England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Personal and organisational development

The skills of chairing an online meeting

Did you see the Handforth Parish Council video? If you didn’t, then take a look.

That meeting epitomises everything that can go wrong in a virtual meeting, and I know from talking to councillors during the LGIU’s chairing meetings programmes, that it sent shivers up the spines of many chairs and vice-chairs.

Even with the government’s dictat in May 2021, that councils should return to physical, same-room meetings, many of us will retain the use of video conferencing for surgeries, community meetings and working groups. There are huge benefits to being able to communicate from the comfort of one’s own settee, although there are some significant drawbacks, too.

And some councils have decided to continue virtual meetings, with decisions being made through delegated powers.

It’s interesting how some councillors have adapted easily to online meetings, whilst others have found them such a challenge. I don’t think that this should be pinned on the generational, “technologically savvy” idea which is far too simplistic and stereotypical. My Mother, at the age of 89, was Skyping and did all her food shopping online – although on one order she ended up with 102 individual portions of lemon cheesecake. It was a tasty week, but I’ve not been able to look one in the eye since then.

Probably a more realistic view, is that our comfort in the virtual world is more connected with our familiarity with IT and software; our experience of online meetings; our natural aptitude and our personal skillset.

Skills are interesting. They can develop quickly in response to a major event – or grow slowly in the background without us really noticing how clever we have become. As an example of this, many of us who found the first on-line chairing experience overwhelming, will have discovered that after a while, as with most things in life, the process has become easier and smoother with each meeting.

To build your skills and confidence as an on-line chair, make use of the following five top tips:

  1. Plan properly
  2. Use the “right” equipment
  3. Lay out your stall at the start of the meeting
  4. Facilitate professionally
  5. Close the meeting positively

To take each of these items in turn:

1.Plan properly

Much of the planning you would conduct for a physical meeting will translate over into the virtual world, although there are additional considerations relating to the virtual environment you need to consider:

  • How will you “sidebar” with your clerk/democratic services officer?
  • What do you need to say at the start of the meeting to clarify your process and participation? (See point 3. for more information on this).
  • What’s the fall-back plan if technology fails? (your council may have a policy or protocol on this – so double-check).
  • Learn the software! Work out the functions you need to use. These will include how to mute/unmute a participant; share your screen (if needed); turn your camera on and off.
  • Think about your meeting environment including choosing an area with good broadband signal; picking a “plain” wall or removing personal family pictures you don’t want to transmit into the public domain. If you share with others you will also need to consider confidentiality and discretion – particularly for any exempt agenda items.

2. The “right” equipment

Your council may have issued you an electronic device, eg a tablet, surface book or laptop. I am hoping you have a laptop, or can use your own PC, because chairing a meeting with 153 councillors for six hours on a 10 inch iPad screen is neither fun nor practical.

If you have a laptop, place it on a box-file or pile of books, so that your eyes are directly horizontal to the camera. This makes it easier for you to make “eye contact”. It’s surprising how many people have their cameras facing upwards, which provides a good view of the inside of their nostrils. This is not a good look.

Make sure that you sit in the middle of your screen and fill the space. Your image should replicate a passport photograph.

A headset with a built-in microphone is an essential piece of kit. I know that they are not ideal for people who use hearing aids, but in general terms they improve the quality of listening and speech hugely. Have a look at meetings on YouTube – you can really hear the difference when someone speaks. A headset also prevents that instinctive “leaning forward” into the computer microphone, which so many people tend to do.

Less essential, but still incredibly useful, is a recipe book stand, which you can place alongside your screen and on which you can place your notes, or another tablet device on it. This means that, instead of continually looking away from the camera and down at your notes, you can just slide your eyes to the side of your screen and then to your camera again.

3. Laying out your stall at the start of the meeting

Opening any meeting is important: with virtual meetings this assumes an even greater significance. This is where you tell your participants what is expected from them – and how your meeting will function.

For formal meetings, your Democratic Services team may have prepared a script which covers all the points you need to make. Whilst this is good news for you in terms of not having to pull this information together, there’s a skill involved in running through these instructions. If you’re not careful it can sound a bit like a shopping list.

If you don’t have a prepared statement, then you will have to develop your own. In addition to some of the “statutory” items, you would cover at the start of any meeting, you will need to mention:

  • Rules about cameras – on or off? Some quasi-judicial meetings, eg planning or licensing may require cameras to be on during discussions where Members will vote, to prove attendance.
  • Microphones – general rule is off whilst not speaking to reduce background noise.
  • Whether the meeting is being recorded or not.
  • If participants are allowed to make their own recording of the meeting.
  • Use and purpose of the chat function (if allowed).
  • How participants participate, ie do they raise their hand on screen, use the “virtual” hand or place something in the chat box.

4. Facilitate sensitively

Virtual meetings can be more challenging when it comes to the facilitation element of chairing:

  • social cues can be harder to read
  • internet lag makes it difficult to know when to speak
  • microphones tend to flatten the voice
  • and cameras pick up on every body movement and facial expression.

It really helps the process when the chair has laid out their stall properly at the beginning of the meeting. Everyone knows the rules of engagement and you can use these to keep the meeting on track and to manage the process.

When you have several councillors who want to speak, you can still put their names into a running order in the same way as you would do in a physical meeting. It is a good idea to announce your list so that people know when it is their turn. If you ever chair a “hybrid” meeting, you could alternate between physical and virtual participants. This gives a meeting good balance.

Should two people talk at once, usually one person will stop talking to let the other person continue. When this happens, make sure you demonstrate that you have noticed, by putting your hand up to towards the camera, nodding and smiling. While everyone in the “room” will see this, this gesture will have significance to the person who also wanted to speak. If someone else tries to talk next, you will need to ask them to wait as someone is before them in the queue.

For time limited contributions, it is a good idea to remind people that their three minutes is not a target but a budget. It’s amazing how many people feel that they must fill the whole of this time – when what they need to say could be over in 20 seconds!

Make sure that you spread your attention around the meeting. Although your eye contact is with the camera, break away occasionally to notice what is happening on-screen.

Try to call on a variety of people to speak and if someone is over-talking, you may need to manage this to keep the meeting moving along.

A professional way to interrupt is to anticipate a talker’s breathing spot. Even online you can anticipate this and interrupt into the space with a soft word such as “so”. So’s a lovely word – it is a building word and also sounds as though the listener is interested.

It’s much better than “Can I stop you there?”. To which the talker’s internal answer is probably “no you can’t!”.

After you have said “so”, the idea is to create a very, very short summary followed by an “and” which enables you to move attention elsewhere in the room.

As an example: “So, Councillor Smythe, you’ve obviously researched this in some detail and I would like to go to Councillor O’Brien next who also wants to contribute”.

It really works well. Anticipating a breathing space online isn’t an exact science, but it is a tool to have in your facilitation kit.

You can use a similar approach in, say, a scrutiny meeting when a councillor is using a questioning opportunity to make a speech: “so Councillor Smythe, please may we hear your question?”

5. Closing the meeting

In the same way you paid attention to the start of the meeting, set time aside to close the meeting properly.

This is an opportunity to summarise the main points of the meeting; to confirm the actions that have been agreed; to explain what happens next – and to thank people for their attendance and participation.

Your close can assume even greater importance when there has been dissent or conflict as this is your opportunity to end on a positive note.

What next?

It’s important to continually evolve and develop skills so that we are not staying still but constantly becoming more accomplished at what we do.

There are a number of ways to do this: perhaps start off by observing the way others chair their meetings and pick out what works versus what doesn’t. You might also benefit from viewing any recordings of your own chairing performance (yes, I know it’s awful to see oneself on camera) to identify where you are strong plus where you could develop.

Come what may, virtual meetings – in one form or another – are here to stay. There’s a joy in attending a well-chaired meeting and this blog has provided you with some tips and techniques that you can use to build on and refine your skills.

Want to learn more? Check out our forthcoming training session:

Advanced Chairing: online, hybrid and in-person (7th October)

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