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From "Death by Powerpoint" to "Zoomicide"?

I debated with myself over the title of this blog entry. On the one hand, I don't want to make light of a very stressful time, and on the other hand, I absolutely do want to make light of just about everything. After all, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."

Just as the world is gripped by one story, the business communications world is also gripped by one subset of the story: How to work effectively online, with video-conferences replacing nearly all face-to-face meetings.

Yesterday I presented for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan's (ACCJ) "SME Roundtable," a weekly virtual event hosted by the SME CEO Council. This was my second ACCJ event on "virtually" the same topic, and it's the topic that dominates most of our coaching business as well. People are looking for help. And rightfully so!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If someone were to ask me to describe, in one word, my emotional state related to "Virtual Meetings," I'd be torn between "Stressful" and "Mixed." I've enjoyed some very good sessions, including ones where I learned new tools (Polling, Breakout Groups, Mentimeter®, Kudobox® to name a few), expertly facilitated and enjoyable throughout. Those "good" sessions have been entertaining and useful; and sadly, they make up no more than 20% of the sessions I've attended. The "bad" include those promoted as one thing (such as a "webinar") but deliver something altogether different (often, an advertisement).

And then there's the "ugly." These are simply extensions of just about all the "ugly" things we see in physical meetings and presentations: Slides that can't be read (or are long and read aloud by the presenter); lack of interaction or engagement; all the elements best summed up as "lack of good communication or presentation skills." Some examples include poor vocal quality, filler word over-use, zero eye contact, poor posture. By now we all know the list.

I didn't want to wow yesterday's audience with amazing visuals, as the session was a "large meeting." It wasn't a webinar (call for good slides); it wasn't a "small meeting" where everyone's microphones are unmuted and you get constant interaction; rather, it was a "large meeting" that I still wanted to be as interactive and useful as can be, given the "virtual" limitations.

How to Raise the Quality of Online Meetings

I had one aim: Raise the quality of online meetings. Why? Because I attend them, and I'm sick & tired of bad ones!

Some of my experiences online during these times must intersect with yours: When I've led them, they are stressful, taking up at least 3X more of my energy than in-person meetings. And yet, some have been super productive, especially when compared with the alternative: Zero contact. The New Yorker once had a cartoon that showed two business colleagues talking across a desk, with one saying: "You should be happy you have problems. The people without problems are dead."

One "problem" I was asked to address was "How can I increase engagement," so I shared a few ways. For small groups, act as a facilitator and make sure to call on "quieter" people. For medium-sized groups, use polling, chat, Q & A options, and physical expressions (get those on camera to hold give thumbs up or down, for example). For small and large groups alike, I suggested using the break-out function, with three caveats: 1) always have enough material for a group to use, and 2) always let groups know they may not have enough time to finish, and that they can request to come back to the main room or invite me into their breakout; 3) choose when and for how long to join breakout rooms yourself.

I've said this before: Unless you are a professional podcaster or radio DJ who can keep an audience's attention without a guest, don't speak for more than 10 minutes on a video conference without some kind of real interaction. And even 10 minutes may be too long. And give a break every 30 minutes or so....many more breaks than a real meeting requires.

That's most of what I covered. There were lots of questions, and one participant made his own mini-speech, but event that was welcomed, because it was another voice (and he offered some great advice). In the end, the organizer gave me some private feedback and said I came across "not as positive as usual," and that I too often bemoaned the use of WebEx compared with Zoom. He's right; I used more vinegar than sugar yesterday, but I (and many others) are sick of bad video conferences. And we prefer Zoom! In any case, I welcome and appreciate the feedback. It's one more perspective.

One leader recently texted me, as we watched over a hundred on a call dwindle down to the 40s, "That's low, and the ones who are left must be dead on the screen," The title track of the movie M.A.S.H. is Suicide is Painless. I love the song but hate the lyrics, and am glad the TV series used an instrumental version. But please remember: "Zoomicide" is anything but painless.

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