5 Things You Need to Know Before Taking Your In-Person Event Virtual

Categories: Global Teams

So you’ve decided to convert an important meeting from a face-to-face format to a virtual one. But you’re concerned that the meeting won’t go well because it will be more difficult to engage participants and ensure that there is real communication. What can you do to make the meeting truly inclusive and to achieve a better outcome?

Key issues with virtual meetings, especially larger ones, include:

  • Fewer Visual Cues: If you are not used to turning ON your camera, you’ll have fewer cues from others’ body language; even with cameras, such cues may still be harder to gauge than when meeting in person.
  • Lack of spontaneous engagement: Getting into the conversation is often more difficult for virtual participants than when people are sitting in the same room.
  • Technology glitches: There is usually something that goes wrong, and presenters must adapt quickly.
  • Cultural breakdowns: Participants with different communication styles or expectations for how the meeting should be run may find it difficult to contribute.
  • Disengagement: Participants can easily become detached from the meeting and distracted by other activities, especially if their primary role is a passive one.

Here are several steps you can take to improve the quality of your virtual meetings.

Use Expert Facilitators: For a large, high-stakes meeting, it is advisable to have an experienced facilitator who knows the technology you are using well, and is a master at engaging audience members. Some people simply have a better virtual “presence” than others. When hundreds of people are present, the facilitator may need a technical support person as well. For smaller meetings run by a team leader, it is a good idea to at least do a virtual technology crash course and to rehearse with a small audience first to make sure everything works.

Upgrade Equipment: Minor changes make a major difference in meeting quality for organizations not already investing in an expensive technology platform with dedicated meeting rooms. Presenters can be equipped with a higher quality camera and microphone — both relatively inexpensive and easily integrated with other equipment.

Prepare Thoroughly in Advance: In general, virtual meetings require more preparation time than face-to-face ones. Particularly when meetings involve people from a variety of different countries and cultural backgrounds, we recommend asking for participant input as well as providing reference materials, agendas, and requests for contributions in advance. Global meeting participants, especially non-native speakers of the meeting language, will be much more engaged if they have had time beforehand to prepare, and see their own priorities reflected in the meeting agenda.

Prioritize Interaction: The mark of a successful in-person meeting is usually enthusiastic, productive interaction among all participants. There are a number of tools that meeting owners can use to mimic or replace some of your favorite face-to-face techniques.

Five suggestions for using some of the commonly available features of most technology platforms are outlined below:

Breakout Groups

Not all platforms allow for breakout groups, but these are a true game-changer for many virtual meetings. Virtual breakout groups allow you to move participants into smaller sub-groups with their own communication channel, chat boxes, whiteboards, etc. Typically the facilitator can move in and out of these virtual groups in order to check in.

  • Mimic table-team activities. Since participants cannot physically move around in virtual meeting spaces, you can use breakouts to simulate table-team discussions or activities. You may want to consider including a report-out at the end, once they’ve rejoined the large group.
  • Encourage small group discussion and networking. Informal networking is more difficult, but not impossible, in virtual meetings. Use multiple breakouts and mix up the groups each time to allow participants to get to know one another better.
  • Cover multiple topics more quickly. Consider assigning different activities or assignments to different breakout groups. With a large-group report-out at the end, this can allow you to cover more topics in what is often a more limited time-frame.


Whiteboards are an alternative to just about anything you would do with a flip-chart (or physical whiteboard) in a face-to-face meeting. Typically these tools will allow for both text entry and drawing with shapes or free-form tools. Many meeting participants are not familiar with this tool, but become excited once they discover its usefulness! Small group use of a whiteboard also enables less vocal meeting participants to contribute actively. Possible applications include:

  • Brainstorming. Multiple users can contribute to whiteboards at the same time, making this a great tool for brainstorming ideas or solutions to problems.
  • Getting creative. Keep participants engaged by adding more visual elements to your session. Ask them to draw pictures representing key concepts or potential solutions. (For example, one participant’s rough drawing of a small bird sitting on the back of a rhinoceros became an inspiration for a team’s strategic pivot, and a memorable focal point of team humor.)
  • Creating lists. Whether the task is to summarize current issues or to consider possible next steps, generating a list on a whiteboard is a great way to keep users focused on working together in the meeting room.
  • Voting. As an alternative to posing polling questions to the entire virtual audience, consider having small group participants “vote” by placing a symbol next to one or several possible responses. This gives the group a great visual cue regarding their collective priorities.

Chat Box

The chat box is one of the most versatile tools available to meeting leaders. Luckily, it is also a tool that most people are comfortable and familiar with already. Some good uses of this tool include:

  • Keeping participants engaged as they enter the meeting room. Ask a few open-ended icebreaker questions on a slide that participants can respond to while they get settled into the session. (For example: How is your energy level on a scale of 1-10? 1= low and 10=high)
  • Allowing for questions throughout the session. The chat box is a great vehicle for requesting input from less verbal participants who may prefer to contribute in writing. They may provide a well-thought-out sentence or two with a valuable perspective or suggestion. This medium also allows anyone to ask a question without interrupting the flow of a presentation. Chat box use does require multitasking by the meeting facilitator, as the chat box must be continually monitored. A facilitator who is tracking chat box contributions can engage individual meeting participants by responding to their entries. For example, the facilitator could say: ”As Deepa just typed into the chat box,…” This helps participants to feel they have been heard, while encouraging them to then speak up. 
  • Quick responses.  It is often useful to intersperse quick questions throughout the meeting to ensure you are keeping participants’ attention. Consider the types of questions you would pose to encourage participant interaction in a face-to-face session, and how you might incorporate these into a virtual meeting.

Polling Questions

Polling questions are another great tool to leverage throughout the meeting. Some useful ways to incorporate such questions include:

  • Asking for personal preferences or experiences: You can use this technique to get an informal pulse from the participants — for example, at the beginning or the close of the meeting.
  • Knowledge checks and quizzes: These can help you to confirm understanding throughout the session, and make sure everyone is paying attention.
  • Other voting activities. Any time you may want to get a sense of participants’ preferences or opinions on a topic, you can utilize a simple polling question.

If your meeting platform does not have polling questions available, there are other free and low-cost platforms in the market that you can explore such as Poll Everywhere, Pigeonhole, and Slido.

Feedback Icons

Most platforms have some sort of feedback symbols/icons available. The specific icons vary by platform, but they often include indicators such as speed up, slow down, raised hand, check mark, x mark, or temporarily absent. Several uses for feedback icons are:

  • An alternative to polling. You can have participants use specific status symbols to respond to questions so you receive a quick visual response.
  • Signaling questions. Encourage participants to raise their virtual hand when/if they have a question, if they would prefer to share it out loud instead of in the chat box.
  • Clarifying understanding. Participants can use a check or x symbol when you pause to ask whether they understand the contents of a presentation. This will let you know if you should proceed or explain something in greater detail.
  • Get reactions. If meeting participants are not using cameras because of limited bandwidth or some other reason, consider asking them to use status symbols throughout the session to share their reactions. This helps the facilitator to stay on top of the mood of the participants even in the absence of visual cues.

There is no real substitute for getting together with team members in person. However, fully leveraging the capabilities of current technology platforms along with virtual meeting best practices will lead to much higher engagement and better meeting outcomes. When a virtual meeting is the only alternative, it is worth investing the time and energy to make it fully inclusive. Best wishes for all of your virtual events!

About the Authors

Anthony Greco
Director, CORE Learning Services

Anthony Greco serves as the Director of CORE Learning Services at Aperian Global. Anthony’s role focuses on instructional design and leading the creation and rollout of global training programs and materials. He collaborates with Fortune Global 100 companies in developing highly customized solutions. Anthony’s work also extends to Aperian Global’s web-based learning tools. In this capacity, he focuses on eLearning initiatives and is currently working on developing integrated learning modules on the GlobeSmart platform.

Connect With Anthony

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D.
Co-founder and Managing Partner

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest titled, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Ernie on LinkedIn