How to make your videoconference sessions more interactive

Ah meetings, the one aspect of work everyone loves to poke at and point out its many flaws and inefficiencies. Even before the recent shift towards a more general acceptance of remote work, meetings have drawn ire from many working in offices for their time consumption, lack of focus, and everything in between.

With remote work reportedly here to stay and potentially grow further in 2023, it’s important to understand the implications and changes of a new medium for meetings proposes. After all, if a manager is hardly an expert at creating and sharing presentations in face-to-face settings, then one can expect their online videoconferences to largely follow suit or even degrade further in quality.

Technology, however, has grown alongside our shift in working standards and, in turn, has provided us with new capabilities and tactics to better engage with our listeners. In this short article, we will go through the many different factors surrounding the proliferation of videoconferencing and the reasons it falls short in certain respects. But we don’t just focus on the shortcomings here as we will also discuss great tips and tricks on how to make your videoconference sessions much more interactive.

Best Practices for Improving Videoconference Interactivity

Engagement during meetings should be a no-brainer for most who’ve had to give an in-person presentation before. Subtle cues from the audience as well as techniques for maintaining attention across the room have been a consistent strategy for presenters to get their points across much more effectively.

But videoconferences have thrown a wrench into that mix where suddenly the audience is no longer as participative in the presentation and you might not experience the same effectiveness of techniques when translated to a digital form.

“In face-to-face meetings, engagement is important. But, in virtual meetings, engagement is critical”, says Michael Wilkinson, CEO of Leadership Strategies. In face-to-face settings, it can be easy to catch people losing their attention or piquing their interest at certain points, but the virtual medium can strip your awareness of these happenings and cause your presentation to fall on largely deaf digital ears.

Wilkinson goes on to add that, “[t]hrough engagement, you tend to get better input that leads to better decisions, better solutions, and better results. At the same time, when you engage participants, this tends to result in higher levels of involvement in discussions, which leads to greater buy-in to decisions, which yields greater commitment to action, which in turn leads to better results”. As such, we’ve looked at some of the best practices that can lead to better interactivity during videoconferencing sessions.

Set Expectations and Agendas Early

As with many things in life, it’s hard to argue against the importance of preparation (especially preparation done early). With almost 50% of all workers spending close to 4 hours a week on video calls alone, it’s absolutely imperative you try to start off your videoconferences with the question: “Does this need to be a meeting in the first place?”. Meetings, videoconferences included, take time out of arguably already busy schedules so ensuring that you set the proper expectations and rationale on why you’re holding these meetings in the first place can better align your team with what to expect.

Once you establish relevancy with your videoconference call, it’s important to set an agenda prior to the actual meeting and with enough time for your attendees to prepare anything that is required of them. This is especially important for videoconferencing sessions that involve workshopping, which we will get into later on in this article.

With videoconferencing being a largely variable experience for most (due to bad internet connections, sudden technology hangups, and more), controlling the number of voices in the room can help you get the most important insights most efficiently. Consider tagging non-essential attendees as optional when working with fairly large groups or cross-functional teams.

Push for a Video-On Environment

Videoconferences have been a boon for workers as it essentially allows them to work whenever and wherever, but it has also created the detrimental effect of an easier “switching off” for the individual when participating in a videoconference. This manifests itself quite literally with many workers refusing to engage deeper in meetings and even attending videoconferences with their videos off and microphones muted.

But there is an argument to be made for pushing for a “video-on” environment in your workplace despite people’s aversion to the practice. Tracy Bower, a psychologist specializing in work, writes that having video-on during meetings has several key benefits linked to better communication, rapport, and even overall mood.

It’s been noted that communication goes beyond verbal and is made up of many different factors, with 55% of total sharing being non-verbal signals sent through the body or facial language. Video-off environments hinder the dissemination of information and can lead to misunderstandings in tone and word usage, for example across multi-cultural teams where certain words have different connotations.

More than just the effectiveness of communication, it’s the soft aspects of meetings that are better improved through the usage of video as it helps build rapport between team members who might be working largely remotely on key projects. While this was captured in office interactions, it was largely absent in videoless conference calls. Without the trust developed between team members, you might end up with monotone meetings between non-engaging members as they haven’t built any interpersonal connections with those they are working with.

Set up Breakout Rooms

Interesting advantage videoconferences have over face-to-face activities is the ability to include virtual-specific breakout rooms and activities that can focus on smaller groups for collaboration and participant input. While breakout groups are common enough in face-to-face conferences, breakout rooms allow participants to interact with each other in an enclosed virtual environment, even providing them with a modicum of privacy to discuss things they might not want to discuss with the larger conference group.

It may sound counterintuitive to split members into smaller breakout rooms, but it can be difficult for some members to speak up in particularly large video conferences. Giving these individuals the chance to engage with others in more controlled environments can boost their ability to be further involved in the discussion at large. The idea is also to regroup with the larger audience afterwards.

Moreover, breakout rooms like this are known to be better at teaching new information to attendees, says the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through these breakout rooms, you can better set up camaraderie, accountability, and give each member clearer expectations on what to do next.

Explore Virtual Activities

The internet has made it easy to access applications and features that might have required a bit more time to organize in person. This includes different workshops, icebreakers and quizzes that would have needed a collection of materials, designs, and other elements to execute property. With the advent of videoconferences, there has also been a slew of new possibilities when it comes to the kind of activities you can do online.

Icebreakers are likely the first thing to come to mind when looking for ways to bring more interactivity to your videoconferences. You can explore more creative ways to go about icebreakers through virtual means, such as custom profile pictures that can reflect either a favourite character in a movie or even their pets. You can also explore the flip side of this by setting everyone’s names and photos to anonymous templates, wherein other team members need to guess who the person talking is based on personal hints about them.

Another activity that can help keep things engaging in your videoconference is the mid-session knowledge check, where you can instantly send out surveys or quiz questions to better see if people have absorbed the information enough. You can include incentives (virtual or not) as a way to drive engagement even further.

Utilize Visual Aspects to Better Set Tone

Lastly, you’ll want to ensure that your videoconference remains engaging in terms of design and content at large. The facilitation of the session makes up roughly half of what will keep people engaged, whereas the other half will be dependent on how well you can lay out all the information you want to share creatively and visually. 

As you lay out your information in clearer and more digestible formats, you can also keep your attendees involved with the content itself by including workshopping sessions wherever it is necessary to gain more input from others. In a landmark review by McKinsey Group, it was noted that almost 90% of respondents to virtual workshop sessions found that they are largely as effective or even more effective than in-person workshops in general.

But the key advantage that videoconferences have over in-person meetings is the relative ease of including virtual themes and designs in your meeting proper. Important meeting objectives can be highlighted by a specific virtual background that presenters can use, while photo filters can even be a fun way to use alongside icebreakers to better ease the tension that arises from frequent online meetings.

How Videoconference Sessions Become Ineffective

Possibly correlated to our diminishing attention span, videoconferences have made it easy to simply switch windows or have something else going on in the background during key business sessions. Even if you find yourself fully attentive during each session, Zoom fatigue has become a more prevalent phenomenon of just too many videoconferences happening in a short period. With almost 3/4ths of all companies using some sort of videoconference tool, it’s still a wonder why many of them fall for many of the same trappings that cause what should be an advancement of meeting technologies to fall flat.

Not Enough Preparation

Most of the time, it’s not the actual tool to be blamed, but those organizing and setting up the meeting in the first place. While technology can certainly lessen the logistical load of your conference call (no need to order food or rent out large rooms), a lack of preparation can leave you and your audience in awkward situations during the session.

Recent research showed that lack of preparation remains in the top 5 meeting concerns that respondents answered as reasons why meetings fail in the first place. Forbes has even collated a list of the most common videoconference mistakes that can derail your presentation, ranging from bad camera angles to embarrassing “hot mic” moments that can land you in some hot water.

The Right People Aren’t Present

Before videoconferencing became prevalent, it was admittedly a bit harder to opt-out of meetings where you were explicitly told to attend as it meant having to directly (or indirectly) indicate reasons why you can’t join. Videoconferencing has made it easy to send out invites in rapid succession, and in turn, has made it easy as well to simply ignore said invites as your schedule of back-to-back videoconferencing sessions continue to pile up.

This leaves key decision makers outside of the loop and your meetings much less interactive than they should be as important voices would be noticeably absent from the session.

Not Utilizing Innovative Technologies at their full extent

Last on the list might seem to be a self-explanatory one but is an important reminder nonetheless to keep utilizing innovative technologies available in videoconferencing. Conferences, especially face-to-face ones, have always been tricky in driving engagement as it essentially comes down to a single speaker and a large audience.

Videoconferences can navigate around this with inbuilt tools that can allow you to better get input from the audience, record key insights, share important information, or even add supplementary tools to your session.

What’s important here is to do your research on what’s possible and what others have done in similar sessions. Technology now remains extremely flexible and you might find a new strategy you haven’t thought of before just by exploring what’s possible now with the digital environment.

Your Next Steps to Consider

Videoconferencing can be an extremely powerful tool if used right. Proper planning, engagement, and collaboration on this new medium of meetings alongside the channel’s native benefit of flexibility of use can launch your team huddles into new heights. Moreover, this can allow teams to work better alongside other teams in sharing information more richly and efficiently.

Keep in mind the different contexts that your team is likely operating under and utilize the methods illustrated here with modifications as you might see fit. Videoconferencing continues to hold much promise moving forward in this remote working environment, so keep an eye out for new tactics you might uncover with this handy conference tool. 

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