6 Tips for Virtual Sessions That Don’t Suck

Transitioning to a work-from-home world has forced most of us to embrace virtual meetings. With the “Zoom fatigue” that everyone is facing these days (caused by long hours in front of a screen with nowhere to physically go), it’s hard to host virtual sessions that people actually want to attend, but these 6 tips from OnStrategy’s professional facilitators will boost the energy and engagement level at your next virtual session.


Tip #1: Outcomes, ground rules and pre-session reading are more important now than ever.

We’ve tried to hold long remote sessions and they just don’t work. Ideally, virtual sessions should be about two hours, but no longer than three. Our brains, creativity and attention spans just don’t withstand long hours sitting in front of a monitor. So being impactful with the limited time you have is super important.

Clear Outcomes: What are you trying to accomplish, really? Outcomes set the North Star for what you’re working toward and help the group stay on-track as well as keep video conference sessions short and focused.

Pre-Session Reading: Not only does pre-session reading reduce the amount of talking the facilitator has to do, it ensures that everyone starts with the same information from the beginning and stirs thinking so that participants are prepped with questions, ideas, and opinions. Pre-reading can prompt a good ice-breaker, e.g. did you read anything in the discussion guide that surprised you?

Ground Rules: Ground rules frame up the structure for the conversations. Ground rules should be the second slide, following the slide detailing outcomes. Here are some of our go-to ground rules for facilitating a virtual session:

  • Patience and grace (slow down, listen, don’t interrupt, let technology catch up with our agenda—it’s not always going to be perfect!)
  • How we’ll make decisions: consensus (I can live with it) or majority rules (how we’ll ‘vote’) or single decider (who?) or unanimous agreement.
  • If it’s not in the shared workspace, or on our virtual stickie wall or whiteboard, it’s not captured.
  • If someone says something you agree with, no need to repeat it.

Tip #2: Use engagement approaches that work in person—everywhere and all the time.

We have a rule at OnStrategy: get session participants talking in the first five minutes of the session. OnStrategy facilitators always start with a relevant icebreaker and virtual sessions should be no different. Break the on-screen awkwardness with a round-robin ice breaker and give everyone a chance to speak up right away.

Some of our favorite icebreakers, recently:

  1. Patrick Lencioni’s Personal Histories Icebreaker: Each person shares their birth order and one formative childhood experience.
  2. Learnings/opportunities from COVID-19: Name one positive learning that has been revealed over the past few months that you would like to carry forward into the workplace (and/or your personal life).
  3. Real-time Word Cloud: Create a real-time word cloud via PollEverywhere: ask the question “what do you hope to get out of this session?” and watch the answers populate on-screen.

We also firmly believe in the power of small group discussions. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas in a large group setting, so allow participants to break off first into pairs for discussions and brainstorms. Combine the pairs into a few small groups to discuss and debate the topic at hand, encouraging each pair to bring a few key ideas to discuss with the small group. Before bringing everyone back to the full group, have each small group assign a spokesperson. The spokesperson will report-out the key points of their discussions. Which brings us to Tip #3…

Tip #3: Smaller group discussions are a must.

While you may not be in the same physical space, you can create breakout rooms for smaller group conversations. Create breakout rooms to allow for pairs/small groups to brainstorm and bring back their ideas or decisions to the large group. As the host, pre-think about who should be in each breakout room and be explicit about the “guardrails” for the breakout rooms: how much time they’ll have; and what tool they’ll use to capture decisions.

More guardrails for breakout rooms:

  • Before leaving the large group, establish when the breakout rooms will “close.” Before you close the rooms, send two to three countdown messages warning they have 10, 5 and 2 minutes before they will be returning to the large group.
  • Visit each of the breakout rooms at least once to see how they’re progressing.
  • Assign a timekeeper to keep the group on track during the breakout room portion.
  • Assign a note taker in each breakout room to be responsible for capturing the conversation, writing on the whiteboard, etc.

Tip #4: Always have a collaborative workspace that everyone can contribute to simultaneously, both in-session as well as with homework.

Pre-session homework fuels discussion in-session—avoiding those really awkward on-screen blank stares. Prior to your virtual session, provide participants access to a shared workspace with instructions for pre-session homework prior to the virtual session. Keep in mind:

  • Pre-session exercises should include step-by-step instructions and a simple set-up that makes it clear what the exercise outcome is and where contributors are expected to add their input.
  • Pre-populate the areas where you’re requesting input with session attendees’ initials to gently direct that input is expected from everyone.

Tools to use:

  • Google slides or Powerpoint in Sharepoint: For the single-source presentation and workspace, this option allows users to contribute to a shared space and comment on each other’s ideas. An advantage of this method is the workspace easily evolves into post-session notes.
  • Stickies.io: Virtual stickie notes for throwing out ideas without the less-than-productive video conversation—always difficult with more than two people. See the board populate in real-time with a nice visual display.
  • Miro: Virtual whiteboard with more structure to personalize. Use pre-made templates or create sections to clearly lay out different workspaces. Miro is a terrific tool for small breakout groups (see Tip #3).

Tip #5: Use the power of real-time polls.

One major advantage of leading in-person engagements is the ability to “feel the energy of the room,” particularly when difficult decisions need to be made. While we may be unable to pick up on the body language of participants in a virtual world, we have tools to get a sense of the group’s energy.

Tools to use:

  • Voting features in your video conferencing platform to measure the group’s consensus on decisions or topics.
  • PollEverywhere for word cloud ideation or polling or to rank preferences.

Tip #6: Don’t be afraid of large group discussions, but set up ground rules to prevent over-talking.

We’ve all been on a video conference where everyone talks over each other and the meeting descends into chaos. Before launching a large group discussion in a virtual session, be sure the group agrees to the rules of game:

  • Use the “raise hand” Zoom feature to indicate if you’d like a turn to speak, instead of talking over each other (moderator will call on those with raised hands to speak in turn). 
  • Ask that participants use the chat function to contribute to the conversation if your comment is off-topic, or to indicate agreement with a topic currently being discussed (instead of everyone going round-robin making the same point).
  • Everyone must be on mute unless talking. This can be controlled by the host or co-host, just let everyone know that you’re doing that.
  • Save discussions for smaller break-out groups and just use the main room for providing instructions and “sharing out” small groups’ decisions.

OnStrategy has found that adapting our in-person facilitation best practices has made for more effective virtual sessions and great, strategic decision-making. Virtual sessions, while they should always be more condensed than in-person sessions, can be a lot of work, but the preparation is so worth it. Be careful not to overdo it; pick one or two tools to use, or risk being overwhelmed managing the technology instead of facilitating the session!



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