StopwatchWant to drastically improve your online presentations, meetings and training sessions? Count to five.

But we’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the reasons virtual meetings fail so miserably is that team leaders, that’s you, often don’t give people enough time to respond when they ask for  input, questions or comments. To encourage engagement, they do little more than ask “So what questions do you have?” or “Does anyone have anything to add?” If no one speaks up, they rush to fill the silence. Sound familiar?

If it does, you are likely preventing people from talking at all. While no one likes an uncomfortable silence, when you jump in, your employees go back into listening mode, because they never had the chance to process the information, form responses and offer them. People will assume you are just going to fill all the dead air.

Now, we’re going to let you off the hook here because you do have a legitimate excuse. You don’t have the benefit of seeing your team members. Even if you use video conferencing, it’s not easy to scan everyone’s face on individual screens all at once to pick up those visual cues that tell you someone is ready to speak, which gives you an opportunity to say “Hey, Bob, what do you think?”

So what are you to do? Count to five. That’s right. After you ask your question, count slowly to five in your head. Let the question sink in. That simple technique can radically change the dynamic in meetings. It will slow you down, send a message that your request for participation is more than simple lip service, and give people a real chance to engage and process what’s going on. The overall quality of the conversation will improve. It may take a few attempts, but eventually employees will catch on that you aren’t going to rush to fill the silence.

If that doesn’t seem to boost the engagement to a level that makes you happy, do the following:

Start from the beginning 

OK, so your best chances of encouraging open and honest communication is to start with employees’ very first day on the job. It starts with modeling the type of communication you want to see and encouraging employees, no matter how new, to speak up.

So going forward, make sure that you doing so with all new hires. For your existing employees, set the expectation. Pull them together to talk about the importance of sharing feedback and participating, and explain that you need to see more of it going forward.

Offer an alternative way to “participate”

During meetings, you should ask each person specific questions to ensure you gain everyone’s input. Additionally, when people rarely contribute, other than to answer your questions, call them afterward for a private discussion. Say: “I noticed that you weren’t speaking much during the meeting today. Why is that? We could have benefited from your feedback.”

It’s possible that the person had nothing to say, or maybe he or she just didn’t want to speak up during the meeting. Offer the person a chance to share with you without the rest of the team listening. Then end the conversation with “Thanks for your feedback. Next time, please share your insight with the whole group, so everyone can benefit.” Then be sure to ask the person questions during the next meeting.

Stop being the leader for a bit 

People often don’t speak up because they don’t want to contradict their boss. When you really need your team to brainstorm or problem solve, hand the meeting over to them. You can create the agenda, but assign another person to lead the discussion.

Then sit back and listen as the team members discuss the pros and cons and weigh solutions. Explain that you will be listening so that it doesn’t seem like you are trying to catch them doing something wrong. However, don’t speak up unless they ask you a question specifically or until their discussion is over. At that time, share your thoughts on their plan and ideas.

Important: Don’t shoot down any ideas or criticize them. If you do, you will kill team members’ motivation to participate in later discussions. While you may not be able to follow through with their plans, you need to praise them for their ideas and the effort they put in to find a solution. Keep the discussion positive and evaluate the full merit of their ideas or plans, even if they differ from what you would do. Then put into action, any ideas or plans that are good for business.

What tips do you use for ensuring participation is high during your virtual meetings? Please share them with us in the comments section. 


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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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