Many of us found ourselves at Kittelson because of our fascination with transportation, or community planning, or engineering, not public speaking or workshop facilitation. However, engaging with groups of people in live settings—whether that’s workshops with community members, meetings with stakeholders and clients, or internal planning sessions and brainstorms—cannot be separated from the work we do. It’s actually what makes it effective, and thus meaningful. At Kittelson, we place a high value on effective community engagement.

But there’s a difference between believing in the purpose of community engagement, and feeling equipped to lead workshops and meetings. This is particularly true as more and more meetings become split with in-person and remote attendees and we ask ourselves how to remain inclusive to both parties.

Having the right tools and techniques can make all the difference.

We spoke with Karen Susman, a communications coach who has consulted with engineering companies on presentation, communication, and networking skills for more than 30 years. This article summarizes her top tips for engaging an audience in a virtual or hybrid environment, and bringing new life to virtual meetings and workshops after a year of “Zoom fatigue.”

Leading a Hybrid Meeting

Leading a hybrid meeting takes planning and intentionality. Being prepared with the right tools and techniques will help you move from presenting to facilitating.

Post Ground Rules in Advance

The success of your meeting or workshop starts before the event. Karen’s first tip is to communicate with your audience in advance and share ground rules.

“Having ground rules posted in advance is really important,” she said. “For example, one of the biggest challenges with a virtual meeting can be getting people to show their faces. Seeing each other increases engagement and reduces multi-tasking. The most non-threatening way to run the meeting this way is to set the expectation in advance.”

Advance communication can also inform attendees how the meeting will flow, what the expected outcomes will be, and how they will be asked to participate, which can reduce anxiety and increase attendance.

Build in an Unofficial Start

The first few minutes of any meeting or workshops, particularly a virtual one, can be marked by silence and waiting. This is also a time when attendees might decide to bail. The solution? Give them something to do. Karen likes to use the chat box to ask three simple questions, such as: Where in the world are you? What do you want to learn today, or what do you hope to get out of this session? What did you have for breakfast? While attendees are posting, play music in the background to give the first few minutes an air of intentionality and excitement. Review the responses as you begin the formal meeting.

Set the Tone with Energy and Excitement

“How you start the meeting is how it is going to go,” said Karen. “It isn’t just delivering information. It’s your demeanor, it’s your voice. If you can do anything that’s a little bit out of the box, even energy, your audience is not used to that and they’ll pay attention.”

This matters, because leading workshops and meetings is about more than providing information—it’s about two-way communication with your audience.

“There’s a difference between presenting and facilitating,” said Karen. “Our role as meeting leaders is not to spew information. It’s to link arms with the audience and bring them along through engagement.”

Include the Meeting Attendees Farthest Away

Audience engagement takes on another layer of challenge when participants are divided among in person and remote. Meeting attendees “calling in” are likely to feel a degree of separation and be less inclined to contribute.

“The goal is inclusivity and the virtual audience may already feel left out,” says Karen. “You have to be sure your facilitator is bringing in those people.”

She recommends addressing this issue early and often:

  • Involve both groups at the beginning of the meeting. Ask questions or introduce the attendees calling in at the beginning of the meeting, so you don’t lose this portion of your audience.
  • Have eyes and ears in both venues. If you’re not sitting in the room with in-person attendees, have someone there to tell you when someone has a question. If you are in the room, make sure someone is monitoring the online meeting for you.
  • Leave yourself reminders to engage both groups of attendees. We’re not above the good old Post-it note on your computer!
  • Make sure faces are visible. For virtual attendees, this goes back to your ground rules—encourage those webcams on! For in-person, if the conference room camera is too far away to capture faces, you could ask them to bring a laptop and log in with video on and microphone muted.

To make the playing field more equal, you can also consider asking everyone to join from a personal desk or office space, rather than congregating in a conference room.

Take Frequent Breaks

Karen recommends doing something different every 6 minutes to keep the audience’s attention. This includes important to build in breaks.

“Remember that people have been likely sitting for a long period of time. Acknowledge that at the beginning of your meeting or workshop. Take a stretch. Stand up,” says Karen. “It’s fatigue, but it’s also stress. It’s difficult to be open to thinking and learning until you manage stress.”

Use Interactivity in a Fresh, But Non-Threatening Way

If you want to engage your audience but are hesitant about using yet another poll or word cloud, you might want to try one of these engagement techniques:

1. Cascade Poll. This is a simple but attention-grabbing exercise. Ask your audience a question and ask them to write an answer in the chat, but don’t hit enter. On the count of three, tell everyone to send in their response. The result is a cascade of answers that shows a high volume of participation. It’s a non-threatening activity with a high “wow” factor.

2. Hand or Body Polls. When it comes to interactive elements, simpler is often better. One of the very simplest is to ask attendees to respond with body language. Assuming cameras are on, ask for feedback using hand raising or body language. For example, “If you’re in favor of this idea, lean forward. If you’re not in favor, lean back.” This type of poll is also low risk, but highly visceral.

3. Reverse Problem Solving. Sometimes it can be easier—and more entertaining—to start by identifying what not to do. For example, “How can we design the worst meeting possible?” Take suggestions either through chat or verbal sharing, then turn the ideas around and design the opposite.

Additional Tips for Running Hybrid Meetings

Here are a few additional practices Karen recommends for running effective hybrid meetings:

  • Always have a dry run for a workshop or presentation, even if it means just taking five minutes to confirm everything is in order.
  • Don’t facilitate alone. Collaborate with a facilitation partner who can troubleshoot technology issues and keep an eye on the meeting chat, so that you can focus on connecting with the audience.
  • End the meeting early. You’ll please attendees every time.
  • Don’t wing it, even if you know the material inside and out. The success of the meeting doesn’t depend on your knowledge. It’s your delivery and the engagement you build, and preparation will always pay off.

What have you learned about conducting engaging and inclusive hybrid meetings? Comment on our LinkedIn post—we’d love to learn from you!

About Karen Susman

Since 1983, Karen Susman has worked with thousands of engineers who want to maximize their performance through her expertise in communication and wellness. Karen offers consulting on presentation, communication, and networking skills. You can learn more here and contact Karen at karen@karensusman.com.