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How to Hold Better Virtual Board Meetings

While the Covid pandemic made them necessary, virtual board sessions are still beneficial post-pandemic—but they must be designed to keep participants engaged. Here are five ways to do that.

Executive boards, advisory boards, and project committees: All are crucial to the inner workings of associations, and almost all are populated by volunteers. That combination of factors makes it essential that planners of these meetings understand what makes for an effective virtual session, because these days “if a board meets four times a year, three of those are probably going to be online,” notes Jeff Middlesworth, CEO of Boardable, a software company that facilitates board management.

Given that board members are relied upon to brainstorm ideas, provide perspectives, collaborate, and move initiatives forward, the environment an association creates in its virtual board sessions is paramount for success. MeetingsNet recently spoke with Middlesworth, who offered five ways for planners to create virtual meetings that meet objectives and excite board members about their work and their next opportunity to get together in person.

Build the meeting as if it’s a theater production. “There are a few obstacles that must be overcome to get good engagement and interaction in virtual meetings,” Middlesworth says. “But the main one is that it’s so easy for people to get distracted and tune out,” even if they’re on camera along with everyone else. As a result, “planners should build out the agenda as if it were a play,” which means developing each act to have a beginning and end, and having the acts flow logically from one to the next. This will help keep participants connected to the experience.

One smart tactic: Break up presentations by allowing for commentary after each slide. “Especially in virtual meetings, people need to know that they are expected to chime in frequently, or else they will feel as if they’re rudely interrupting.”

Use the “seven-Mississippi” rule for commentary and discussion periods. Silence doesn't necessarily mean that people are not engaged. In a virtual meeting, “the presenter can't see someone leaning forward in their seat, wanting to jump in,” says Middlesworth. “So, a lot of people sit back and wait for someone else to say something first.”

The solution: Rather than allow your presenters to simply say, “Feel free to ask a question at any time,” have them ask for participants’ thoughts or present the audience with a question at frequent intervals. However, “presenters must be comfortable with allowing silence for as long as it takes them to say ‘Mississippi’ silently in their head seven times,” Middlesworth notes. This gives participants sufficient time to reflect on the topic and form their thoughts. “You would not believe how often a board member will finally say something at the count of six. From there, others are more comfortable to speak and suddenly you have a conversation.”

AM0822JeffMiddlesworth.jpgLeverage chat forums to maximize interaction and diversity of thought. “It’s critical to look at your audience’s demographic because it helps you understand their preferred communication styles,” says Middlesworth (in photo). For instance, people under 40 “communicate much more in writing than verbally.” When he runs board meetings, then, Middlesworth taps another board member to monitor the chat forum constantly. “I ask, ‘Can you chime in every 10 minutes or so to let us know what common themes are coming up in the chat forum?’ Not every board member pays attention to the forum, but some really good conversations could be happening there.”

In light of this, planners should have someone who is always ready to bring those threads into the main conversation. “Boards are becoming very diverse, and that means some of your members probably don’t focus on chat forums or speech bubbles or other features within your virtual-meeting platform.”

Plan breaks wisely. Because many virtual board meetings last a few hours, a half-day, or even a full day, planners must build in breaks at the right times and for the right length of time. For any board meetings he runs that are 90 minutes or less, “I ask everyone to keep their cameras on so we can maintain engagement” and there is no break. But for longer meetings, “some people will turn off their cameras and tune out for several minutes to have a snack, unless you tell them up front when the breaks will be and for how long.”

Deliver pre-event materials in a way that works both for attendees and the planning team. Unless it's required by your bylaws, sending the entire board packet to members a week or two ahead of the meeting is unproductive, Middlesworth says. Instead, “send a curated version that hits the salient points you want the members to think about as they come into the meeting. What are the really important things, the slides or pages you want them to have in mind? Send those.”

Further, “I highly recommend not sending these documents as email attachments,” he adds. While those are easy for board members to click on in their mailbox, “it's inevitable that those documents get changed within days or even hours of being sent. This means that you’ll have to keep emailing revised versions, or else members will be looking at their outdated email version and you’ll have to spend time during the meeting explaining all the changes.”

To minimize the work of the person in charge of sending out the meeting’s relevant information, associations could use Dropbox or a similar file-housing app, or create a password-protected link on the association's website for members to access the latest version on demand. And while planners might hear some grumbling in the first board meeting after such a change, “the resistance will go away once people get used to it,” Middlesworth says.

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