the other participants’ speaking habits must be better; closer cultural affinity must be better; or the complexity and difficulty of the topic must be lower.”

• Be prompt. Start the video conference on time and make sure participants connect early. “Rather than spend the first 10 minutes waiting for people to log in, I try to start all my meetings promptly,” says EdisonLearning’s Wells. “The participants have learned to connect a few minutes early to the meeting. I also put up a slide with the agenda and ask if there are other topics that we need to cover.” It also helps to use a system that can easily connect participants without a lot of software downloading or complex screens.

• Limit meeting size. Keep the group small if at all possible. The ideal virtual group in which you want all the participants to collaborate is five or fewer, according to meeting producers.

“Beyond five, certain individuals won’t speak up without a facilitator drawing them out,” says Campus Crusade’s Hertzler. One-way broadcasts are more suitable for larger groups. “If we have more than 15 participants,” adds Wells, “people don’t want to talk for fear of interrupting each other.”

The teen residential treatment facility at Sorenson’s Ranch, in Koosharem, Utah, has begun using the PresentAll video conferencing service to connect its young people with their parents and counselors. “We used to do these sessions by phone, but the parents couldn’t read the body and facial language of their children,” says Layne Bagley, the admissions director at the ranch. “With video conferencing, we can have much more effective sessions.”

Bagley was surprised at how easy it was to implement the system, which is used to produce up to 25 small group-therapy sessions and two workshops a week. “We are pretty remote—three hours from the Salt Lake City airport—so video conferencing has proven to be a really great way to connect with families.”

• Use a facilitator, if necessary. Some of the best meetings have a facilitator who is not a stakeholder in the outcome. Such a person can take the role of a dispassionate leader and observer to bring out the best from the participants.
“The facilitator has to establish the expectations about when questions will be answered, and how and when they will be addressed during the meeting,” says Peak Technical’s Elmont. This person can be an “agenda enforcer” as well, helping to keep people focused and on track.

Clearly, running a virtual meeting isn’t only about the technology. In fact, it can require even better speaking and meeting skills than an in-person meeting does.