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10 Ways to Humanize Your Video Meetings

May 5, 2020
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If you’ve been spending hours each day leading or participating in videoconferences, you know that they can feel like a black hole. You have to be focused, looking at the screen, and nodding — but time sometimes creeps by without the feeling of forward momentum, real connection, or creative generativity.

If your online meetings are starting to all blend together, you are not alone. Many of us are struggling to adjust to the “new normal” of videoconferencing. So I developed a list of tips for making online meetings more human and more productive to combat this fatigue. 

My advice for you is to try one of these tips in your next meeting. Then try another. But definitely don’t force yourself to integrate all 10 at once.

1. Obsess Over Your Meeting Objective

We all know that we should create agendas and objectives for productive meetings, but how many of us really do it? Now’s the time to obsess over your goals. Iterate them until they are simple and brief, and give your meeting a definitive purpose.

What is your objective? Why did you invite these people? What do you want them to work on? What is the intended outcome? When you start your meeting, state your objective and a commitment to ending your meeting on time. This will give your participants clarity about their purpose.

2. Envision a Mental Model for Your Role

If you’re leading a meeting, it’s your job to keep everyone on task and engaged. When you start the conference, think: How will I enable people to do what they need to during this meeting? What is a good analogy for my role? One good mental model is “the conductor.” You control the tempo, so that the rest of your colleagues — the orchestra — can participate in harmony and do their best work.

3. Remind Others to “Mind the Gap”

So many great experiences start off with a reminder of the rules. (Mind the Gap. Turn off your cell phone. Buckle your seatbelt.) These are guidelines for decency, safety, and excellence. If communicated well, rules let people know that their leaders care about everyone’s experience.

Help everyone feel heard in video conferences by starting off with a set of rules. 

Examples:

  • “I value your thoughts. Don’t use the chat during the meeting because it is distracting.”
  • “I value your ideas. Be ready to participate because I will call on people randomly to jump in.”
  • “I value your creativity. I will ask you to draw or write, so make sure you have a pen and paper before we begin.”

One good mental model is “the conductor.” You control the tempo, so that the rest of your colleagues — the orchestra — can participate in harmony and do their best work.

4. Start With a Little Emotional Rescue

People often have a lot of emotions when walking into meetings, which may distract and pull them away from the task at hand. Start the meeting by recognizing how people are doing. Let them settle in by connecting with others in the group, and let everyone be transparent about how they feel. They will be more ready to work when they have less to hide.

Exercise:

  • Take five minutes to find out how people are doing, really. Ask them to write down three words that describe how they are feeling at the present moment. You can invite some people to hold their paper up to the screen and share a bit, if they are comfortable doing so. 

5. Get Up and Move

Humans are designed to move, and sitting stationary all day is not natural. More than likely, many people will have been sitting in front of the screen for a long time. How can you get them to move? Even one 30-second exercise can change the whole energy of the group.

Exercises:

  • Chair Yoga — Punctuate the meeting with poses. Do a 30-second stretch between agenda items. You can even put a visual reminder in your slide deck.
  • Go, Show, and Tell — Give people one minute to find an object that represents a topic you are talking about. If you’re talking about simplicity, what is the simplest and easiest-to-use object you can find in your home? Let’s talk about what makes it that way. 

6. Let Your Hands Do the Thinking

Ask video call participants to make something with their hands. Give their eyes a break. The act of making can help people to better formulate ideas, which will help them feel more prepared for discussions. 

Exercises:

  • Solo Brainstorm — Let them silently brainstorm using a piece of paper for 60 seconds.
  • Doodle — Give them two minutes to draw an idea or story before sharing it with the group.

7. Pair People Up

Duos are powerful. Two people may open up with one another better than when they are in front of a large group. They can answer questions like: What are the best possibile outcomes of this project you are discussing? What are the key points of failure that you need to plan for?

Two people can also more easily negotiate the logistics of conferences, like deciding how long each person should speak, keeping each other accountable for staying on task, and dealing with any technical issues that crop up. 

8. Embrace the Weird

Something unpredictable will happen in your meeting. Someone’s face freezes in a spooky way mid-sentence, or someone’s kids are banging in the background. Don’t pretend it’s not happening. Recognize the weirdness openly. Rather than go silent when you are frantically looking for a lost document, let everyone know it is happening. Get through the moment together. (Credit to Scott J. Wolfson of KPMG for this one.)

Are you giving people a chance to really think during your online meetings?

9. Silence is Golden

The other day, a friend of mine said, “The people who are uncomfortable with silence are ruling our world. It’s killing us.”

Allow silence. Take a beat, or build in the silence.

Exercise:

  • At the beginning or end of a meeting, offer people 60 seconds to clear their mind before they start, or before they get ready to return to work. Try playing a recorded one-minute meditation, available from the New York Times

10. Get Feedback

We are in a new world. It’s not your fault if your online meetings aren’t as productive as your in-person meetings. But it is your fault if you don’t try to improve.

You can’t get better unless you ask for feedback. Carve out five minutes at the end of the meeting to get feedback on everyone’s experience! 

Exercise:

  • I Like, I Wish, What If — Take five minutes at the end of the meeting to talk about their experience. You can even use the chat function. Ask each participant to submit one thing that they liked, one thing they wished you’d done, and one thing they are left wondering. Read the responses and discuss.

Suzanne Hamill is the former Vice President of Design Thinking at Fidelity Investments, where she worked for almost two decades. She is now an innovation and design consultant. 

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