By Cyrus Farivar

This article
originally appeared in BNET’s Make Your Meetings Matter
special feature. It’s also available as a PDF download.

Getting through an in-person meeting is challenging enough,
but it’s even more difficult to bring together colleagues who are dialing in or
participating via videoconference. The basic keys to a good remote meeting are
the same as those for any meeting: have a goal, invite only the necessary
people, encourage participation from everyone. But the limitations of
technology, the loss of eye contact and other face-to-face cues, and the
ability of participants to tune out often leave virtual meetings feeling
lackluster. These suggestions can help you bring your remote meetings back to
life.

Before the meeting

#1: Know your gear

If you’re using videoconferencing technology, spend some
time learning how it works before your meeting. Use the presets to program
camera angles into your remote control so you won’t be distracted by camera
duty during the meeting. Knowing that they’re on camera (or could be at any
moment) keeps people engaged in the conversation, so aim for group shots rather
than close-ups. If two people will be doing most of the talking, ask them to sit
next to each other so the camera isn’t constantly moving back and forth.

#2: Provide access
and materials

Every time you send out an invitation to a virtual meeting,
include any necessary directions and access codes so everyone will know how to
log in. Agendas and visual aids such as slides should also be sent in advance.
If you’re using an application that requires a download, suggest that attendees
download it ahead of time so that technical issues don’t delay the start of the
meeting. And when you have participants in different time zones, be sure to
specify the time in each zone, for example, “2 p.m. EST (11 a.m.
PST).”

#3: Check ahead for
contentious issues

Remote meetings are even more time-constrained than
in-person meetings because people are often in different time zones or
countries. It’s also harder to read the group sentiment and easier for people
to misunderstand each other. That means you’ll want to know in advance about
disputed topics that could derail the conversation. If you think there might be
any such issues, try calling or e-mailing people in advance so you can get a
sense of what to expect.

#4: Assign homework

One way to get people thinking about your meeting topic in
advance — and ensure their participation — is to have everyone bring two
ideas or challenges related to the issue at hand. Include this request when you
send out your meeting agenda. Once the meeting is convened, an easy way to get
a conversation started is to have people read the ideas they’ve prepared.

#5: Hold a conversation
warm-up

Sometimes, remote participants who don’t speak English as a
first language have trouble following the nuances or expressions in a
conversation. Consider starting the meeting five minutes early so that
non-native English speakers can practice speaking beforehand. You can talk
about anything you like — the weather, sports, recent vacations — just get
them speaking and listening to English.

During the meeting

#6: Take attendance

With a remote meeting, it can be hard to know when people
are present and ready to begin. Start with a roll call for all sites, which
will also help acquaint everyone with how loudly and clearly they need to
speak. As people introduce themselves, make a seating chart or list of names,
so that you know exactly who’s present. When you want to ask questions or
solicit opinions, your list will make it easier to remember who you haven’t
heard from in a while so you can call on those people specifically.

#7: Roll out the
virtual whiteboard

If your topic requires extensive feedback or complex
decision-making, consider using Web-based tools such as collaborative online
whiteboards or instant message chatrooms to
supplement your conference call. These tools offer an easy way for people to
contribute answers and opinions without worrying about whether they’re talking
at the same time or cutting each other off. It also provides a record of who
has spoken and when, which makes it harder for co-workers to hide behind
silence on the phone.

#8: Ban the mute button

On a conference call, it can be easy to lose participants to
their own environments. If you start hearing monosyllabic answers
(“um,” “yeah,” “no,” “fine”), it’s a
sure sign that e-mail, instant messages, or other immediate tasks are creating
distractions for those calling in from another location. Though it’s typical to
reduce microphone noise by asking participants to mute their lines when they’re
not speaking, try asking everyone to stay off of mute. With the sound of
tapping keyboards or rustling paper to give them away, people will be less
likely to multitask.

#9: Change up the format

To increase participation, try alternating between a
free-for-all discussion, where it’s easy for people to tune out, and requiring
attendees to vote on a decision and follow up with a sentence or two about
their position on the matter.

#10: Plant frequent
reminders

In-person meetings often have a paper- or whiteboard-based
agenda that’s easy for co-workers to refer to. Even if you sent out an
electronic agenda in advance, take time out from the conversation periodically
to remind your colleagues what’s been covered and what remains to be discussed.