Traditional conference calls are so 4 months ago.

I heard someone say the other day that being on a conference call was weird. A feeling I can only compare to perhaps the sound of dial-up on a wired modem, alien to most today. It’s strange to believe that something that pretty much filled our diaries before the COVID crisis is now becoming a thing of the past, something we want to shy away from, if not avoid altogether. Video (and face to face time), in this case is killing the conference call star.

A recent workshop we ran completely virtually spurred me on to write this article and hopefully pass on some useful hints, tips, and lessons learned. I won’t be pushing one tool over another, nor do I claim to be an expert, by any means. But I do think there are a few things that, if planned well, can set your virtual experience with your clients and colleagues apart from others.

So, let’s face facts. However much we miss being in a boardroom and fleshing out ideas, post-it notes and flipcharts, this is not going to be happening in the physical sense for some time. So how do we get as close as we can without it becoming a technical minefield which no-one ever wants to tackle?

As much of a cliché as this may sound, preparation is key; once you have a few of your revamped video conferences under your belt you will have this nailed, but until then you need to make sure you have a pretty much bulletproof plan for execution. Here are my hints and tips on how to pimp your video conference, without needing a degree in video production:

1. Roles and Responsibilities

This is very important; everyone needs to know what is expected of them and when, so be sure to nominate and brief your team on their roles. You will need a key speaker who will be the main presenter of the workshop from your side and decide if and when others will be speaking to offer specialist information on a topic. Make sure they know when they are due to talk and how long they have.

You will also need someone in charge of fielding comments and questions and it’s also a great idea to have a private means to communicate between presenters without your audience seeing. This helps to inform on any technical issues, problems with sounds, and reminders to keep everyone right on the day.

Be sure to make this a team effort, with everyone understanding the key messages which are needed to get across at each stage. This will come in handy when you least expect it. It’s worth considering a back-up speaker, a mirror of the key speaker, who knows what is to be talked about at each stage, and can be ready to step in, should the need arise. As much as this may not be needed it is always best to have a contingency in place if something happens and a person drops off the call or screen and cannot continue to present. It will also mean you go into the call with the most peace of mind that any eventuality is covered.

2. Prepare your audience

Everything works better when people know what they are going into. Make sure you brief your audience on what is expected of them. If you want them to do an activity, prepare aids such as workbooks in advance and share it with the client without giving too much away. Share all your meeting links, including those for breakout rooms you might be having, and if you are putting people into groups then make sure they know this.

There are some things on which you can inform your audience during the call itself, such as meeting etiquette, how to raise hands or post questions, and when. Links to polls and other resources work best being shared during the meeting when it is time to vote or take part in the activity.

3. Jazz it up in the lobby and activity sections

Well, maybe not jazz as that is not to everyone’s taste, but music generally is a great dimension to add to your virtual experience and engage your audience. Most of the video conferencing tools out there allow for system audio to be included, and in this case, music works best at the start, when you are gathering your audience and having people join the call, and also during activities you plan to run with your audience, setting the expectation that they are to use that time to work on their own or in groups rather than engage on the call itself. You won’t please everyone with your song choice but make sure you have it ready to play, set to repeat if you are going to wait for any longer than 5 minutes and don’t have it so loud that it is overbearing, or so quiet that it can’t really be heard. It needs to be just right, and something worth testing with your colleagues ahead of the call so you know that they can not only hear it coming through, but the volume is at an acceptable level.

4. Present a united front

I don’t know about most of you working from home, but the background you present on video, whether it be an office setting or another re-purposed room in the house, can be a great topic of conversation. But there is a time and place for it, and when you are video conferencing with clients, this is not it. I have a three-year-old and I work in a room she is often in. During the lockdown, I’ve come to realise that she views the world as a place where clothing or full outfits, in general, are optional, with her preference being not to bother. No matter how much planning and care you take with trying to avoid ambient noise (let’s call it that for now) a screen background which hides the naked truth (sorry I couldn’t resist) is best, not only to present a branded indicator that you work for the organisation presenting but to also give you some breathing space and time to get rid of said ambient noise without anyone on the call being the wiser. I should point out that telling others in the house you are on a call of national security importance levels doesn’t work (I’ve tried), so using a background, in this case, is always best. If you take one thing from this whole article, let it be this!

Now don’t be thinking here you need to get your designers to create a clever mirrored background so any text can be read correctly by people viewing it, the tool you use should take care of it for you. It is also worth considering what you wear. The background we used on a recent call was black, which meant if I had gone with my original outfit choice of a black shirt, I would have been a floating head – contrast with your background where possible, don’t be a floating head.

5. Use more than just facial expressions to gauge reactions

Our finance director’s face last week when he joined a call and I had a holding slide and music to test some things out was just priceless. Was it shock, confusion, or was he secretly impressed; who knows? Try to gauge reactions as best as you can, especially if you are presenting something you want thoughts on. Most tools will allow integrations and inclusions of surveys and polls, and even if they don’t, do them anyway and use the commenting tool to pass them on to your audience and share results. It doesn’t need to be anything flashy; for example, showing some initial visual concepts and asking which colours or fonts appeal will work and be very effective. It is a black and white reaction rather than trying to sift through meeting notes and conflicting opinions. It is also a great point for discussion once everyone votes to get more context to that.

6. Post-It notes are not dead in the virtual world

You should be used to sharing screens and applications by now which not only means you can present and be in charge of what the audience sees but also means that you can all work together and see results together.

On a recent workshop call, we used a tool for whiteboarding, which came with lots of templates, including a simple grid of post-it notes, persona templates, and mind maps, to name a few. We opted for the simple post-it note grid and when it was time the audience and presenters came together to complete the activity. In doing this our notes were saved, we were able to refer to them later, and not to mention no more translating handwritten notes on a flipchart into electronic format. Saved some trees too!

7. Breakout if you need to

Did you know that you can be on more than one call at the same time? It is not a technical nightmare so do not shy away from this. Most tools now allow your first meeting to be put on hold whilst you join a second meeting, once you are done you can return to the first room, meaning no-one is lost, no one leaves and everyone comes back (eventually). See what is possible with your tool of choice and if a presentation warrants breaking your audience into smaller groups then I would recommend this.

8. Make things fun

It can get a little hard depending on the duration of your video conference and the content to keep your audience engaged. Icebreakers, polls, and collaborative activities can only do so much. Why not consider bringing in an external team-building partner, such as our friends at Team Challenge Company to liven things up a bit with a game, quiz or another team-building exercise which will not only break up your content a little but also bring a professional edge to the session.

9. Connections matter

I would be lying if I told you our most recent workshop went completely to plan and we are now experts. The most important thing that brings all of these elements together is the internet and you must have every provision in place to make sure this is going to be there for you when you need it on your call. By agreeing with your team that it is a requirement that they all pitch in and help in times of need (and also having your back-up speaker in place) you should avoid any pitfalls such as your internet service provider failing you. Music, comments, raised hands, audio and video all fails without connections so be poised and ready to step up if one of the team is struggling to power through a poor connection.

It is safe to conclude that video conferencing will continue to evolve even when lockdown eases and everyone returns to the workplace. It will become the norm with many workplaces favouring a webinar, live event, or video workshop where possible to ensure the safety of their colleagues and clients alike. Physical interaction is not lost and will still have a higher value, but when it is an option video conferencing has now established itself as being a suitable alternative in our weeks of lockdown needs.

If you have an event, communication or session coming up, the team at BIG Partnership can help make it the most professional it can be using some of the methods outlined here and more. Please feel free to get in touch.

Raya Smith – Projects Director