Conducting Effective Web Meetings

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There are several forms of corporate communication. From immediate, rich communications like phones and IM messaging to historical transactions like e-mail, there are a lot of ways to get information to one or more people. From time to time, it's even useful to have a meeting.

(This is where a witty picture of a guy sleeping in a meeting goes. I won't bother actually putting one here; you're already envisioning it in your mind)

Most meetings are pointless, and a complete waste of time. This is the fault, completely and solely, of the organizer. It's because he or she hasn't thought things through enough to think about alternate forms of information passing. Here's the criteria for a good meeting - whether in-person or over the web:

100% of the content of a meeting should require the participation of 100% of the attendees for 100% of the time

It doesn't get any simpler than that. If it doesn't meet that criteria, then don't invite that person to that meeting. If you're just conveying information and no one has the need for immediate interaction with that information (like telling you something that modifies the message), then send an e-mail. If you're a manager, and you need to get status from lots of people, pick up the phone.If you need a quick answer, use IM.

I once had a high-level manager that called frequent meetings. His real need was status updates on various processes, so 50 of us would sit in a room while he asked each one of us questions. He believed this larger meeting helped us "cross pollinate ideas". In fact, it was a complete waste of time for most everyone, except in the one or two moments that they interacted with him. So I wrote some code for a Palm Pilot (which was a kind of SmartPhone but with no phone and no real graphics, but this was in the days when we had just discovered fire and the wheel, although the order of those things is still in debate) that took an average of the salaries of the people in the room (I guessed at it) and ran a timer which multiplied the number of people against the salaries.

I left that running in plain sight for him, and when he asked about it, I explained how much the meetings were really costing the company. We had far fewer meetings after.

Meetings are now web-enabled. I believe that's largely a good thing, since it saves on travel time and allows more people to participate, but I think the rule above still holds. And in fact, there are some other rules that you should follow to have a great meeting - and fewer of them.

Be Clear About the Goal

This is important in any meeting, but all of us have probably gotten an invite with a web link and an ambiguous title. Then you get to the meeting, and it's a 500-level deep-dive on something everyone expects you to know.

This is unfair to the "expert" and to the participants. I always tell people that invite me to a meeting that I will be as detailed as I can - but the more detail they can tell me about the questions, the more detailed I can be in my responses. Granted, there are times when you don't know what you don't know, but the more you can say about the topic the better.

There's another point here - and it's that you should have a clearly defined "win" for the meeting. When the meeting is over, and everyone goes back to work, what were you expecting them to do with the information? Have that clearly defined in your head, and in the meeting invite.

Understand the Technology

There are several web-meeting clients out there. I use them all, since I meet with clients all over the world. They all work differently - so I take a few moments and read up on the different clients and find out how I can use the tools properly. I do this with the technology I use for everything else, and it's important to understand it if the meeting is to be a success. If you're running the meeting, know the tools. I don't care if you like the tools or not, learn them anyway. Don't waste everyone else's time just because you're too bitter/snarky/lazy to spend a few minutes reading.

Check your phone or mic. Check your video size. Install (and learn to use)  ZoomIT (http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/bb897434.aspx). Format your slides or screen or output correctly. Learn to use the voting features of the meeting software, and especially it's whiteboard features. Figure out how multiple monitors work. Try a quick meeting with someone to test all this. Do this *before* you invite lots of other people to your meeting.  

Use a WebCam

I'm not a pretty man. I have a face fit for radio. But after attending a meeting with clients where one Microsoft person used a webcam and another did not, I'm convinced that people pay more attention when a face is involved. There are tons of studies around this, or you can take my word for it, but toss a shirt on over those pajamas and turn the webcam on.

Set Up Early

Whether you're attending or leading the meeting, don't wait to sign on to the meeting at the time when it starts. I can almost plan that a 10:00 meeting will actually start at 10:10 because the participants/leader is just now installing the web client for the meeting at 10:00. Sign on early, go on mute, and then wait for everyone to arrive.

Mute When Not Talking

No one wants to hear your screaming offspring / yappy dog / other cubicle conversations / car wind noise (are you driving in a desert storm or something?) while the person leading the meeting is trying to talk. I use the Lync software from Microsoft for my meetings, and I mute everyone by default, and then tell them to un-mute to talk to the group.

Share Collateral

If you have a PowerPoint deck, mail it out in case you have a tech failure. If you have a document, share it as an attachment to the meeting. Don't make people ask you for the information - that's why you're there to begin with. Even better, send it out early. "But", you say, "then no one will come to the meeting if they have the deck first!" Uhm, then don't have a meeting. Send out the deck and a quick e-mail and let everyone get on with their productive day.

Set Actions At the Meeting

A meeting should have some sort of outcome (see point one). That means there are actions to take, a follow up, or some deliverable. Otherwise, it's an e-mail. At the meeting, decide who will do what, when things are needed, and so on. And avoid, if at all possible, setting up another meeting, unless absolutely necessary.

So there you have it. Whether it's on-premises or on the web, meetings are a necessary evil, and should be treated that way. Like politicians, you should have as few of them as are necessary to keep the roads paved and public libraries open.

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  • It doesn't surprise me that you wrote the app and showed it in the meeting. It does surprise me that you weren't fired for it though. :)

  • I'm often surprised I'm not fired for a lot of things. :) Actually, the manager was grateful - it was his money we were losing in the meeting.

  • Then there's the meeting organizers that make everyone wait in the lobby and don't show up until it's time to start the meeting. Then the meeting gets delayed 5 minutes while everyone listens to, "Bing! <participant> has joined the meeting" a gazillion times.

    I've done enough work with military/defense people that I tend to adopt the, "If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you're locked out.", mentality.

  • Dilbert stole your idea...

    thedilbertstore.com/.../84531-time-is-money-meeting-cost-calculator

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