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Six ideas for meaningfull video-meetings

Dernière mise à jour : 25 nov. 2020

As we are getting, country after country, in a second phase of total or partial lockdown, many of us are going to spend quite some time in video meetings. I would like to share some of the insights I have learnt over the last months on how to make online video meetings less tiring, more enjoyable and ultimately more effective.

I'm very lucky to have had the opportunity to experiment different online formats, games and activities with no fear of being ridiculous or irrelevant thanks to the wonderful team of the Community Builders facebook Group Catalysts. Most of the ideas in this post come from our experiments during weekly online discussions which started during the first lock down and have been going on since. Out of those experiments, the six points shared hereafter are the ones that I have successully transfered to other professional contexts.

1 - A warm welcome

Welcoming IS important. It’s the first interaction when you arrive to a new place, it sets the mood for what’s up to come. One way to create a welcoming atmosphere in your virtual conference space is to have music playing as people join the meeting one after the other. Choose something that is meaningful to the purpose of your meeting (you don’t want everyone to feel they’ve landed in an elevator). You can also arrange your (real) background with a few objects / colours wich are relevant for the topic of your conversation, or use a background picture (But I would recomend to get back to a regular "real" background once the meeting has started, as the fake ones tend to be eye catchning and drive attention away from what really matters).

Another issue is how to welcome late comers. In video meetings, if we usually warmly welcome the first people joining in, late comers often happen to jump in the middle of a “pre-conference chit-chat”, which can result in a rather uncomfortable feeling of intruding. In case of a large number of participants, it can also be tricky to interrupt each time someone new is showing up on screen. Yet, each person deserve to be welcomed. Using a “welcome sign” is a way to acknowledge someone’s arrival without interrupting an ongoing conversation, and it’s as easy as writing “welcome” on a piece of paper and raising it to the screen when needed. The group can also agree to silently wave their hand at someone’s arrival. And of course, the chat box provided by many video-conferencing software is always an option (providing noisy notification had been removed).

2 - Hand language and empathy cards

If you are seeking for lively discussions during your online meetings, you’d have noticed that things are not going as smoothly as they do during IRL meetings. Taking the floor results in awkward moments when two (or more) people start speaking at the same time, then shut up, then start again. Tactfully interrupting a very talkative speaker can become quite a challenge. Taking turns can slow down the whole process and prevent people’s ideas to build upon one another. To address those situation inspiration came from two different communication experiences : discussion in very large groups and sign language. In the group I work with, we have started to experiment the occupy movement hand signals. It required some adaptations to the specificity of video meeting. For example : because, the speakers eyes do not see a group, but rows of boxes, the sign for asking to speak had to be very visible in the screens. As the conversations went one, some signs have been dropped by lack of use, and some others had to be made up to express different feelings and emotions. They have been proven very usefull to compensate for the lack of non-verbal communication we experience in video calls with multiples attendees. Using “agreement” sign, for instance, is highly recommended to demonstrate your empathy towards a speaker, as it can feel quite lonely speaking in front of a row of very concentrated figures having no idea how what you’re talking about is perceived.

Occupy movement hand signals, grouped by function and the adaptation that we came up with (still work in progress)

As a collateral benefit, I also realized that this use of hand signs happen to be very useful in real life workshops/meetings/conferences where everyone is wearing a face mask. It can be very tiring to speak in front of an audience wearing masks. One brain is trying to gather information on the audience state of mind that cannot be found. Seeing people showing their interest or approval does lift up the speaker’s energy, and in return so does the audience’s.

Thanks to Tribeless, I have also discovered the use of empathy cards. It's the same principle as hand signals but with pictograms drawn by each participant at the beginning of the meeting on A5 pieces of papers. You can use the pictogram from Tribeless empathybox, or make up your own depending on your needs for such things as "showing agreement", "asking a clarifying question", "offert an alternative perspective" and so on...

3 - Movement

Sitting in front of a screen all day isn’t the best way to stay focused. Video calls are also very demanding in terms of concentration and attention. Don’t hesitate to encourage your participants to exercise every once in a while. No need to offer them a full yoga session, just plan a moment half way for a 5min stretching up, stamping your feet or whatever comes to your mind. It might feel a bit awkward the first time, but you’ll soon feel the benefits for the whole group. If you and your group are into going a step further, you can also offer a 5 minute dancing-break : with the right music on, encourage everyone to jump and dance around, it really lift up the energy of the whole group and improves concentration.

4 - Break up monotony and engage participants

The lack of feedback can draw any one of us to slowly fall into a rather monotonous tone while speaking. Use everything to energize your speech : storytelling, alternating between yourself speaking and showing a presentation, paying attention to changing your tone every once in a while.Think also about alternating speakers within the same presentation. Apps and games can also be used to keep your audience alert. You can use Ahaslides to get your participants to answer a quiz or question and share the results live or get them to write down a word that best describe their point of view on a topic and show it on screen. Collaborative note taking is also a good way to keep your participant focussed and engaged. It can be as easy as a collaborative pad or a stickynote board to take notes together. If you are up to a workshop mode, it's up to you to organise your session and online activities with a more elaborated board. If you are up to that option, make sure your participants have the appropriate internet connexion and hardware wich can handdle both the visio-conference and the collaborative board. If they don't, I would advise to lower your expectations ; basic and working is better that fancy and not working.

A doodling exercice to keep people concentrated while having meaningfull discussion : ask people to take a piece of paper and pencil and give them a basic constran on what to draw (a tree, a city, a landscape...). Propose people to draw continuously during the discussion and share the drawings at the end of the meeting.

5 - Business as usual won’t do

(unless it’s burnout and exhaustion you’re looking after)

Whether it’s a workshop or a meeting you are running, it’s important to keep in mind that things will probably take more time than the same activity off line. Trying to make everything fit in, or just planning a longer meeting will probably result in more exhaustion from your team than better understanding and engagement. Sometimes, less is actually better. Break down your objectives into less ambitious, more achievable goals. Take the time to re-evaluate what needs to be done synchronously and what can be done individually (or in smaller groups) before or after the meeting. If it is information sharing that you need to be done : it can be done by sending all the information in a document a hour or so before you start and concentrate the meeting onto clarification and questions answering. If you are concerned that people will show up without having read the document, another way to do it is to give the document at the very beginning and allow 15minute cam and mic off for people to read it by themselves. If what your group needs is reconnection to one another, make sure that your online meeting firstly meet that need : it might be time to engage everyone in sharing their best online practices.

6 - Allow for some fun

We have all been through some major, scary changes and each one of us processes today’s situation in a different way, at a different speed. It wouldn’t be fair to expect every single person to happily adapt overnight to all what the covid pandemic implies, but it might be fair to assume that a good laugh won’t hurt, and might actually help. Online video calls playing can be a lot of fun, it doesn’t need to be long, it doesn’t need to overtake the work that needs to be done, it can be as basic as getting your team to come up with a gif that best relates to their mood. Triggering laughter every once in a while is never a waste of time.

A good piece of laugh during one of the weekly friday coffee chat among community builders

What is your experience in video meeting ? Do you also have tips and ideas to share ? Are you facing issues for which you haven't figured out how to ease up a bit ? Don't hesitate to share in the comments section, I'd love to read your feed back

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