How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings


There are four broad reasons to hold a meeting: to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems, or to strengthen relationships. Since all of these are active processes, passive passengers in a meeting rarely do quality work. The precondition for effective meetings — virtual or otherwise — is voluntary engagement.

1. The 60-second rule.

  • First, never engage a group in solving a problem until they have felt the problem. Do something in the first 60 seconds to help them experience it.
  • You might share shocking or provocative statistics, anecdotes, or analogies that dramatize the problem.
  • Or, you could engage emotions by making an analogy to whales who feed far more effectively when they work together to encircle large schools of krill— and then take turns gorging on the feast.
  • No matter what tactic you use, your goal is to make sure the group empathetically understands the problem (or opportunity) before you try to solve it.

2. The responsibility rule.

  • When people enter any social setting, they tacitly work to determine their role. For example, when you enter a movie theater, you unconsciously define your role as an observer — you are there to be entertained.
  • The biggest engagement threat in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer.
  • Many already happily defined their role this way when they received the meeting invite. To counteract this implicit decision, create an experience of shared responsibility early on in your presentation.

3. The Nowhere to hide rule.

  • If everyone is responsible, then no one feels responsible. Avoid this in your meeting by giving people tasks that they can actively engage in so there is nowhere to hide.
  • Define a problem that can be solved quickly, assign people to groups of two or three (max). Give them a very limited time frame to take on a highly structured or brief task.
  • Give them a medium with which to communicate with one another (video conference, Slack channel, messaging platform, audio breakouts).
  • Consider breakout sessions.

4. The MVP rule.

  • It does not matter how smart or sophisticated the group is, if your goal is engagement, you must mix facts and stories.
  • We encourage people to determine the Minimum Viable PowerPoint (MVP) deck they need. In other words, select the least amount of data you need to inform and engage the group. Don’t add a single slide more. A side benefit of this rule is that it forces you to engage the attendees.
  • If you have too many slides, you feel enslaved to “getting through them.”

5. The 5-minute rule.

  • Never go longer than 5 minutes without giving the group another problem to solve.
  • If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, they will retreat into that alluring observer role, and you’ll have to work hard to bring them back.
  • Consider throwing a Polling/ voting opportunity.