The advise given by Paula Bell in the article "The virtual BA" (Modern Analyst, March 26, 2012) is good but it is no guarantee for succeeding in facilitating virtual meetings. I realized that the hard way. To be specific, I learned this in a virtual meeting where about 10 stakeholders were invited to give input to a mock-up created by our project. They were all subject matter experts within the area, and had earlier provided some input on an individual basis. I walked through the whole thing, and what happened? There were no comments or suggestions. There was one question. I couldn't believe it. I know that subject matter experts always have an opinion. I have always thought that it was difficult to conduct meeting online where interaction and dialogue is required. But given the fact that we work with stakeholders spread across 6 countries, often there is no other way. So based on this experience, I concluded that I have to do something about the way I facilitate virtual meetings.
First of all, I took inspiration from principles used when teaching virtually. Second of all, I decided to take a structured look at my own personal experiences. The result was the points below, formulated as my own personal best practice. The recommendations presented all apply to meetings with the purpose of getting input from the participants, for example when eliciting requirements. They are aimed at meetings conducted in a virtual meeting room, where everyone can see who is present, and presentations and screens can be shared.
Everything presented in this article is meant as a supplement to the very useful guideline provided by Paula Bell.
Length of the meeting
As Paula Bell mentions, you have no way of knowing if people are paying attention - or even are present! - when the meeting is online. To prevent people from multi tasking I never plan meetings longer than one hour. If everything cannot be covered within that time frame, well, then arrange an additional meeting (or 2, or 3). Since no one has to spend time on transportation, it does not matter whether you hold one meeting of two hours duration, or two meetings of one hour duration. Having - for example - 2 short meetings instead of one long, can be used to your advantage. This allows you to adjust the agenda or your presentation for the second meeting based on the result of the first meeting. In this way, the great flexibility of the virtual media can contribute to improving the overall process that you are facilitating.
Number of participants
To ensure the quality of the provided input, it is in my experience necessary to have guidelines for the number of participants as well. My own personal limit is this: 4 stakeholders, and 8 participants. This means that no more than 4 different parts of the organization or group of users can participate, they can however be represented by more than one person. If this limit cannot be met then another meeting is required.
These are my own personal limits, helping my to ensure that I am able to involve everyone and get high quality input. You might be able to handle more or less but I find it very useful to at least be aware of this.
Building personal relations
If you have not met or talked to the participants before the meeting, then give them an informal call in advance.The purpose is just introduce yourself, and the purpose of the meeting. This gives you a minimal personal relation to the person which I believe is required in order for them to trust you enough to provide good input.
If you work with people of another nationality than your own there is also another point to this. Foreign names can be difficult, and this gives you a chance to ask them how to pronounce it, or what they prefer to be called. If you communicate in another language than their native, you also get an idea of their language skills.
Starting the meeting
It usually takes about five minutes for everybody to arrive, and the meeting to start. The small talk that takes place during contributes to a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere and gets people talking. The problem with virtual meetings is, that people who don't know each other in advance use these few meeting before everyone is ready to do whatever they do behind their screens. This means that when the conversation starts it will be formal and straight to the point. In my theory, this contributes to inhibiting the dialogue.
This is difficult to get by because as responsible for the meeting you are usually too busy keeping track of the participants to also keep the small talk going. I am not sure how to solve this. A possibility could be to post something of general interest in the meeting that people can comment on as they enter the meeting. If your meeting application supports it, you could also design a poll and have people reply to it and use the first 30 seconds of the meeting to comment on the result.
When you give a presentation virtually stand up instead of sitting down. Because no one can read your body language your voice becomes much more important. I assume that you strengthen your expression and your voice when you stand. This is based on the fact that you sing better standing than sitting, because to stand enables you to deepen your breath which provides better support. Also, I find that when I stand, my body language is activated and this adds life and expression to the voice. Remember, that your body language is what expresses self-confidence and conviction, and when it is invisible you have to express that with your voice.
Designing your presentation
If possible, it should be preferred to upload your presentation to the meeting application instead of sharing your screen. If you need to demo something, then consider taking screen dumps and place them in the presentation. The reason is that when you share your screen, you are not able to see the list of participants and keep track of who is talking. Also, if the participants use a smaller screen resolution than you, they might have to scroll to see what you are demonstrating. So if you need to share the screen, it might be a good idea to find out which screen resolution people are generally using so you can adjust your own to match theirs.
When designing your presentation, then make sure to make them plain and simple, and to leave empty space. For example, use double space and reduce the font size if required. This allows you to add comments to the presentation during the meeting. A decent virtual meeting application should offer tools to adding text and figures to the presentation, so take advantage of that. When discussing a process flow, you can place a red rectangle around the most critical part of it as you go through it. You can also use text or graphic to indicate in your presentation what has been agreed on during the meeting. In general, using the text and graphics tools in the meeting application will make your presentation more dynamic. This will help keeping people's attention.
In my experience these guidelines all contribute to virtual meetings with interaction, dialogue and discussion. It all sounds very time consuming, and it is. Virtual meetings cut down travel expenses and are more convenient and flexible for the participants. But for you as a facilitator it requires just as much - if not more - work than face-to-face meetings.
Author: Line Karkov has a Master of Science in Information Technology from Aarhus University, Denmark. Since 2007 she has been employed as a business analyst in the internal development department of a Northern European group within the banking industry.