Last year, we all moved to the online world. That worked pretty well in many places, but in some places it didn’t. As always with new things, mistakes happened. Mistakes that we can all learn from and make even better meetings.
If you want to make and experience better meetings: Pick one mistake and try not to make it in the next meeting. And if that works, tackle the next one.
Be the reason we’ll have fewer but better meetings in 2021.
Lack of or inadequate preparation
Failure to define a clear goal.
Happens over and over again and not only in online meetings. It’s actually quite simple: If the goal is not clear, you can’t achieve it. Most of the time, the answer to these three questions for a meeting preparation is enough to increase the chances of success.
Do no preparation at all and sort thoughts only in the meeting.
If you don’t have time to prepare for a meeting, cancel it. It’s an imposition to force others to watch you sort thoughts and waste their time doing it. Not to mention that without preparation, the chances of a successful outcome are extremely diminished. The article “How to do a good preparation quickly and easily” has everything you need to know.
Invite for a full hour
Meeting after meeting is draining and lowers productivity. Your colleagues will thank you if you invite for just 25 or 50 minutes — and you’ll have a chance at attentive attendees.
Inviting too many people.
Might be easier for you, but it just costs a lot of people time. And in the best case it is useless, in the worst case people will not come in the future when you really need them. If you have a good goal defined, you can more easily decide when you really need. In the blog post Fries with Ketchup: The Art of Selecting the Right Attendees I went into more detail on this topic.
Inviting the wrong participants.
Certain decisions, in particular, require certain people. If you are not there, the whole appointment is worth nothing. It’s best to think about who you need beforehand and make sure they are there. Or reschedule.
Hoping that if there are more than 5 people already a good conversation will ensue.
To be clear, a good discussion with more than 5 participants does not happen to produce the desired result. That’s exactly what a moderator is for, to create a framework where good interaction can happen. If there are more participants, you can use break-out rooms and bring everyone back together later. Or in silence, have everyone work together on the whiteboard to come up with a solution. No matter what, design the framework in which the exchange takes place. Especially in large meetings, success stands or falls with facilitation. Fill the role or make sure someone else does it.
Monotony in the process.
Make a change of method after 10 minutes, 15 minutes at the latest. At least another speaker, but ideally something completely different methodically. If it was a lecture, you can, for example, include an interaction after 15 minutes or simply ask a question to be answered in the chat.
Use too many external platforms.
There are many great platforms and fancy tools that can make a meeting more exciting. Not everyone is as familiar with them as you are. It’s easy to overwhelm participants with too many unfamiliar tools and functions. And then you achieve the opposite of what you wanted, a good meeting experience. Less is more.
Tools follow content — and not the other way around.
Before you use a new tool or functionality, ask yourself if it really fits the process or if you just want to use the function. Most of the time this leads to nothing good. The other way around it does — first answer the question “What do I want to achieve?” and then choose the right tool for it. Even if this means in doubt that a tool that you think is totally great will only be used in a later meeting.
Design the meeting so that everyone has to stare at the screen the whole time.
Your attendees’ eyes and attention will thank you if you include elements that don’t require them to look at the screen the whole time. If there’s a lot of text, send it around beforehand.
Behavior as a moderator
Not starting on time
If you don’t start on time, you’ll reward those who are late. Just start on time, word will get out and people will come more on time.
Don’t discuss meeting rules.
Of course, most people know the basic rules. But if you make them present again at the beginning, they’ll be just that: present. And that makes it much easier for you to point out when something isn’t right during the meeting. A favorite rule — no monologues longer than 2 minutes.
Keep the goal secret.
Just like with the rules, it’s the same with the goal: just tell your participants, then you can achieve it together. And if you can’t say it because you don’t know for sure, that’s the perfect cue to cancel the meeting — or set a goal that includes clarity.
Everyone knows them, everyone hates them. Think about what you want to accomplish beforehand, and then work toward it consistently. There’s no reason to take up more of your colleagues’ time than planned just because you can’t manage to focus the meeting. Sounds tough, but it is.
Follow through without a break.
If your meeting really needs to go longer than an hour, schedule a break after 45 minutes. At least 5 minutes of real break. And if you then ask attendees not to read emails, but to get up and move around, chances are it will be a real break.
Don’t create a documentation.
Especially in virtual, memory is harder because everything feels the same. If you make a docu, everyone can recap the content, even the colleagues who weren’t there. And it’s more about the content (what was really important?) than about process documentation “…and then we talked about xy”.
Expect everyone to participate all the time.
Often there are meetings where a colleague is only needed for one agenda item. What’s wrong with inviting her or him just for that agenda item?
Use an existing presentation
Efficiency and recycling of slides is a charming thing, but only for the recycler. Clearly more helpful to everyone is a good answer to the question, “Which slides will help me achieve the goal?” All slides created for a different set of participants pretty much won’t. It may be a little more work for you up front, but you’ll be rewarded with a lot more sticking in people’s minds. And that’s your real goal, isn’t it?
Don’t talk about expectations.
Most of the time, people think they know the expectations of others. Experience shows that this is almost never the case. That’s why a few minutes at the beginning talking about expectations for the meeting can be time well spent.
Thinking that it’s enough to say things only once.
That would mean, conversely, that you made it perfectly clear, unambiguous and unambiguous, and that everyone was paying attention the whole time. Again, experience shows that this is almost never the case. Especially when it comes to directions for action, invitations or “instructions”, a lot often gets lost — say it several times or write it down.
Straight to the point — without seeing or knowing how the others are doing at the moment.
A good meeting start with a check-in doesn’t take long and changes a lot. It strengthens the personal relationship and everyone has said something before. A good starting point for a successful meeting. 20 check-in ideas for a good start.
Don’t endure silence.
If you’ve asked a question, you should also give participants a chance to think about an answer — in silence. Even if it feels weird to you as the moderator. If someone is talking all the time, you can’t listen. Or not think. The good — you can learn to endure silence. Practice makes perfect.
Expecting insights to fall from the sky.
Gaining insight takes time, and sometimes it takes something unplanned above all else. For all your planning work — if you realize that the group needs something different right now, it can be worth deviating from the plan sometimes. Making good meetings doesn’t mean slavishly sticking to a set structure. If it takes a change to achieve the goal, make it. Or just schedule enough time up front for those phases.
Ask an open question and expect everyone to answer it.
This simply doesn’t work in a virtual space and leads to uncomfortable situations. As a moderator, you should provide a framework that works. E.g. address the participants specifically by name or give the question in break-out rooms.
Expecting everyone to be comfortable with the technique.
If you don’t know how much experience your participants have with the technique, you can offer a technique check 15 minutes beforehand. Doesn’t cost you much time, but shows your interest in the attendees — and in making it a good meeting.
Overcrowded PowerPoint slides, font size 12 …
… and then, best of all, tell something completely different than what is written on it, because “everyone can read for themselves”. Right, but not both at the same time. Don’t make this mistake in online meetings and rather make slides that support what you say.
Allow long presentations and monologues
What is true for you is true for all participants — long monologues and monotonous presentations don’t help anyone. Make sure speaking time is limited and people bring good presentations to the meeting.
Not making a good closing.
Too much time wasted on unplanned things? Technology problems at the beginning? Not everyone there? Got kicked out? No matter what the reasons are for running off schedule. The last 5 minutes should always belong to a good finish.
Mistakes as a participant in online meetings
Use breaks for emails.
Breaks are not breaks when you check your emails. Then they are even counterproductive, because instead of resting your brain has to do a context switch.
Judge instead of question.
When we can’t understand or comprehend something, we tend to directly judge it as bad. Instead, how about just curiously questioning why your colleague thinks that way or developed that suggestion?
Being late and then having problems with technology.
That’s annoying. And is disrespectful. If you’re going to be late, do it silently, keep your “I didn’t get in” to yourself, and come in in a way that doesn’t disturb others.
Don’t dial into a tool that’s new to you until the meeting starts on time.
If you don’t know it and have never used it before, start 5 minutes before. Or 15 minutes. Something unexpected can always happen.
Sitting at the tablet when it is clear that boards will be used.
Most virtual boards just don’t work that well there. And if it doesn’t work that well, you can’t really participate.
Keep the mic active all the time.
No one wants to hear your background noise. Really nobody. A little discipline and kindly pointing out when someone has forgotten helps.
“You’re still mute.”
It happens all the time and sometimes we tend to get annoyed “you’re still mute”. Think of something nice to point out to the speaker. A certain gesture, something handwritten that you hold up to the camera. On the one hand it is simply nicer, on the other hand it brings some variety into the meeting.
It’s tempting to have a conversation, read emails or surf the web. It’s all possible. The question is whether it is a good idea to be distracted. Wouldn’t it be better to consciously decide where you want to actively participate?
Be mentally elsewhere.
How about thinking of a meeting as a training session in concentration and focus? And if the meeting is bad, use it as a basis for lots of ideas about what you could do better next time in the role of facilitator? Or share your ideas appreciatively with the facilitator in the aftermath?
Taking meetings less seriously because they are “just virtual”.
Virtual things are “not real” to many. Maybe we should just talk about meetings.
Camera — a mistake in online meetings
Camera on is mandatory.
Yes, it’s nice to see the others. But exercise and fresh air is nice too — take advantage of meetings that lend themselves to taking a walk on the side.
If you’re not going to be in a room, at least turn the camera on.
Camera always on.
Nothing is more annoying than trying to look smart in front of the camera all day. The camera doesn’t always have to be on. The last three points contradict each other? Not necessarily. You can also turn the camera on only at the beginning and at the end, or when you’re talking, or presenting. There is no right and no wrong, there is only a setting that fits well for a certain situation.
Halo through window in background or Darth Vader? Good light is not costly, but so helpful. The cheapest option — look at the window, and you will be evenly lit.
Camera too far down.
It looks like you’re looking down on people, whether you want to or not. Solution? Camera at eye level.
In large meetings, leave the camera on even though you’re not talking.
This often goes quite a bit to the bandwidth and quality of the meeting. Try it out to see if it’s a good idea. When in doubt, leave it off.
Very basic mistakes with online meetings.
Blaming “online” for the fact that nothing came out.
In case of doubt, it was due to the lack of preparation, the missing goal, bad moderation,….. It’s virtually never due to the fact that it was online. That’s just an excuse.
Assume that virtual meetings work the same as physical ones.
The basic success factors are the same, but there are just more. Use virtual options (chat, whiteboard, break out), change methods faster to combat fatigue, …
Continue offline formats online.
Offline has strengths, online has other strengths. If you continue offline formats online, you are not using the strengths of one or the other and it just won’t be good. Re-think your schedule — and use the opportunities available to you.
Do one meeting after antoher, the meeting marathon.
If there’s no time to think, process and recover between meetings, content will fall by the wayside, too.
Doing too many meetings.
At some point, everyone is tired, #zoomfatigue says hello. It’s better to have fewer meetings and just good ones.
Just don’t have “we should exchange ideas” meetings — if you can’t name a clear goal for your meeting, cancel it. Or make it clear beforehand that it’s simply a virtual coffee.
Spend your lunch break in meetings
If you see your lunch break as an appointment that can’t be rescheduled or negotiated, you’ll be fitter for all the activities that follow.
Wanting to resolve everything in a meeting.
Most content would not need to be discussed in a meeting. Think about which ones don’t necessarily belong in a meeting beforehand and clarify them in other ways.
Only meet online.
If at all possible, try to meet for real. Especially with colleagues you don’t know live yet. I recently went for a walk with a colleague. That was great!
So, what mistake are you trying to avoid making in the near future?
Always wanting to do everything on your own.
Just because you’re organizing a meeting doesn’t mean you have to do everything on your own. If you’re unsure of how to articulate the goal well, how to accomplish something specific. Ask the others. Nobody knows everything. When I started writing this article at some point the thought came to me — why not ask my network? So I asked 30 people for their one favorite mistake. And without them, the article would never have turned out as well as it did.
So, that’s it. 50 mistakes we shouldn’t do again in 2021.
I’ve made all of them, by the way. Every single one. 😁
These are the people who contributed to the content and success of this article — THANK YOU! Alex Birke, André Brüggemann, Dagmar Bott, Darijo Višević, Dominique Feurich, Dov Tsal, Dr. Philipp Diebold, Felix Handler, Franziska Wiebel PhD, Gesine Engelage-Meyer, Harald Schirmer, Jacob Chromy, Jan-Marc Ehrmann, Janina Weingarth, Johannes Schartau, Julia Haug, Julian Kea, Kai Brausewetter, Kai-Marian Pukall, Kirsty Lewis, Luisa Ziemer, Marc Löffler, Martin Schenkenberger Paula Gamboa Acevedo, Pia Moberg, Sabine Kluge, Simone Kunisch, Sonja Jacinto, Stefan Hoch, Steffen Oehme, Susanne Busshart, Susanne Heiss, Thomas Lahnthaler, Ulrich Berger, Ute Lange.