An eager webinar participant.

To run a good online meeting, you need to understand why most online meetings are so terrible.

The first reason is that participants get distracted. Think of the slack-jawed, bored-looking participants of a typical in-person meeting. Now allow these people to sit alone, checking their email or browsing Facebook without anyone noticing. It’s no surprise that, in most online meetings, nobody except the speaker pays any attention to what is being said.

Secondly, it’s difficult and intimidating to speak online. Conversation relies on visual cues to help you understand when you can speak, to gain the attention of other participants, and get quick feedback on whether people understand and agree with what you say. In online meetings, you are speaking into the void – this is disconcerting and prevents many people from participating.

What you can do about it? In an ideal situation your meetings would be so riveting and exciting that everyone will be hooked – but you can’t rely on that always being the case. So I suggest:

  • Turn video on. I hate video in online meetings. I hate worrying about the camera position, resent not being able to wear my bright pink sweater, and am perpetually concerned about forgetting the webcam is on and doing something embarrassing. But video gives participants something more interesting to look at than a blank screen, gives them the visual cues they need to participate in a conversation, and makes people feel a bit more guilty about checking out and reading email. It’s worth the loss of the pink sweater.
  • Sort out the technology. Pay for a reputable provider – I use Zoom, which works well. If you work with people in developing countries, ensure that they download the app or hotspot from their phones – mobile connections are often stronger than wifi.
  • Play games. I’ve worked with lively and exciting facilitators who turn into dull drones when put in front of a webcam and a mic. Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean you can’t have laugh or make jokes. I often start a webinar by getting all participants to shout into the mic on the count of three. For ice-breakers I play a variant on the skittle game, where participants answer different questions based on the first letter of their name. Doesn’t really matter what – just try to introduce some way in which people can have fun.
  • Use the whiteboard. An online whiteboard is much better than a physical one – everyone can draw at the same time, and you can highlight and erase with a click. Use it. When you’re waiting at the beginning for people to join, get early joiners to scribble on the board. Get participants to highlight words or phrases in your slides they find particularly interesting, to stamp question marks on questionable assertions, or to write their own opinions in empty space. This is a great way to get everyone engaged and interested.
  • Don’t mute automatically. Unless there is significant background noise or a lot of people on the call, don’t set people to mute automatically. It reduces conversational cues (for example, you don’t hear laughter when you make a joke) and adds another barrier to speaking, preventing a natural conversation.
  • Keep things moving quickly. In every second of the meeting, you are competing against email and facebook. So keep things moving. If a participant’s sound is broken and you can’t hear them, don’t spend five minutes trying to fix it – wait ten seconds and then move on.
  • Call on people to respond. I run an online training course, with about 400 participants over the last five years. When I started, I would try to facilitate a discussion by asking open questions. There would typically be a long, heavy, energy-sapping pause, at the end of which things became so uncomfortable that I would just start babbling. Open questions don’t work in a large group with participants who don’t know each other, and don’t have the social discomfort that comes after a facilitator asks a question in person. Now, I actively name the people who I want to respond, avoiding the awkward silence – and making everyone much more likely to speak.

None of the above is a substitute for the basics – meetings need agendas, action points, etc, while webinars need interesting insights, good presentation, and so on. But if you use them wisely, you’ll find that online meetings become as good as in-person ones. Plus, even if the webcam is on, you can wear your embarrassing pink trousers.

Please post any other tips below!