Opening Remote Meetings: You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

In Part 1 of our Facilitation in the Days of Social Distancing blog series, we talked about a way to amp up the effectiveness of your remote meetings by planning to do less. While there is much more to discuss about your meeting preparation, for now we want to move immediately into the first During the Meeting stage: Open the Session. In today’s Part 2, we will be offering you 3 key components you can add to the start of your remote meetings to immediately reap benefits and move you towards your meeting goals - the opening statement, how to use check-ins, and a structure for promoting easeful conversation online.

Before we jump into these three structures we will leave you with today, we want to say a word about creating the container. Consider that hosting your meeting online requires the same etiquette that an in-person meeting would demand. As people come into the virtual meeting room, welcome them, and let them know that they’re in the right place. You might determine to start at 3 minutes after the hour so that everyone has ample time to arrive - if so, let them know that. It might feel awkward at first, and depending on the size of your meeting, you will likely have to say this same thing quite a few times before the start time arrives - it’s okay, just notice the discomfort and breathe through it!

The Opening Statement

Like any conversation, how you start your remote meeting very often determines how well it goes. Having a good “excite statement” is essential to bringing everyone to a shared understanding of the desired outcomes for the meeting. This is true in every meeting, and it is just as important here. Consider that, especially right now in the wake of social distancing, people are not in their normal state of being, so being very clear about the intention for the meeting has the immediate impact of having people feeling more secure. This feeling of increased safety will lead to better discussion and a greater chance of getting what you want from the meeting.

So what’s an “excite statement”? It’s the term we use in our ACI work to describe the introductory statement that lets people know why you are meeting and what you are hoping to get out of the time spent together. It’s usually 2-3 sentences long, and takes about 60-90 seconds to deliver. If this was the only change you added to your meeting facilitation, they would already go better. It is important to include what the meeting is about, AND why these particular people should be there - what’s in it for them? Crafting your this statement should be part of your pre-meeting preparation - don’t wing it. We really encourage you to practice speaking your excite statement out loud before the meeting. And one step better is to do so with a buddy. Trust us, it is going to sound different coming out of your mouth than it sounds in your head. A buddy can help point that out. Plus, in current times, this move has the added benefit of bringing some connection for you.

Using the Check-in

On the best of days, our meeting participants’ minds are full of thoughts about the other meetings they have attended, upcoming deadlines, and the expectations placed upon them in their role. As facilitators, when we can be mindful of all the other stressors the participants are facing, especially in this complex and chaotic time, we make it okay for those to be there. This permission, even when not explicitly stated, is felt. So, given all of that, let’s just be clear - check-ins are mandatory for remote meetings. When you use them, your meetings will be notably different.

The essential idea here is that everyone gets their voice into the conversation at the beginning of the meeting. Experience tells us that the sooner someone speaks in a meeting, the more likely it is they will contribute thoughts and ideas later. Remember that it is easier to get distracted in a remote meeting, and it is often harder for people to jump in with a thought because, well, the likelihood for collisions is higher. Getting their voice in right away helps promote their contribution, and it immediately requires them to be present. Doing a check-in also has the ability to implicitly set the tone that you will be expecting participation throughout the meeting.

There are lots of ways to do check-ins, and we will offer three simple options that could fit different time allotments. First and foremost though, don’t use the F-word! Feelings. Of course, we really are talking about feelings and emotions, but that word has a tenuous relationship in the business world, and can immediately turn people off. And the magic is, we don’t need to use it to get to the point. Now, onto our three simple options.

  1. One Word Check-in: When time is limited, this short and sweet check-in can be really useful. Wording is something like, “Give us your name and one word to encapsulate what you are looking for in this meeting.” or “What is one word to describe your day so far?”

  2. Weather Check-in: This is about tapping into what is going on with participants in the moment. The ultimate goal here is to bring each participant's attention into this meeting and the task at hand. It invites them to presence by having them look inside. Wording is something like, “If you could describe your internal state as a weather system, what would it be?” (Notice: the word “feelings” appears exactly zero times) This might be one you need to model first, if it is new to the group. For example, “Right now, I’m a tornado warning.”

  3. Ups & Downs Check-in: If you have a little longer, you can do this one. “Tell us about the funniest thing that has happened in your household today, and tell us the most challenging thing that has happened for you today.”

One important thing to point out here, we are not looking for people to justify why they chose a specific word, weather system, or whatever else is highlighted in the check-in. When we force people to justify we put them on guard. Instead, focus on listening to what they are saying and using that as information for your facilitation. This move is about acknowledging what is, just as it is, with no intention to change it.

Using Rounds to Bring Focus and Clarity:

A process we recommend is to conduct your remote meeting in structured rounds. If you have ever attended an ACI Agile Bootcamp prep or follow-up call, you have seen this process in action. Essentially, you (the facilitator) define specific rounds in which information will be shared, with a clear intention for each round. When using rounds, it is essential to explain the number of rounds and the focus for each. This general explanation should happen as you kickoff the session. How is this process related to the agenda? The agenda is the “what” of the meeting; the Structured Rounds is the ‘how” and the “when” for those items.

Providing direction for this structure, which would immediately follow your excite statement, might sound something like this:

“We are going to do this call in 3 rounds, and we’ll hear from everyone during each of them. The first round will be a check-in to find out what’s here for each of you. The second round we will generate some ideas to respond to the Problem X that we are meeting on today. Round 3 will be to hear opinions on which potential solution you want to expand on. We won’t be moving to a decision today, we are just gathering information. Are there any questions about the process?”

NOTE: If you expect everyone to participate, let them know that at the start of that round. No one likes the unpleasant surprise of being put on the spot.

In addition to the overview you give at the start, you should reiterate the purpose and process of each round as it begins. Here is an example of what moving into a particular round may sound like:

"OK, let’s kick off round one. In this round we are going to be doing a Weather Check-in. To do that, you will answer the question “If you could describe your internal state as a weather system, what would it be?” I will kick us off, and then we are going around the room. I’d like to hear from everyone.”

Using this structure allows for several useful outcomes, including ease of flow which can often be challenging in remote meetings. The clarity provided up front eases peoples minds about when specific topics will be addressed. Collisions will happen (people will talk over each other), but don’t worry - everyone survives. There is a sneaky way in which allowing this to happen promotes self-correcting and self-organizing within the meeting participants. So, as the facilitator, you need to be comfortable with things being a little more bumpy - just trust your process. The real gem in this process is that, most of the time, people are able to let go of the worry that they won’t be able to say the thing they need to have heard, and contribute the important stuff when it makes sense, and therefore can more readily be heard by others.

As Head & Shoulders™ told us in the 1980s, You never get a second chance to make a first impression (yes, we’re still looking for that sweet, sweet sponsorship deal!). We offer you the same message for your remote meetings. By utilizing and experimenting with these structures, we believe you can give an outstanding first impression, AND set the stage for the essential discussions needed for business results, even in remote meetings. We hope you join us tomorrow as we focus on how to facilitate those essential discussions in the Doing the Work section of our Facilitation Framework.

If today’s blog post helped you hold a more successful meeting, let us know! As always, we would love to hear from you about what is working and what isn’t.

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