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Welcome to a whole new world and virtual meetings and presentations are the new normal.  Even when the social distancing recommendation is lifted, virtual meetings and presentations will play a larger role than they did in the past.  It’s cheaper with no need for space and travel.  It’s more efficient because we can participate from wherever we are, whether that’s in another office, in the airport VIP lounge or at home in our fuzzy bunny slippers.  So we might as well get good at it.

This 3 part series will give you the tools you need to lead virtual gatherings that people will find engaging and worth coming to.  Now THAT is an accomplishment!

PART 1: CONSIDER THE DISTRACTIONS:

People’s attention spans are short enough these days, and when they don’t have the social pressure of other people in the room, you can bet your booty they’ve got 3 other things to pay attention to, so you have your work cut out for you.  You need to think about how you can eliminate as many distractions as possible in order to not take away from the goal of the gathering.

  • Background: What’s in your background?  If it’s busy, cluttered or interesting, people will pay more attention to trying to figure out what’s behindanne-bonney-virtual-trainer-zoom-backgrounds-change-management you than what you’re saying.  Find a background that’s clean and projects the image you want to project. Even a blank wall is better than an ugly busy background.  Or a wide open window that makes you look like a faceless shadow person.  I actually put up a shower curtain in the middle of my office because the bookshelf behind my desk is super busy and messy.  It’s easy to pull back and forth and looks great on camera!   Zoom has the fun option of adding a background, and some people choose to put themselves under the sea, on a beach, or even on the bridge of the Enterprise.  (Where my Trekkies at?) but test it out first.  Sometimes you have a funky  glow around your head that can be distracting, and sometimes the AI doesn’t know the difference between your shirt color and your background color, and you end up blocking out your body too, which is pretty creepy!  Or worse yet, here’s what happened to me one time. It blocked out my whole face!
  • Your professional Image: Think about who will be on the call and what you want them to think about you.  Yes, during this shelter-in-place order I’ve attended many virtual meetings and led many virtual seminars in my Scooby-Doo Pajama Pants and my fuzzy bunny slippers, but above the waist, I look professional and put together.  I don’t want people to be distracted by my mac and cheese stained sweatshirt, and think less of me and my professionalism and competence, pandemic or no pandemic.  I’m going to show up as the professional I would be if we were in person.  Check your lighting too!  in some lighting in some backgrounds, you can look all washed out, or extremely sunburned due to the way the camera compensates for the light/colors in the room.
  • External noises:  Mute your phone, put your dog out, duct tape your kids to the couch with their favorite Netflix show on (and plenty of snacks) and for the love of Yoda, tell your spouse you’re on a video call so they don’t walk through in their unmentionables.  Whatever you do, prepare your environment as much as possible to eliminate things that will take away from your presentation.  Also, tell the participants on your virtual meeting to mute themselves as well.  As the host, you should have the power to mute everyone.  Exercise that right because your meeting will be maddening for your participants if they have to listen to someone’s spouse yelling about where the BBQ sauce is, or, as I had happen the other day, someone taking a call just off camera, but in full voice.  The meeting came to a standstill and it wasted a bunch of people’s time.  So spend the first few minutes reminding your participants to mute themselves, and if you have the power, exercise it!  They can always unmute themselves when they want to talk!
  • Technological concerns:  Some people aren’t as comfortable with the technology as others, and another distraction that can reduce the effectiveness of your gathering is someone concerned about how to use the platform.  Either log on early with those folks, or spend the first few minutes familiarizing everyone with the interactivity tools you’ll be using during your meeting.  This will save you time during the meeting as you won’t have to deal with someone not only not knowing how to use the platform, but feeling really bad about holding up the meeting.  Not a great experience for anyone!  So invest the time early so everyone has a fair chance at engagement and comfort.  On that note, also be sure you know your tech and are prepared to lead the meeting smoothly.  I’ve called on many friends and fellow speakers to get on a platform with me to practice so I’m ready to present well when it really matters.
  • Have an Agenda and a plan to stick to it:  The number one complaint I hear when I’m teaching effective meeting strategies (virtual or live) is, “We don’t have an agenda and we don’t stick to it.”  So have an agenda.  I’ll even time out my agenda so we have larger blocks of time to deal with the items that are the most important, and less time allotted to the quicker things.  It may change, and that’s fine, but at least it gives us some guidelines.  If you’re doing a presentation, let people know what you’ll be covering.  If they’re starting to get bored or distracted, they’ll know where you are in the meeting/presentation, and may just hang in there knowing you’re almost done.  As far as strategies to stick to the agenda, if you’re likely to get off topic, assign someone to be the GATEKEEPER.  Their whole job is to keep the meeting on the agenda.  Arm them with a PARKING LOT, which is a piece of paper on which to write topics that need to be discussed but aren’t on the agenda.  When the meeting gets off topic they can say, “This is a really important thing to talk about, but it’s not an agenda, so let me put it on the parking lot so we can get back to our agenda.  We can either discuss it at the end, or plan another meeting to cover that.”  The person who brought up the additional item knows it will be covered, and you’ll get back to what you came for, and the rest of your participants will breathe a sigh of relief!  It’s super frustrating and distracting to know you’re off topic and this meeting might go past your allotted snack time.
  • Start and End ON TIME:  On that note, start and end on time.  If someone shows up on time and you decide to wait for the stragglers, it puts the person who respected everyone’s time enough to show up on time in a really bad mood, which casts a negative light on the meeting for them.  And end on time too!  Every second that ticks past the planned end time, people are looking at their watches and starting to tune out.  If you want their full engagement, stick to the schedule.  We’re all busy, and some of us have a terrible case of Zoom butt after 5 meetings in a row on Zoom.  Be respectful of everyone’s time and start/end your meetings and presentations on time.

Think about other things about your presentation that could be a distraction, and do everything you can to eliminate those distractions so you have the best chance of engagement from your participants.  You’ll still be battling Facebook, their kids, e-mails, calls, cat videos, spouses in their unmentionables and everything else in their environment, but you can’t control that, so don’t worry about it.

In the next part, we’ll talk about engagement through the virtual accompaniment to your meeting or presentation, and how you can keep people’s interest to be more effective with your virtual meetings.

And please note: DO NOT Duct Tape your kids to the couch.  I was kidding.  Sweet Baby Yoda I hope you know that!  (my lawyer said I needed to put this, but I don’t believe any of my readers are that dumb!  But I do what he says so I can stay out of jail and keep providing you great content!)