It’s not the easiest thing in the world to keep attendees engaged and paying attention when you’re leading a virtual meeting.

Heck, you might be in a virtual meeting now!

Webinars, networking events, client meetings, and even classroom discussions (most students are taking classes virtually you know) can be delivered more effectively if you take some time to prepare.

Last week, I was teaching my Monday night public speaking class virtually for Rutgers University and one of the students had no problem sipping a bottle of beer during class. And yes, I called him out about it in front of everyone by making a joke.

In a networking event that I lead, one of the Members, a financial advisor, was eating a big bowl of pasta and yawning in between bites. Right into the camera! Luckily, she was on mute because I couldn’t even imagine the noise she was making. I’m not sure if that behavior will win her any professionalism points or referred business.

These are just two stories from the files of you can’t make this stuff up!

The fact is you may never eliminate multi-tasking, eating, drinking, sleeping, driving, walking the dog, yawning, and the kids finding their way into the meeting, but you can minimize those distractions.

Here are some suggestions!

Be Welcoming and Engaging in the Beginning

It’s a lot of fun saying hello to attendees as they log into the meeting. I love calling people by name (if Zoom or the platform you’re using is set up that way), welcoming them to the meeting, asking where they are, what they do, and what they want from the meeting. I love making comments about people’s names, virtual backgrounds, actual backgrounds, and any other back story or type of rapport I can develop with them.

Set Expectations Upfront

Now that you have welcomed everyone to the meeting and established a sense of “collaboration”, it’s time to set the tone of the meeting. I will speak to a slide called Expectations and How to Get the Most from the Meeting. Some of the expectations include have a beverage on hand (in most cases not beer), avoid eating, keep your camera on (depending on the audience), take notes, ask questions by raising a hand or posting in the chat box, be open, be interactive, focus on applying one new idea, and eliminate multi-tasking if possible. In fact, I’ll share a personal story about how I almost missed out on an idea shared from someone else’s webinar had I been focused on email. Then I get right into my material!

Demonstrate Professionalism

Carry yourself as if you were leading the non-virtual meeting in a conference room, meeting room, classroom, or whatever. I’m often dressed professionally and standing while I’m presenting. If I were leading a 6-hour meeting I might reconsider the standing thing. But if I’m delivering a valuable session to an audience of financial advisors and I’m being paid to share my ideas, I think it’s important to deliver the same level of energy, information, engagement, entertainment, and professionalism that I would if I were sharing the same room.

Ask Questions and Generate Responses

As mentioned earlier, when I’m setting the expectations, I’ll mention that throughout the meeting, I’ll be asking question and it would be valuable to me and the other attendees to get their responses. Now I can ask questions throughout the meeting. It’s a bit awkward at first, but when I ask a question, I’ll take my slides off screen share so I can see everyone. After asking the question, I will wait through the awkward silence. Eventually someone will respond. The audience will always find the silence deafening! In fact, the attendees will find the silence much more awkward than a seasoned presenter. Provided it’s a good question, someone will always respond. Now you have set the tone. The next time you ask a question, someone will respond much more quickly. Keep in mind, if you answer your own questions and don’t wait for someone to respond, you have set a different tone and they may never respond to you. Setting the tone and expectation is everything.

Keep the Meeting Moving

You never want the meeting to feel like it is dragging. If one attendee keeps going off on tangents, or if you are spending too much time on one topic, it’s an incentive for attendees to drift into email land. Speak quickly, share relevant stories, and use the names of the attendees in the meeting. In fact, if you or a “producer” is reminding attendees to post questions or comments in the chat box, there will always be discussion points and sidebar banter to keep the meeting moving and interesting.

Make the Meeting About Them

I almost called this point Don’t Be Annoyingly Self Centered. But I got the better of myself. Maybe it’s me, but I find it annoying when a speaker spends the first 10-minutes discussing their family, hobbies, success, past clients, client testimonials, book, coaching program they’re looking to promote, or anything else that has nothing to do with why you registered for the program. If you are truly coming from a place of service, get right into your material and the ideas that will be most helpful to your audience. If you deliver value, attendees will buy into your message and buy you.

Develop Your Public Speaking Skills

Begin your meeting with your best stuff! A story, experience, tip, or even a quote. Think of the impression you will make with a powerful “open”. Work on speaking at a rapid tempo while occasionally regulating your pace. Pause often between your speaking points. Laugh. Smile. Snap your fingers when making a point. Ask questions. Tell stories. Avoid using verbal ticks like um, ah, and oh. (You can minimize the ticks by becoming aware of them and practicing with a breath or a pause instead.) Avoid using verbal pauses like “like” and “so”. You almost never need those words! After a while, verbal ticks and pauses become annoying and can impact your credibility. Best to get feedback from others or record your speaking so you can assess for areas of strength and improvement.

Use some of these suggestions the next time you are leading a virtual meeting. All are actionable and can be applied immediately.

You will find yourself noticing these approaches (or the lack of them!) in other speakers as virtual meetings will be here for a long time.

All it takes is some planning, strategy, and practice.

Now go and enjoy your pasta!

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
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