Executives of Fortune 100 companies are directing their organizations to conduct more meetings using electronic conferencing software (e.g., Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, WebEx). Technical communicators are concerned that the limitations of the medium will severely diminish the effectiveness of their presentations. They want to prepare themselves to develop and conduct electronic meetings that are compelling, interactive, and motivational.
I believe that it is not the medium that creates compelling communication; it is the communication strategies used. Electronic meetings have several inherent drawbacks (e.g., lack of visual feedback, more difficult social interaction), but there are also strengths (e.g., the ability to collaborate over great distances unbounded by time). Flexibility and creativity enable technical communicators to duplicate all of the benefits of a physical meeting in a virtual meeting.
To follow are a wealth of ideas that are useful in organizing virtual meetings.
Begin your virtual meeting with a well-thought-out introduction. Introduce yourself and, if time permits, invite participants to introduce themselves. Ask them to share background information, including professional and personal interests and hobbies. Post your picture and, if possible, pictures of participants. Use innovative methods for gathering and sharing participant background information (e.g., matching unique experiences with the appropriate participant).
Poll participants to determine their background and interest in the subject. Use a wide variety of media. These may include animations, background information, current events, cartoons, articles, thought-provoking questions, quotes, and stories.
Incorporate the same types of multimedia presentation that you would in a face-to-face presentation. Use different types of media such as text, graphics, animations, video and multimedia presentations, illustrations, diagrams, schematics, models, audio presentations, and concrete objects. Consistently refer to the meeting schedule that you presented at the beginning of the presentation and provide content summaries throughout the session. Present information in short chunks and in a logical flow while varying the pace and format every five to six minutes.
Incorporate compelling communications strategies that include:
o Guest-speaker presentations, which can be virtual
o Case studies
o Discovery learning
o Examples and non-examples
o Graphical representations
o Hints and cues
o Physical models to portray relationships
Support your main ideas with graphics whenever possible. Keep the information simple, especially if you are using PowerPoint. Be careful about colors, white space, and fonts; limit your usage of different fonts and colors.
Tell participants what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you have told them. This should be easy, since you have a plenty of media to play with. You can set the stage in a multimedia presentation, then present the topic via a whiteboard presentation, and finally review the topic in a discussion using the chat or a polling feature.
Enable participants to download documents instead of passing them out. Be sure to use PDFs, since they display and print more predictably than other document formats. Use the whiteboard as you would a flip chart. Point to, highlight, draw, and notate on the whiteboard. Refer to websites and other resources; use them as valuable sources of information, references, and exercise materials. Present information from another point of view (e.g., customer, competitor, user, and engineer). Anticipate and prepare for participant’s questions. Construct job aids that distill relevant information.
Use case studies related to real-life situations. Ask participants to explore controversial issues. Request that participants share their own experiences related to the content.
Show photographs or video presentations of salient portions of demonstrations and use drawing and text tools for highlighting and labeling. Use screen sharing to demonstrate computer applications and drawing tools to label and highlight sections of the screen. Select examples and activities that mirror the setting where participants will apply their new skills.
Incorporate practice to maintain participation and interest. Assign participants to groups and ask them to collaborate on specific assignments. The group size should be no more than four participants. Assign and rotate roles within each group to ensure sharing and cooperation. If applicable, synthesize activities completed outside of the meeting. Encourage lively presentations of no longer than five minutes in length. Encourage participants to use the whiteboard. Use case studies, role-plays, and simulations that mimic real-life activities.
If participants cannot interact with the real systems, provide links to training databases or test sites. Display participants’ screens if you would like them to demonstrate their usage of applications or share information as part of interactive demonstrations or exercises.
Instigating and Managing Discussions
Open discussions with a provoking comment. Plant ideas by asking a leading question on the whiteboard or in a chat window. Conduct structured discussions by including a proposed outline of the discussion. Keep the discussion on course by clarifying the theme of the discussion and the topics that you expect to cover. Closely manage discussions. Use the microphone, whiteboard, chat window, or email as media in the discussion. Give learners “interesting” roles during discussions. Always end discussions by restating the goals of the discussion, summarizing the results, and pointing out how the results relate to the next topic.
Assessing Participant Engagement
Use frequent polling questions to verify understanding, wake-up participants, determine their level of engagement, or determine where participants stand on particular issues. Ask questions that are clear, pertinent, brief, and challenging. Utilize the polling capability to ask true/false or multiple-choice questions and see how many participants selected each choice. You may keep these results to yourself or share them with all participants. Include questions with a degree of difficulty that matches the level of the audience. Avoid feedback that is brief or abrupt. Participants may interpret such feedback as angry. Have groups use materials and assessment instruments located in a shared folder to complete in-basket exercises (e.g., completing customer service transactions in a variety of situations).
Developing and Conducting Exciting and Motivating Activities
Create constructive conflict or “creative abrasion” by:
o Asking leading questions
o Representing other points of view
o Explore the content in a new context (e.g., in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the author used the metaphor of a farm to illustrate the dangers of unbridled capitalism)
Extract positive outcomes from difficult situations by:
o Directing the question to the group
o Asking the group for solutions or methods to find solutions
o Calling upon specific participants to help out
Build suspense by creating activities (e.g., discussions, games) where the results are not predictable. Also feel free to change the rules while the activities are still in motion. Do so using chats, selective emails, and several shared folders to provide different groups with varying rules and instructions.
Foster participant collaboration by creating group activities. Enable groups to communicate using chat areas or emails. If you are bold, you can have groups set up their own virtual meetings in order to work together. Be sure to assign a leader for each group.
Good luck and enjoy!