A few days ago I facilitated a large group meeting with 150 people in attendance. We made an important decision together after an hour of vigorous discussion. To make sure that we had a solid structure in place we used Robert's Rules of Order, a parliamentary procedure ensuring fairness to both the majority and the minority in discussion.
Why do these well-used rules, first created in 1876, work so well today? The rules offer the following benefits:
- They provide a clear structure and process that is easily explained and followed.
- They ensure orderly transitions between speakers during moderated discussion.
- They balance the needs of the majority with the needs of the minority.
- They balance the drive for efficiency with the drive for fairness, allowing all voices to be heard but no single voice to dominate.
- They allow a facilitator or moderator to enforce the agreed-upon structure if discussion goes off track.
- They bring welcome order out of chaos during important meetings.
Imagine similar aspects in use in a strong virtual meeting: clear structure and process; orderly transitions; meeting participants' needs; efficient and fair; well-facilitated; ensuring order arises from chaos. How do great web meeting facilitators do that?
A well-planned virtual meeting relies on the interaction tools to encourage balanced participation from everyone. The skilled web meeting facilitator clearly explains processes and norms. For example, if people are encouraged to speak aloud, the facilitator might explain in a large group meeting: "Raise your virtual hand if you have something to add and I will call on you by name. Keep your phone line muted until I call your name." Or alternatively, in a smaller group meeting, the facilitator might state: "If you have something to add to the discussion, please unmute your phone line and state your name before adding your opinion."
Often in virtual meetings I will intentionally encourage contrary opinions in the meeting design. I might plan to have one chat pod with "Reasons I Agree" and a second chat pod open with "Reasons I Disagree," for example. And I will encourage people to chat in both pods to elicit a diversity of opinion.
Great virtual meetings with clear structure and fair processes also encourage everyone to participate continuously. It's tempting to multi-task in a virtual meeting, but a strong meeting design will work against that temptation.