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Meiss Education Institute

What to Avoid in Virtual Meetings
By Will Meiss

 
As I write this article, I sit in a local coffee shop. There are eight pairs of men and women around me engaging in emotionally charged, in-depth conversations complete with intense eye contact, radiant hand gestures, and reciprocally reactive responses. Caffeine flows. Smiles blaze. Relationships grow. Surely we are wired for this. I rest assured, as always, that nothing will replace this reality- not even a virtual one. 
 
The future of virtual meetings is one of many places in our technologically advancing workplace that promises big changes and improvements in the years to come. But before we start making three-dimensional holographic appearances all around the world, it would behoove us to consider the limitations of virtual reality, and when and how it’s facilitated effectively. Virtual meetings are most effective only when it is understood that they are simply a less-than-ideal form of communication. 
 
For clarity, I will define virtual meetings as, “Any sharing of information between two or more people via real-time communication technology.” As of this writing, the most common types of virtual meetings in the workplace consist of conference calls, desktop/screen sharing, web-based seminars (webinars), and video and text chat. 
            
Face-to-face communication is something we’ve been doing for a very long time, and consequently, we do this rather well. It’s why we love coffee shops. Virtual communication is a different story, however. The mediums we use to engage in virtual meetings today have usually been commonplace for no more than 10 years, save the telephone. We’re still learning. The increase of virtual meetings in the workplace calls for a practical way for facilitators to successfully interact with others through this technology.  For the most part, we do not do this so well. It’s why some of our employees cringe at the word “webinar.” 
 
3 Easy Things to Avoid
 
Because research indicates that anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of communication between people is ascribed as nonverbal, much is at risk of being lost in translation via virtual communication. This leads to three essential things facilitators need to avoid as the reality of virtual communication continues to merge into our careers. 
 
·         Long Windedness 
 
Less is more. It has been said that people will give you as many minutes of attention as their age, maxing out at around 20. Still, in a culture that limits itself to short text messages and 140 character status updates, Nick Morgan- president of Public Words- claims this number has recently been dwindling to about 10 minutes for adults (1). With a slew of absent nonverbal cues, this is a crucial point to understand. The sound of your voice is much better in person. 
Holding every meeting to 10 minutes or less is not necessarily practical, but going over the presentation a couple of times and stripping it of any unnecessary time-takers is. This is especially true of cheesy slide transitions and other distracting visual effects that add to the “noise.” 
Remember, too, that yielding to participant feedback will ensure a higher level of interaction; focusing too much on the clock without feeling out the natural communication flow could end up hindering the process. But feedback, like anything, can get excessive. Stick to an agenda. 
 
·         Crucial/Emotional Information
 
             No matter the technical sophistication of the meeting you facilitate, the limitations of it need to be realized and taken into account. Proposals and break-ups get a bad rap if/when they’re conducted over the phone because there is a level of respect and uncontested presence in face-to-face interaction. 
            Even video conferences fall short of the authenticity of face-to-face connection- especially with eye contact. While the speaker may be intentionally looking at the lens to give the impression of eye contact, he/she doesn’t have the luxury of seeing the other’s reactions and adapting to them. 
            As much as possible, save the game-changing company news, performance reviews, reprimands, and significant rewards for the ideal times – the face-to-face communication. Still, emotions are important, and virtual meetings shouldn’t be expected to be void of them. Missing nonverbal expressions can make them difficult to interpret, though. It’s recommended, then, that group members be encouraged to articulate their emotions and feelings verbally. Be the example by starting this trend. 
 
·         Trusting Technology
 
            Technology can be inherently distracting even when all goes well. If things can go wrong, they will. The only worse thing than sitting in an uncomfortably quiet conference room while the facilitator tries to troubleshoot his/her tech problems is actually being the facilitator. 
            Be comfortable with your software and conduct multiple trial runs before you launch your actual meeting. This may mean drastically different things for the conference call facilitator to the webinar administrator, but in any case, practice makes perfect. 
            Finally, note that nearly everyone you’ll present to knows how to use these programs as well as, or maybe even better than, you. Don’t look to impress with your tech-savvy knowledge. Your mission is to communicate the content, not promote the tool. 
 
            As we continue to perform, interact with, and perfect the art of conducting virtual meetings, it is important to remind ourselves of the less-than-ideal status of them, and the sacredness of physical presence. The time and resources virtual meetings have saved us have been, and will continue to be, incredibly beneficial to our lives. It seems, though, that a truly effective facilitator is keenly aware of the fact that the most important meetings in our lives await us at our homes, on the playground, and at our local coffee shops. So, hurry up. 
 

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