We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 7 Interactive Meetings

Run your meeting mastering the available forms of interaction

“I’m ready for my close-up Mr De Mille” (Sunset Boulevard)


If you thought people could be distracted in a real meeting, then consider how much more scope there is for them to tune out when you’re working online. Events happening around them, constant interruptions, and the easy availability of alternative things to do on their computers often take the focus of attention away from the screen. With the participants largely invisible – even if each person is actively engaged, how are you to know? Without regular interactivity, you are flying blind, you are just hoping for the best. Interactivity proves that communication is taking place.

When planning interactions, imagine how you would interact within a face-to-face meeting.

Text chat

The chat facility typically operates alongside the virtual meeting, available for use at any time. Participants can use it to ask or answer questions or as a ‘back channel’ to pass public or private notes. Some facilitators may find this activity a little strange – after all, we would probably feel uncomfortable if people seated around a table passed messages to one other during a meeting. However, many participants find this channel of great use: they exchange contact details, links, thoughts and comments; they help to move the meeting along, without intervention by the facilitator.

Chat is a good option for questions requiring brief, open-ended responses. If you don’t want participants to ‘cheat’ by borrowing the opinions of the last person, ask participants to type in their comments but not press ‘send’ until told to.

Participants who have inhibitions about speaking up in a live meeting, may be more inclined to interact when text chat is available.

If you want to divide a meeting into sub-groups you might use virtual breakout rooms. Private one-to-one text chat may be an easier alternative if you choose to work in pairs.

Time constraints

A virtual (online) meeting room makes it easy to set timers and to specify the outputs you require of groups or individuals when they are producing something in text chat. In a physical space you might write the task in hand on a flipchart. In a virtual space, it is simple to type instructions into text chat or on to a slide or blank whiteboard.

Give participants time to review each other’s contributions.

You can normally save chat discussions so people can use them after the meeting has ended.

Ticks and crosses

Most systems provide a way for facilitators to obtain simple yes/no responses from participants, totalling up the responses automatically. Facilitators can use this mechanism to obtain confirmations (‘Can you hear me clearly?’, ‘Shall I move on?’) or to conduct simple polls (‘Have you used this system before?’, ‘Do you agree with this?’) Some more sophisticated systems let you set up multiple choice or multiple option questons to gather information or opinions in the same way.

Voice interaction

Participant audio is the best option for longer, open-ended responses (or questions) that would require too much typing to express in chat.

For participants to respond by voice, they must have microphones as well as headphones or speakers. This is not a costly problem to solve, because integrated headsets can be obtained for as little as £10. The advantages of using voice are obvious: the communication is more natural and spontaneous, and there is no need for typing. However, some moderation is required to avoid everyone speaking at once. Most systems use a ‘hands-up’ facility, which allows participants to signify that they want to speak. It is then up to the facilitator to ‘turn the mic on’ or otherwise allow the participant to speak.


In the context of web conferencing, a whiteboard is a blank screen or a prepared slide, on to which participants can draw or type. Whatever is placed on the whiteboard can be seen by all participants. You can use whiteboards in a wide variety of ways:

  • for ice-breaking activities (‘Indicate on this map where you are located’);
  • for capturing expectations at the beginning of a session and then revisiting them at the end for listing participants’ ideas, flip chart-style (‘Where should we hold our sales convention this year?’);
  • for assessing how things are going (‘Draw a picture showing how you’re feeling about this topic’);
  • for structured questions (‘What are you hoping to gain from this meeting?’);
  • as a place where participants can paste screen shots from an application on their computer; these could include screen grabs of documents, spreadsheets and web pages.

To avoid everyone typing or drawing on top of each other, the facilitator can prepare a slide with sections allocated to each of the participants.

Instead of having participants type their responses, consider encouraging them to draw pictures instead.

Whiteboards can often be archived for use after the session. If the system won’t allow this, just make your own screen grab.

Consider asking experienced participants to take turns in annotating the whiteboard.

Polling and quizzing

Polls allow you to ask multiple-choice questions, to profile participants or to survey opinion. They are usually set up in advance, although most systems will allow you to modify or add new questions on the fly. An advantage of online polling is that you can obtain totalled-up responses instantly, allowing you to act immediately on the information.

Quizzes and surveys employed during a live session should be brief and advance the cause of the objectives for the meeting. Otherwise they are better deployed separately, either before or after the session.

Breakout rooms

Some systems provide you with the facility to allocate participants to groups, have them then undertake activities in those groups, monitor what is happening in each room, and then bring them back for a review in plenary. This process mirrors syndicate room activity in a physical conference suite and can be used for much the same purposes, for example:

  • For strategic planning or obstacle elimination.
  • Different groups can work with different content or using different tools (for example one might be doing SWOT analysis while another does Force Field Analysis).
  • If there are varying levels of seniority or functional expertise in a meeting, the session can be divided and different facilitators can moderate separate breakout rooms.
  • Participants can discuss different scenarios, using their own whiteboard to take notes.
  • You can conduct a number of action learning sets in parallel.

With a smaller group, say two to five participants, audio can be used more freely than in plenary. If you want, a spokesperson from each group can report to the larger group once everyone has moved back into the main room.

You may need to use a producer or co-facilitator to assist with the management. However responsibilities are divided, it is important for one of the facilitators to drop in regularly to provide guidance. It may pay to set up a template on the whiteboard in advance, to help direct the group.

Until they become practised, participants at virtual meetings tend not to follow instructions very well. When put into a virtual breakout room, often they will wait for the meeting leader to show up to reissue instructions or manage the tools for them. For participants who are “becalmed” there is usually a device for sending a call to the meeting host who receives a text message asking for help.

There is some evidence that small (3-5 participants), heterogeneous groups better.

When to interact

Most experts agree that participants will lose concentration in a virtual meeting unless they are required to interact in some way every three to five minutes. It goes without saying that interactivity should not be used for its own sake. Each interaction should be meaningful and productive, and this requires planning and preparation.

Try to involve the whole group in the interaction. Serial participation (one person interacting after another) is rarely the best option as it takes too long. It is better to design activities that can be undertaken in small groups or concurrently, using breakout rooms, chat or the whiteboard.

Application sharing

All web conferencing systems allow participants to share an application on their own desktop. They can also pass control of it to someone else.

This feature has a number of important uses:

  • You can view a document and edit the content dynamically.
  • You could create a rich picture, a mind map or a project plan then pass control from person to person to complete the task. Or you could set up individual breakout rooms in which participants can work on items on their own desktops, and present to or get help from the meeting leader where appropriate.
  • You can use application sharing as the basis for mentally rehearsing a change that involves involve technology, e.g. the embedding of modifications or introduction of a new IT system.
  • Presentations can be shared without being uploaded in advance into the web conferencing system’s own format. This ensures all the functionality of the original presentation is maintained.

The downside of application sharing is that it demands a fast broadband connection if it is not to appear jerky and disjointed.

Open the application before you need to use it. Have it open, logged in, and ready in another window.

Find out how much space participants will have on their screens to view applications on then size your window accordingly. Otherwise participants will have to scroll to see the whole application window.

Make sure you close all other applications, especially IM and email – you don’t want embarrassing pop-ups to appear in your meeting.

Web tours

Some systems also allow the facilitator to lead participants in exploring a particular web site, whether on the internet or an organisation’s intranet. This is useful in that it allows online content to be employed without it being uploaded into the system in the advance. This content could include animations and video, which are not normally available within uploaded slides. It could also include games, quizzes, questionnaires and other activities which participants can then undertake individually.

What next?

Part eight of this ten-part series is about managing group dynamics online, in order to keep everyone involved and on-track. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.