Designing Electronic Conferencing that's Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent
Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Mastering the Medium, the Message, and the Meeting
I'm not a maven when it comes to technology or industry forecasting; fortunately, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that companies, government agencies, really, all kinds of organizational entities are increasingly moving their meeting, conference, training, hiring, and decision-making functions to a variety of electronic venues. And while not quite Nielsen-ratings quality, based on my almost daily informal surveying of all kinds of professionals, most people encountered range from minimally satisfied or quite dissatisfied with the electronic meeting experience unless, of course, they are able to get other work done or mute-distract themselves with multi-tasking/texting during the event. (A friend said of his conference call strategy: after pushing the "mute" button, he listens just enough to respond, if necessary, when an audience-directed question is raised. Not the desire of most meeting planners/managers, I would imagine.)
In addition, there is an inescapable irony: as phone conferences, webinars, and webcasts (that is, virtual-video gatherings, even those with cutting edge clarity and interactivity) replace live, "bodies-physically-in-the-same-room programs," the possession of robust rather than robotic communicational knowledge, aptitudes, and applied skills is more essential than ever. Actually, these virtual, multimedia presentation and interpersonal facilitation skills may require further tuning, honing, and integrating of the standard "live audience" communication-connection arsenal.
Strategic and Tactical Mindsets and Skillsets: Linking the Traditional and the Virtual
Experience and fluency in "people and process skills" is vital; so too is the ability to adapt and apply in the technical realm the following traditional strategic areas and skillsets:
1) emotional insight-interpersonal intelligence, that is, critical, compassionate, curious, and creative thinking and feeling, planning and intuiting,
2) verbal-nonverbal communication and public presentation, especially engaging listening and questioning abilities, along with rapid reception, integration, and on-point transmission and/or spontaneous yet "respectful," "real," "responsible," and "responsive" feeding back of relevant data, (email firstname.lastname@example.org for my essay, "The Four 'R's of PRO Relating"),
3) group, meeting, and audience dynamics-structure-process-performance, and
4) leadership and decision-making substance, style, and savvy across media settings. These four knowledge and skillset domains are now MISSION CRITICAL.
The operational and tactical challenge becomes generating something like a parallel or analogous "live" experience between the traditional and the virtual in terms of:
a) human - individual and group - energy and goal setting along with task and touch connection,
b) personal and personable style of sharing and storytelling, perhaps analytically and artfully weaving a complex, yet still clear and concise media-message-meaning matrix that is probing, provocative, imaginative, mind-opening, and motivating,
c) verbal and visual if not multi-sensorial conceptual engagement and applied understanding,
d) effective and efficient, directive and interactive "hands on" problem-solving, delegation, feedback, follow-up, etc.,
e) an ability to transform conflict into "walk in my shoes" empathy and collaboration, team consensus and cohesion, while still allowing for individuality, diversity, and difference, and finally,
f) in the moment focused attention and commitment, along with participatory purpose and passion.
Are You Ready for an Excellent Electronic Trip?
Clearly, even traditional live meetings don't always meet this "standard of excellence." Electronic LSD - Learning, Sharing, and Dialoguing - via Multimedia Channeling definitely impacts subsequent Decision-Making, Implementing, Coordinating, and Evaluating (DICE). This informational and emotional process requires leaders, presenters, and participants who can imaginatively synthesize and adaptively utilize these ever evolving, ever challenging, and intrinsically interdependent "brave new world" dynamics. Are you ready to build a clear, concise, yet insightful bridge between "high tech and high touch" to maximize the use of the medium, the message, and the meeting?
If you are up for the challenge, here are several "low- or medium tech and high touch" recommendations, "The Dynamic Dozen +1 Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Successful Phone/Web Conferencing" - #1-2:
1. Take Time for Pre-Conference Call Planning. What are the learning/sharing goals of the conference call meeting or program? How do goals as well as audience composition, size, and time constraints influence the overall program rules along with the roles and responsibilities that are assigned to or expected of the Leader/Moderator, Presenter/s, and General Audience? (Some of these issues, for example, utilizing a pre-meeting questionnaire to help establish agenda items, will be addressed in Strategy/Slide
2, "Agenda Setting, Direction, & Time Consciousness."). In addition to "big picture" preparation, focusing on "nuts and bolts, volts and bytes" is also essential:
a. Do a Technology/Operation Check. Make sure the technology is working; do a dry run the day before; if not possible, try a preview at least 30 minutes out; coordinate usage of slides, poll questions, who - presenter, audience, tech support person - has control of what?, etc.)
b. Generate an Electronic Friendly Reception-Participation Space. Try to eliminate or reduce ambient distractions in your office or cubicle, or find a more private "log in" space; try placing personal phone on mute; when possible, place a note on door: "Meeting in Progress"; with its propensity for generating static, presenters and participants should minimize speaker phone usage; while it's hard to carve out time these days, try to treat an electronic conference as you would a live meeting (except with less diversionary texting ;-)
c. Establish Conference/Team Ground Rules & Norms. Ground rules and norms provide a standard pattern of communicative behavior and interpersonal interaction. Is active participation encouraged, e.g., are audience questions/comments permitted during the actual presentation (and in what format - voice, text) or should they be held to the end? May participants email presenters after the fact? In a phone conference, are the presenters and other participants allowed to spontaneously raise questions? Are differences (especially among team members) to be aired publicly or privately?
d. Value Constructive Conflict. When possible, explore reasonable and respectful divergence, even if some discord may ensue. (Of course, to manage electronic conflict or debate an active and effective moderator or mediator is absolutely necessary.) Interpersonal conflict that is constructive in intention and delivery is a spur to reflection, imagination, and clarification; productive conflict that spurs genuinely collaborative problem-solving frequently strengthens a product or process and, hopefully, even a partnership. Of course, most of us are familiar with how easily electronic communication can become problematic, e.g., when the misspelling of a word means the automatic translation of your text message is not quite the message intended or, more ominously, when a heated email quickly morphs into an heat-seeking E-MISSILE!"
While allowing conflict poses risks, there's definite potential for reward. As John Dewey, "The Father of American Public Education," observed, Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the "sine qua non" of reflection and ingenuity.
e. Broaden Your Team Philosophy. In addition, a multi-faceted notion of conflict may nurture a philosophical and team building variation on the traditional team mantra, "There's no 'I' in Team"…My expanded catchphrase: There may be no 'I' in team but there are two 'I's in winning - Individuality and Interactivity. And these "I's can "C." Winning teams enable "Individual Courage-Creativity" and "Interactive Critique-Community!" As Adam Gopnilk, author of Angels and Ages: A Short History of Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, noted, Repetition is the law of nature, but variation is the rule of life! Increasingly, evolutionary biologists are coming around to the notion that variation and cooperation, even more than fierce competition, are what encourage the "survival of the fittest."
f. Engage the Existential? Finally, an existential ground rule question: do you want to ask participants to limit their "desk top" multi-tasking to truly essential activity or critical interruptions? (Speaking of inviting potential "conflict"…Of course, providing relevant information at a conversational yet brisk pace, along with engaging the audience through targeted questions, may increase participant focus and attention span.)
2. Integrate Agenda Setting, Time Consciousness, & Directive-Interactive Leadership. Effectively using a clearly defined agenda and purposeful time limits requires a strategically active and mindful program leader or facilitator. And a critical meeting/conference dimension is the functional framework: what will be the operational ratio between a structured (more direction/less audience participation) and spontaneous (less direction/more audience participation) program format? Here are key steps and strategies for harnessing the power of agenda, time, and direction:
a. Set a Clearly Defined Agenda. Your agenda should reflect the type of electronic medium, meeting goals, roles, audience size and composition, as well as time constraints. More specifically, the agenda should mirror both your goals and specifically focus on selective key learning needs/concerns/desires of your audience. When possible, notify people beforehand of the agenda and other logistical variables. A pre-conference call participant questionnaire or agenda item solicitation may help establish a working agenda. It also increases a sense of investment and commitment to the success of the meeting or conference.
b. Promote Time Consciousness. So many are caught in that "Temporal Catch-22": gasping, grasping, and struggling in a "TNT" - Time-Numbers-Technology - driven, distracted, yet "do more with less" web, when minutes and money are parasitic partners in time. Simultaneously, an "always on/wired" world seems to be heightening for many a "Facebook friending," "EBay shopping," "Poker- or Scrabble-playing," and "Smartphone crazed" cultural consciousness while draining or diverting attention spans for just about everything else. Okay, perhaps all this technology can be more diluting for most things "human being" as opposed to "human doing." Clearly, designing and implementing skills, structures, and strategies that heighten the purposeful, productive, and partnering value of "meeting time" across media platforms is mission critical. Try these steps to increase the functional impact of time:
(1) start on time; don't repeat everything for latecomers unless you believe selective paraphrasing will benefit all involved,
(2) assign speaker slots and time segments for presenters, e.g., discourage lengthy monologues; a speaker should not talk for more than 2-3 minutes before checking in with his or her audience (more later),
(3) if using poll questions, allow participants an announced designated response time, e.g., thirty seconds per question, and a similar defined time period for viewing poll results, posing subsequent questions, having large group discussion, etc.,
(4) maintain a brisk and focused meeting air and pace; in general, people dislike slow, meandering or muddled meetings or presentations,
(5) end the meeting five minutes early; give people time to refill their water bottles/coffee cups, to take a bathroom break before the next meeting, etc.
c. Determine Directive-Interactive Leadership-Presenter-Audience Balance. As noted, the operational structure of the agenda, the functional dynamic of time, and the directional nature and style of leadership are interdependent. Here are vital considerations for forging an optimal balance between leadership direction and audience participation:
(1) articulating agenda items, audience size and demographics; announcing or facilitating the establishment of ground rules, as well as purposeful time boundaries, time philosophy, etc.,
(2) cueing people to begin as well as helping others refocus or finish when a participant is straying from time or topic; depending on meeting purpose, mediating "back and forth" discussion and rebuttal; when necessary, reminding others of assigned roles and responsibilities,
(3) assessing the pros and cons of members being on "mute" to minimize noise distractions or, conversely, having participants "unmuted," i.e., surveying whether the distraction risk is worth the potential participation and interaction reward; remember, psychologically and operationally it's easier to spontaneously speak up when unmute is the default position,
(4) encouraging and/or setting boundaries on audience questions or comments as program form, function, time and process dictate,
(5) providing closing summation - what has and has not been accomplished, who has future task/homework responsibility, post-electronic conference decision time frames, still remaining areas of disagreement or uncertainty?, etc. - or soliciting real time closing feedback, for example, "what one or two key points have been gained from today's meeting?"; if appropriate, reminding people to send in evaluation data.
Part I of this essay captures one of the ironies of our ever-changing and expanding technical world: when it comes to electronic meetings, phone conferences, webinars and webcasts, the need for traditional "soft or people skills" - emotional-interpersonal intelligence, verbal and nonverbal communication/presentation, group dynamics, and leadership-facilitation - is more critical than ever. Increasingly, an organization's capacity to survive and thrive depends on the adaptation of these skillsets across a range of interactive media. The operational and tactical challenge becomes generating something like a parallel or analogous "live" and engaging experience that is "effective, efficient, and emotionally intelligent" in the virtual realms of individual and group learning, sharing, and decision-making.
Part I presents the first two skills, structures, and strategies for bridging the electronic meeting/conferencing/training world of "high tech and high touch." The twelve "hands on" tools will be evenly divided among the six segments of this series. These planning-focusing-communicating-connecting tools and techniques will help leaders, presenters, and participants maximize the use of the medium, the message, and the meeting. The "The Dynamic Dozen +1 Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Successful Phone/Web Conferencing" includes:
1. Take Time for Pre-Conference Call Planning
2. Integrating Agenda Setting, Time Consciousness, & Directive-Interactive Leadership
3. Be Aware of the Obvious Challenges of Phone Communication
4. Find "Small" and Meaningful Areas of Personal and Cultural Connection
5. Connect to Pain and Passion Using Client's Words and Language
6. Deliver Meaningful Messages in Organized Chunks and Concise & Colorful Stories
7. Beware the Monologue - Learn to Pause, Check In, and Ask "Good Questions"
8. Be Conscious of "Hot Buttons," Assumptions, and Exaggerated Sensitivity
9. Listen to Feedback; Strategically Assess, Don't Simply Launch or Counterattack
10. Is an Existential Decision Really On the Line?
11. Design Time for Motivating, Mutual Strategizing, and Summarizing
12. Don't Forget to Debrief…and Audience Relief
Stay tuned for the "Dynamic Dozen" two tools and techniques at a time. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!