How to facilitate virtual meetings

How to facilitate virtual meetings

by Phil Waknell

A virtual meeting without a facilitator is like an orchestra without a conductor: the result is usually an unpleasant cacophony. Before, during and after the meeting, the facilitator’s role is key to ensure harmony, allow each participant to contribute, and achieve the meeting’s objectives.

The role will depend on the type of meeting. For a webinar, the facilitator will need to focus on sound quality, ensuring those not speaking have muted their microphones (or doing it for them), and handling the text chat. For a decision or collaboration meeting, the facilitator will need to ensure everyone has the chance to speak and be heard, focus on the meeting’s objectives, and keep a careful eye on the time.

There are several key responsibilities that the facilitator needs to cover, before, during and after online meetings. They may delegate some tasks to others, or they may decide certain tasks are unnecessary, but that should be a conscious decision, not an omission. Here is an overview.

BEFORE

  • TECHNICAL SET-UP: This means booking the meeting using Zoom, Teams, Hangouts or whichever system you choose to use, configuring it appropriately for this meeting, and ensuring participants have the sign-in details.
  • ATTENDANCE: The most important task of any facilitator is to ensure all the right people attend the meeting. This means sending the invitation well in advance, sending a reminder a day or two before the meeting, and ensuring all participants are aware their participation is required, not just optional.
  • PRE-READ: Remembering that we use documents for information and slides for attention (Revolution #4), it may be helpful to share some information in a standalone document before the meeting. If you are not going to allow time during the meeting for participants to read the document, you should also make it clear that they are expected to read it in advance. Pro-tip: send them another invitation for a 15-minute slot before the meeting so they have time blocked to read the document, and a reminder to do so.
  • SLIDES: Even if nobody needs to give a presentation (and you should avoid presentations in online meetings unless they are the best way to achieve an objective), you may find it is helpful to use some ‘structure’ slides to remind people of the agenda regularly, to ensure nobody feels lost during the meeting. You might have the agenda engraved in your mind, but most participants will not, so sharing that regularly can be helpful for them.

DURING

  • TIMEKEEPING: Meetings should not overrun. State at the beginning that you are (or a designated colleague is) the timekeeper for the meeting, and that person will need to keep things on track, stop people if they are speaking for too long, and do what it takes to ensure the meeting finishes on time. This will make people feel less unhappy about being interrupted because everyone likes meetings to finish on time.
  • INTERACTION: Most online meeting systems have a Chat function, and the facilitator should keep it open to respond quickly to anyone asking questions or making comments. It’s also possible to use it to chat privately with individuals, which may sometimes be helpful. The facilitator may also be the one to handle polling questions, and mute participants who fail to do it themselves. Most importantly, except in a webcast or webinar situation, the facilitator should ensure everyone who needs to speak has a chance to be heard, focusing especially on less assertive participants and inviting them to speak, rather than letting the usual loudmouths dominate the discussion. In particular, a good facilitator should not impose their own views: it’s therefore often best to choose a ‘neutral’facilitator who can focus on gathering everyone else’s opinion rather than trying to convince everyone to accept their own views.
  • OBJECTIVES: The facilitator should always keep the meeting objectives in mind. This may mean bringing the conversation back on topic if it goes off on a tangent, and reminding participants regularly about the objectives and the planned agenda. Finally, the facilitator should ensure the meeting concludes with a summary of what was decided (if it was a decision meeting), or the key messages (if it was a webinar), or the main outcomes (if it was a team or collaboration meeting) – and in all cases, what the next steps are, if any.

AFTER

  • SUMMARY: The facilitator’s role does not end when the meeting concludes. In most situations, the facilitator should send some kind of summary to participants and to other interested parties, explaining what was said, what was decided, and what happens next. When it comes to decision or collaboration meetings, this has the added benefit of allowing people who are interested in the outcome, but not required in the meeting, to skip the meeting while still staying in the loop. This makes them more productive, and this kind of meeting will run better with fewer participants, so everyone wins. Even in a webcast or webinar, participants will likely forget what was said quickly, and sending slides is of no help to anyone, so a simple summary document – like this one, written to follow our 5th Virtual Meeting Revolution webinar – can be very helpful for participants.

Based on these important responsibilities, several points will doubtless become clear to you:

  1. Most online meetings don’t have facilitators - and that’s one reason they fail.
  2. It’s most helpful when the facilitator isn’t the one doing most of the speaking. If you are speaking in a webinar, and sharing your slides, it’s hard to check the chat, activate surveys and keep an eye on the time as well.
  3. Physical meetings should also have a facilitator - not necessarily the most senior person present, but someone empowered to lead the meeting properly.
  4. Being a good facilitator is not easy: it’s an important role, which takes time and effort, and a good knowledge of the virtual meeting technology you are using: the facilitator is also real-time technical support to participants.

Before 2020, I was often on stage in the role of Master of Ceremonies at conferences, performing a similar role. In the post-Covid-19 world, I’m expecting the role of Online Master of Ceremonies to keep me just as busy, as companies realise that they need a specialist to handle this role for important online meetings and conferences. If you need a specialist for this, please contact us using the form below.