Five seconds to better virtual meetings

Nov 11 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

If you can count to five slowly, you can probably get better results from your online presentations, meetings and training sessions. The reason, strangely, is that we often don’t give people enough time to respond when we ask for their input, questions or comments.

Here’s what I mean: when I work with clients, they often bemoan the lack of engagement and responsiveness from meeting or class participants. They ask, “so what questions do you have” and are met with silence. They then jump in to avoid “dead air.” The problem with this is we’re actually jumping in earlier than we think we are and smothering any real participation before it can occur.

It’s actually relativity at work. Einstein tried to explain relativity by saying, “A second with your hand on a hot stove feels like an hour, an hour with a pretty girl feels like a second”. When we are online, and aren’t comfortable with our surroundings, time flies. Every second that something isn’t happening feels like an eternity, so we fill in “uncomfortable” gaps with noise.

This is counterproductive, though. If you don’t give people sufficient time to process information, form responses and offer them, you’ll create a dynamic where no one actually participates. To understand this, let’s think about what happens in a traditional meeting setting.

The speaker says something, then asks for questions. Quickly, he or she scans the audience for visual cues of interest…maybe someone raises a hand, or looks like they want to say something and the speaker encourages them. Also, the group can look around at each other and see if anyone else has their hand up first, or is going to say something, and we wait our turn.

Online, we don’t receive those visual cues. We have to:

  1. Hear the cue for questions or input
  2. Decide if we have anything to say or ask
  3. Wait to see if anyone else is going to say anything first
  4. Finally speak up

All of that takes about twice as long as it does in a traditional environment with all the normal visual, verbal and social cues in place.

The simplest way to deal with this online is to ask for questions or comments and wait five full seconds. It’s longer than you think, and your instinct will be to move things along. Don’t submit to the panic. Ask, “What questions do you have?” and then silently count “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi”. (Americans tend to use Mississippi, you can use alligator, or anything other multisyllable word that slows you down). Only then will you have given people a real chance to process the information, form a response, and step up to speak.

I have seen this simple technique radically change the dynamic in meetings. It will slow the speaker down, send a message that your request for participation is more than simple lip service, and give people a real chance to engage and process what’s going on. The overall quality of the conversation is enhanced.

Effective communication is possible in virtual environments, we just need to make simple adjustments to our normal behavior. That requires being mindful of the situation and how our habits help… or hinder… those communication efforts.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.