Virtual Meetings That Work

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.