Recently we wrote a popular article on how to have effective meetings. Some people pointed out that online meetings require a special set of skills, and it can be difficult to follow the same advice that we gave for in-person meetings. With so many people working from home, it seemed like a good idea to address these types of meetings. Since I primarily work from home, a good percentage of my meetings are done using video conferencing and screen sharing. After doing this for several years, here are some of the top tips I’d offer for people who are starting to do online meetings.
1. Stay focused
It is easy to get distracted or try to multi-task when you are in an online meeting. Don’t do this. Especially if you are on video, stay focused on the meeting and don’t let your dog or kids come into the office or show up on the camera. If you are physically at a meeting, your presence gives you some “points” for attentiveness even if you are doodling or looking out the window. With an online meeting, even a very small amount of distraction can make you look like you aren’t paying any attention at all.
I’ve done video conferences where one individual kept getting interrupted or distracted with other phone calls, etc. On a video conference, it comes across as 10 times more unprofessional than in person.
2. Get the technology right
Assume that the technology is going to be a problem and give yourself multiple options and enough time to get everything right. Here are some things to consider doing:
- Reboot your computer ahead of time. If you occasionally need to reboot your computer to keep it from getting bogged down, do this ahead of the meeting. You don’t want to force everyone to wait while you reboot your machine.
- Connect 10 to 15 minutes early. If there are any issues, you want to make sure you know about them ahead of time. This is particularly true if you are using a web conferencing system that you are familiar with. There may be a small learning curve and there may be some tools that need to be downloaded and installed.
- Have alternative connection information available. Many web conferencing solutions allow you to use audio over your computer or over the phone. Make sure you have the information you need to connect both ways. If connection problems make your video image a bit jerky, it isn’t a big deal, but if people can’t understand what you are saying you won’t be able to contribute.
- Make sure your internet connection isn’t going to be saturated. Don’t try to do a video conference while someone else is trying to upload a whole DVD of data. In most places, the upload speed is your bottleneck, but it does work both ways. Voice is especially sensitive to your connection speed, so if you have problems, try to use a phone for the voice connection so, at the very minimum, you can hear and be heard clearly.
- Have a backup connection that you can easily switch to. If you do a lot of video conferencing from home, it is probably worth it to have a backup internet connection. In many places, you can get a DSL line for $15 to $30 per month. However, it is only useful if you know how to switch to it quickly in case something goes down.
- Shut down other programs. Don’t try to do a video conference while your video editing application or a bunch of huge Photoshop files are open. Close programs you don’t need. This will lessen the chance of your computer crashing and increase the resources available for doing the video conference.
- Use a UPS. You don’t want to get knocked offline if the power blips off and back on. Make sure you have your entire communication chain hooked up to battery backup. If your computer is on battery backup, but your cable modem isn’t, you still have a weak link if the power goes out.
3. Follow up with an email summary
In a real meeting, some of the valuable parts occur after the meeting is over. People talk about what they are going to do, clarify commitments, etc. Try to recreate this if you can. Sending out an email summary of what decisions were made and who has committed to what will help make sure there are no misunderstandings and help create a record that everyone can use.
4. Argue politely
As Brian points out, arguing may be good for meetings, but you can’t argue the same way over a video conference as you can in person without becoming a jerk. You should still argue. As we’ve said, the most important part of a meeting is working through disagreements and meshing ideas. Still, you have to be extra careful to be polite since you are at a disadvantage when it comes to non-verbal communication. Your body language and posture aren’t going to convey as well through the video camera as they do in person, so the way you say things becomes much more important.
Here are some ways to argue politely:
- State the other person’s position with empathy. This helps show that you understand what they were saying. Adding phrases like “I see why you think this is important” and “I can see the value in this from the XYZ perspective.” Showing you understand someone’s position and the importance of their position is a very valuable way of getting them to understand your point of view because it keeps them from being defensive.
- Stay focused on the issue– not the people. Be very careful not to do anything that would look like a personal attack.
- Wait to state your position. Don’t start talking with a half-formulated idea. It isn’t unreasonable to write a few words outlining your argument before you start to talk. Remember, you are at a non-verbal communication disadvantage, so your verbal communication must be crystal clear and extra convincing.
- Address any hostility, even if it is minor. Saying things like, “I know you feel strongly about this and I appreciate your passion” can help keep things focused on the ideas and help diffuse hostility between individuals.
- Plan ahead. If you know some discussion is likely to become contentious, plan ahead. If you know Joe may get angry about your idea, but Susan supports it, talk to Susan ahead of time. Perhaps you can both present parts of your position so Joe isn’t focused on one person. Perhaps Susan can present the idea because she has a better working relationship with Joe and will be in the same room with him so she isn’t at the non-verbal communication disadvantage.
- Follow up with people on the phone. A quick telephone call to a few people after the meeting can be valuable to help make sure there are no hard feelings. This can help replicate some of the interactions that occur after an in-person meeting occurs as people head back to their desks.
5. Come prepared
Make sure you have everything prepared before the meeting. Video conferencing will tend to magnify any lack of preparation on your part, so make sure you have any documentation or files where you can easily get them without having to look around. In real life, leaning over to look in your briefcase may not be a big deal, but if you disappear from the screen to get something, it can make you look like you didn’t do your prep work. Most of the time, you don’t want to disappear off the screen if you can help it.
6. Look into the camera
The best video conference systems let you look at people while looking directly into the camera. Do your best to position your video camera with this in mind. If you are looking to the left at the image of other people and the video camera is on the right, it looks like you are just staring off to the side. If you can’t see both, it is usually a good idea to look at your camera in order to give everyone on the other end eye contact. If your screen shows you a preview of your image try to position the camera and window so it looks like you are looking yourself in the eye.
7. Clean, distraction-free background
Be very aware of what is in the background behind you or on your desk in front of you. Try keep your office as clean and clutter free as possible. Be very careful about having people walk behind you. It can be distracting, look unprofessional and they may end up doing something embarrassing. News programs like to show all of their analysts hard at work behind them on their computers. A recent financial news broadcast showed a worker looking at swimsuit photos on his monitor in the background. Ideally, you want your desk positioned so people can’t walk behind you. If you work at home, you don’t want one of your kids running around in the background.
8. Use a good camera
While the built-in camera on your laptop may work, you will probably have better quality with an external camera. I use a DV camcorder hooked into my computer with firewire and it produces very nice results. It may benefit you to take some time to understand how white balance works on your camera. I’ve done some online meetings with people who look like they just spent 10 hours in a tanning bed because their camera makes skin tones look bright red. While it isn’t a big deal, the more professional you can look, the better. Another feature I like about my camera is the remote control zoom. This makes it easier for me to frame the picture without having to reach for the camera or leave the image.
Make sure you have enough light. If your camera has a built in light, try turning it on. Opening the shade or turning on another lamp can make a big difference in how good your image looks to the other attendees.
9. Pay attention to sound
If possible use a good headset. If that isn’t an option, do your best to make sure you aren’t going to be adding a lot of noise to the meeting. You may need to turn off your fan, close a window or whatever else you have to do to keep your environment quiet. Sound quality matters–it is even more important than the video quality. If every time you try to talk there is a distracting buzz or wind sound, it will detract from what you have to say.
The sound that you have learned to ignore may be very distracting for someone else.
Online meetings can be a valuable time saver and are becoming the standard way many people work. Understanding how non-verbal communication is not conveyed very well over video is an important key toward maximizing the effectiveness of your video meetings. The technology aspect of online meetings is getting easier to work with, but a little bit of effort in maximizing the quality of your image and sound can pay off in having people focus more on what you say and make the technology more transparent and less noticeable.