Maximising engagement in an online environment

It’s true that business people from companies far and wide have been moving to webinars and teleconferences as a key enabler of communication across states and countries for years. Meeting on line saves on logistics such as flights, accommodation and transfers. It also reduces emissions and in many cases is just more productive because it saves you so much time.

In the wake of the COVID-19 global health crisis, you may find yourself working from home and/or having more remote meetings.  Many companies are implementing robust work-from-home plans and the remote meeting is something you’re probably going to have to participate in, even if teleconferences were not something you are used to.

We know meetings can be boring at the best of times.  They can be even more boring when the audience is participating from their home: bedroom, lounge room, bathroom!  via teleconference or watching you online.

I remember doing some telemarketing about 18 years ago from my home office. It was a hot day and I took one of the calls outside. As I was chatting with the potential client on the phone, the wind blew and the wind chimes in my backyard made a delightful musical sound. The potential client was horrified. He asked me, ‘where are you calling me from?’ And I replied that I was calling him from my home office. He said he thought that perhaps I was not professional enough to get his business, that he worked for a large corporate with high standards. He called my business ‘cottage industry’, and then he rudely hung upon me. I was so embarrassed. I seriously thought about hiring professional office space because maybe that would make the 250 calls I was making each day more professional and perhaps I’d win more business.

Thankfully this guy’s attitude is old fashioned these days. These days, plenty of people work from home. It means that when they take a work call, or engage in a teleconference their babies might start crying in the background, or maybe their dog will bark at the front door. And as we saw with Professor Robert Kelly on March 10, 2017 your children might even walk or roll into the background of your BBC TV interview in their baby walker!  Not distracting at all!  What would that potential client of mine have said about that hey?

I asked a sample of my clients where they dial in from when they are working from home and they said: “bed”, “the garden”, “my kitchen bench” and even, “the toilet” (when nature calls!). The fact is, when you’re dialling in remotely you may well be in a location where it’s simply not as easy to focus. 

The MOST frequently asked question I receive through social media (even before COVID-19) is: “how can you get people to pay attention when you can’t see them?” The answer is that it’s essential you make the technology secondary to your human connections and communicate your message as though you are in the room with the audience.

Here are my top tips for running a successful teleconference:

1. Identify your purpose. What do you want to accomplish with this meeting? Are you just wanting people to connect and feel some team spirit? Do you need to make a decision about something? Do you need to convince them about something or get them on board with your ideas? Is it just an update on where we are up to with things? Have you chosen the right type of media for communicating the message? Is a webinar or teleconference the best way to update your colleagues? Would an email be sufficient? Do you need to see each other, or is a group phone call enough?

2. Learn how to use the software. Most of us don’t have any coaching before we have to log in and get started, and invariably technological glitches ruin people’s focus. Learn how to use the software so that you can relax and focus on communicating the message. My suggestion is that you log in prior to the meeting time so you can be sure your computer works and you know what to do to connect correctly. When it comes to zoom or skype, do a test run to be sure that your computer camera is working. It’s annoying for people who have navigated the software correctly as they wait for you to muck around pressing buttons etc. to get the camera up and running.

3. Create compelling content. What do you need to say or discuss with the meeting attendees to shift your audience from their current state, to your desired state? Be sure you approach for designing your content so that you make the best use of the time and convey as much useful data as is necessary. Disney’s Storyboarding is an excellent tool for creating meaningful content in only 15 minutes, and where you don’t need to rely on notes to remember what to say. It’s perfect for busy people who are presenting to other busy people! If you’d like to know how to do this please read my book called: How to Present: the ultimate guide to presenting your ideas and influencing people using techniques that actually work(Wiley).

4. Stick to only essential content. Be very careful not to be too distracted by the social aspects of catching up on line. You wouldn’t do too much chit-chat in a live meeting, and you shouldn’t waste people’s time on line either. Don’t let the meeting drag on too long. 

5. Create stimulating slides. Slides can reinforce your key messages when designed well – keep them simple and use mainly appropriate images from a photo library such as:  Be sure you don’t overwhelm the audience with too much information on your slides.  If there is a lot of info that you need to share, perhaps create a briefing paper that people receive in advance or email it as the meeting is in progress for people to refer to while you’re talking.

6. Only invite people who need this. How many times have you logged in to a meeting that was ‘compulsory’ and found yourself close to asleep because it wasn’t relevant to you?  Be sure in these uncertain times to only invite those people who need the information that is being shared.

7. Be clear about meeting protocols. People are often very clear about what behaviour is acceptable and what is unacceptable in a live meeting. For example, people know they just can’t get up and walk out. They know they shouldn’t be late or leave early. They know they shouldn’t take calls while someone is talking. They know whether it’s OK to behave informally towards one another. Make sure that you set the meeting expectations around behaviour. Is it ok to eat and drink while we are online? If you are on a video app is there a dress code? Is someone taking the minutes? Is it OK to leave the meeting, and if it’s OK to leave, what process should you follow? Should you mute your volume when you cough or have something loud happening in the background? there are so many things to consider and as people can’t rad your mind, help them by telling them what is OK and not OK.

8. Send the agenda in advance. Make sure that you send your agenda in advance and be specific about who should talk about each part of the message. Mix it up so that people are communicating every few minutes – this gives people very little time to switch off (or put you on ‘mute’ and go to the toilet!)

9. Respect your colleagues’ working hours. Make sure that you’re considerate when scheduling the time of the call. If you wouldn’t expect people to be in a meting in the office at 10pm then remote working doesn’t change that. Where possible try to keep business calls during people’s normal working hours.

10. Introduce the participants. Once everyone is logged in, remember to introduce people to each other. It’s helpful if your meeting is with external contacts or people who don’t see each other regularly to be clear about the person’s reason for being on the call. What is their job title and what will they be talking about today?

11. Ask people to sign they were present. Be sure that every attendee is clear they will be asked to sign that they listened, participated and understood what was covered once the meeting concludes. This is of course an excellent way to ensure people tune in.

12. Include a seating plan in the agenda, and interact with the attendees. This is going to seem completely nuts! A client of mine (a Vice President in a well known IT company) was finding people were getting up and leaving the room, that meant he had no idea who was listening and who wasn’t! So he submitted a seating plan with his agenda. The seating was around one huge virtual board table. And although people were in different countries and regions he sat them around the table as though they were all sitting around the same table. So if Fred in Singapore was at the head of the table, he was sure that no one else was placed in Fred’s seat. During the course of his meetings he refers to people by their name and position around the table. For example he says: “Fred – at the head of the table” (and then he says what he wants to say. “Gladys on my direct right” and then he speaks with Gladys. This VP had ‘spies’ in the various countries check to see what was happening and he found that because people were being asked to sit in a certain chair – they did! And better still – they didn’t get up!

13. Frequently refer to people by name. If point number 12 seems too weird for you then here’s a simpler version of the same idea.  Simply refer to each person by their name. The more you ask for people’s contribution and call them by their name, the more likely they will stay present during your meeting.

14. Ask people to introduce themselves before speaking. When people speak up, ask them to first say who they are, even if it’s your immediate team and everyone knows each other very well. For example, “It’s Michelle here …”

15. Warm up your voice. Make your voice sing! When presenting online it’s critical that you have clear, crisp articulation, rich resonant tonality, strong vocal power and a variety of speed, volume and pitch. Learn how to warm up your voice so you sound as credible and believable as possible when you speak.

16. Sharpen up your presentation skills. In particular tap into your personal store of charisma through the communication of your emotional objectives. What do you want your audience to feel? Make sure you feel it too! There will be an opportunity for your audience to be concerned, relieved, optimistic, empowered and compelled at different times in your message – make sure your voice and body reflect this so you make it easy for your audience to know how to feel at different times.

17. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearseExceptional presenters rehearse– even in this forum. You might practice how you’ll start and finish the meeting before you log in. Or if it’s an online formal presentation you could even jump online and practice the whole presentation (ideally with someone who can give you some feedback on how you sound).

18. Make it interactive.  In case this isn’t obvious – the best way to stop people putting you on mute and doing their ‘real’ work is to keep them interacting throughout. Make sure you ask the audience lots of questions throughout. For example, “Flossy in Singapore what do you think about xyz?”“Ben in Malaysia, I’m going to ask Martha in Indonesia to respond and then I’m interested in your opinion too.”

19. Watch dead air. Dead air is the name for the long silence that happens while people read something, or click through screens. If it’s a remote call, you won’t always know that’s what they are doing because it sounds like a long pause or dead silence. When confronted with complete silence it’s confusing for the other attendees and people can make the mistake of thinking the call is over, or the person isn’t there anymore. The key is to fill weird silences or dead air with an update for people on what you’re doing, “I’m just logging into that screen now, bare with me…”

20. Take personal conversations offline. In live meetings it’s one of my pet peeves when someone says, ‘let’s take that offline’. I mean, if you’re not on the line, how can you take it offline? ha ha!  In the case of teleconferences or meetings online, you must take personal matters and subjects that are not relevant to the rest of the people on the call offline. If the subject starts wasting people’s time, ask that person to have a follow up call with you after the conference call is over.

21. One more for extra value! Give yourself some feedback. Once the presentation is over, be sure to work out what you’d improve for next time and what you did well – write it down and be sure to read over this feedback plenty of time before your next online presentation. You’ll be a remote meeting expert in no time!  Happy Presenting!

About Michelle Bowden

© Michelle Bowden 2020.  Michelle Bowden is an authority on presentation & persuasion in business. Michelle is a CSP (the highest designation for speakers in the world), co-creator of the PRSI (a world-first psychometric indicator that tests your persuasiveness at work), best-selling internationally published author (Wiley), and a regular commentator in print, radio and online media.

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