Don't fear distractions during online meetings

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In my years of teaching and talking to people about virtual meetings and presentations, I've found one fear of presenters and meeting leaders looms larger than any other: Most people are afraid that the audience are busy texting and sending email instead of paying close attention.

Some of this is paranoia (after all, if you can't see what they're up to, your brain will try and figure it out, and few people create a best case scenario). Some of it is based on the fact that most of us have been guilty of multi-tasking during conference calls and web meetings. Yes, Karma is both fair and unforgiving.

I often tell people to relax. Worrying about something never solved the problem. Yes, you want to plan to engage your audience, but do so without obsessing and making yourself crazy. Here are some tips to help you relax.

Just because they do something else for a moment doesn't mean they're not hanging in there. If you've never "zoned out" during a face-to-face meeting, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din. Few of us are so riveted by what's going on that we can't do something else for a brief period then re-engage. Unless you're specifically asking for their input, they will probably be back.

Use the "attention meter" feature as a guide- but don't obsess. Many web platforms have some way of telling you when an audience member opens another window or minimizes the screen you're presenting. (If you've never seen it, in WebEx it's a little red exclamation mark.) You don't know what they're doing (they might be surfing the web, they might be checking to make sure they have the document you're talking about. Don't assume bad things without evidence.)

Set groundrules and be specific. It's amazing how many people start a meeting or online presentation without setting ground rules. We meekly ask people to pay attention, but we don't get specific.

Try this line on for size: "Because this is so important to you, we'd ask that you give us your attention. Please turn off anything like Outlook or Instant Messaging that might be a distraction. It will also help reduce the chances of computer freeze or crashes during our meeting". Hey, it's true enough that your conscience should be clear.

Don't muzzle people or treat them like 5 year olds. In a regular meeting, you wouldn't see someone checking their Blackberry or whispering to a colleague and get all bent out of shape, unless it became habitual or disruptive. The same is true online. Assume they'll act like adults until they show otherwise. People might send chat messages to each other, or make jokes in chat, and it might be silly. It might also be a worthwhile comment, a question requiring clarification or something important.

Use good facilitation and questioning techniques. An experienced presenter will notice someone mentally checking out, and get them back by asking a question of the group, or calling on that person for an answer. You can do the same thing online. The more you encourage participation, the more you can expect it and hold people accountable.

If you never really want them to talk or contribute, don't be surprised if they tune out. Here's a tip: if you're going to call on someone by name, say their name first before asking the question. This puts them on notice and avoids embarrassing them in front of everyone.

Make it worth their while to pay attention. The best way to make sure people pay attention is to give them a good reason to pay attention. Make sure you are presenting the information in a way that is focused on their needs, and is relevant to their work. People are very good at paying attention when there is something obviously at stake for those people, and equally good at tuning out what they consider worthless.

Participating in an online meeting is tough. There's a lot to distract you. It's up to the meeting leader to give people a reason to focus their attention, help them do so, then accomplish the task at hand so it was all worth it.

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