“Openers” to Help You Create “Engaging Virtual Meetings”

Excerpted with permission from Chapter 7 of  “Engaging Virtual Meetings” by John Chen

Openers are pivotal. Starting a meeting with an effective opener (or an opening game/activity) allows every attendee to feel welcomed and engaged right from the start of the meeting. If the host uses the same kind of opener at the beginning of every meeting, a sense of rhythm and routine is created. Rhythm and routine lead to stability and comfort, which improves team dynamics in the long run.

“Go slow to go fast” is a good mantra for openers. To set your expectations as a meeting host, you should expect to spend more time on creating openers the first time you use them. You’ll find that, with practice, you can create openers that take less time, allowing your team to knock out an opener and get to work quickly. Most of all, you’ll find that taking time to add openers to your meetings will eventually make your meetings more productive.

Why Use Openers?

The purpose of an opener is to make sure everyone is focused on the meeting and not their email, text messages, or social media.

Michelle Cummings, owner of Training Wheels and a proponent of using openers, says that openers are crucial because there must be connection before content.

Getting individuals to connect with one or two other people in the room can have a profound impact on their engagement level. It helps to break the ice and loosen people up to talking. If you are a trainer and you have ever asked a question at the beginning of your session and received blank stares as your answer, you have probably not warmed up the room. Allowing people to have a quick conversation with another person welcomes them into the “sharing” space. Until then, it may still feel a little cold, and some individuals will not want to be the first person to speak up.

I first heard the phrase “connection before content” from a workshop put on by Peter Block. I connected instantly with the phrase and I audibly let out a “Yaaassssss, what an amazing phrase!” One, it’s a cool alliteration, and who doesn’t love that. But two, it gave me a good catchphrase to use with participants that now immediately diffuses the eye-rolling in the room when I announce that we are going to start out with an icebreaker activity. (Almost!) There is something disarming about the phrase that gives purpose and meaning for why we make time for connection before we dive into business. We need to create space and time to connect before we dive into content so people feel a certain level of trust with others in the room. Inviting people to share simple tidbits of their likes, dislikes, and other interesting facts allows for a certain level of vulnerability with one another, which in turn increases our capacity to be authentic with each other. And if we’re doing that when answering an icebreaker question, we are likely going to transfer that same behavior when we are talking about business strategies, resolving conflict, or confronting behaviors that need to be changed.

I use a phrase in group work, “pairing and sharing,” as deeper connections and conversations generally happen in pairs or trios. Many people will feel intimidated and guarded if they are put on the spot when asked a question in front of their peers.

Pairing and sharing with one or two other people sitting near you first creates time and space for each participant to answer the question, not just one person talking while the rest of the group listens. It also allows for some brainstorming and perspective building to happen before it is discussed in the larger group.

Several years ago, I created a set of question cards I called Comfort Zone Wheelies. At the time, I had a client ask me to help their team members get to know one another on a deeper level, and to somehow get below the surface-level sharing that was routinely happening. I decided to color-code different icebreaker questions based on level of risk, and, like any good parent, I decided to test them out on my teenage children first.

On Sunday evenings my family of four holds a scrum meeting.  The corporate world has adopted this phrase, and in basic terms it means a game plan. We adapted this phrase for our family scrum meeting, and it is basically a game plan for the week … who has assignments or projects due, what kind of workload my husband and I have, whether we are traveling, who needs a ride, whether we have visitors, etc., as well as an established time we connect as a family. Toward the end of last semester when there were lots of assignments due and a few grades needed to be raised, you could tell that the boys were starting to dread the scrum meeting. When conversations around capability vs. effort, accountability, and follow-through were more dominant, we didn’t always leave the scrum meeting on a high note. For one meeting, I decided we needed to start out with something a little more fun before we dug deeper into the harder conversations. I broke out the Comfort Zone Wheelies as an icebreaker for our meeting. In this deck, the questions are color-coded by level of risk: green questions are lower-risk questions, yellow questions are medium-risk questions, and red questions are higher-risk questions. I put them into three piles, and each of us started with a green question, then moved to a yellow, then finished up with a red. I wasn’t really sure how it would go, but figured it was worth a try.

What happened next was something I didn’t expect. I’ve always been a very involved parent. I feel like I know my kids very well and that our relationships are solid and deep. That night we sat for an hour asking each other these questions, and I learned more about my kids in that hour than I had in years prior. We now use them every week, and we have had more in-depth conversations in the last few months than we have had their entire lives.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

 

  • Who is your greatest hero?
  • Name your ideal car.
  • Where is one place you’d like to go that you haven’t been?
  • What’s one thing you wish you knew how to do?
  • What was your best birthday?

 

  • When have you felt your biggest adrenaline rush?
  • What is one dream you have yet to accomplish?
  • What are three things you value most about a person?
  • If you could tell your former self one thing right now, what would it be?
  • What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?

 

  • What was the worst phase of your life?
  • What is one thing that people misunderstand about you?
  • What is something a past relationship taught you?
  • What is the greatest struggle you have overcome?
  • Describe something that takes courage for you to do.

I love it when I create a new tool that ends up being a huge gift back to myself. If you have any kind of relationship where you would like to know the other person better, I would encourage you to pick up a set of these cards.

In the virtual world, it’s even more critical to help keep people connected when individuals may feel more isolated and less a part of your team. Reserving a mere 10 minutes at the beginning of your sessions can help reduce any barriers that may be between people, create more empathy and understanding of others’ behaviors, and help clarify a sense of purpose for those you share a workspace with. Leaders who are able to be vulnerable with their teams and share some of their failures help make them more approachable and relatable. Creating time and space for connection before content will strengthen your teams in ways you cannot even imagine.

Source: Michelle Cumming, Owner Training Wheels, Retrieved from (trainingwheels.com)

Open with a Check-in Question

Opening with a check-in question is one of the easiest ways to create engagement in your meeting and create connection as everyone learns about who is attending the meeting. You learn something about each person at the meeting from their answer to the check-in question.

Have every person check in with an answer to a question. If the group is new, make sure they add information such as their name, their location, the company they work at, or their role at the company. Following is a collection of check-in ideas.

Check-in

  • Goals: Show how checking in with every attendee can make your meeting more engaging. Ensure that every attendee’s audio and/or video is working. Find out how every attendee is doing.
  • Time: 5–30 minutes
  • Participants: 2–25
  • Technology: Audio, video, chat
  • Category: Opener
  • Game Summary: Have every attendee check in by saying their name, (optional) location and the answer to one of the questions below.
  • Rules: Attendees must raise their hand to speak. If their video is not on, they need to raise their virtual hand or unmute and say their name. Choose one person to be air traffic control and if two people want to speak at the same time, the air traffic controller will choose an order. Every attendee must have an opportunity to check in. If an attendee’s audio and video is not working, ask them to check in by text.
  • (Optional) You may want to use a timer if you have a lot of people or a limited amount of time.

Here is a collection of check-in questions:

  • What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?
  • What’s your best work achievement since we last met?
  • What are you working on now?
  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What’s something that nobody knows about you?
  • What are you excited about?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • How do you know _______?
  • What are you watching?
  • What are you reading?
  • What are you doing this weekend?
  • What’s your favorite restaurant and why?
  • What’s the most recent news story you read?
  • What’s a picture on your cell phone you can share?
  • Can you tell us the story?
  • If you could be any character in a book, movie, or TV show, who would you choose and why?
  • What’s your biggest fear?
  • What’s your biggest regret?
  • Who is one of your role models and why?
  • Is there a charitable cause you support?
  • What do you like about working here?
  • If you had to describe your style so I could work better with you, what would you tell me?
  • How are you feeling about today’s meeting?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you for today’s meeting?
  • What’s your goal?

One of my favorite check-in questions was, “What’s your goal?” This was a key strategy I used during my 10 years at Microsoft. I made sure everybody knew what the goal of the meeting was. When everybody agreed, it helped me deal with tangents. When someone disagreed, we took time to redefine the meeting, saving valuable time instead of discovering that later.

One-Word Check-ins

Strapped for time? Turn the check-in question activity into a one-word response activity. Modify any of the sample questions so that attendees can answer the question with one word. This reduces the time to 30 seconds or less per attendee.

Here are a few examples of questions that can be answered with one word:

  • How do you feel?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What’s one word we need to succeed?
  • What’s one word to describe your last week?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you feel?

One-Word Check-ins with Pen and Paper

Another visual and effective modification is to have attendees write down their one-word answer on paper. If you’re looking for an interactive exercise that will engage everyone in an online meeting of any size and have an enormous impact, this is a great one to use. Cathey Armillas, author of “How to Rock a TED Talk,” used this in her training:

The facilitator simply asks a question that everyone answers with a single word. Each person will write down the word and hold it up as a physical visual to share with the entire group. The visual is powerful because all at once, everyone in the meeting gets to see all the other answers. Many times, there are a lot of the same answers and other times there is a common theme that is present. Most of the time, there will be a few really creative answers that stand out. The facilitator can quickly read off the answers and have fresh content to use on the spot.

The first time I ever used this, I was running a marketing workshop for Hong Kong University and I asked the students this question: “In one word, please create a campaign that describes what we need to get through this global pandemic.” There were about 50 students online and the answers were powerful: hope, love, breathe, friendship, togetherness, smile, look, nature, and many more.

The facilitator steps are:

    • Ask participants to bring index cards and a thick pen, like a Sharpie.
    • Ask the participants a question (keep it simple) that will elicit a one-word answer.
    • Have the participants write out a one-word answer on a piece of paper (or, preferably, on an index card) with a dark marker.
    • Have the participants hold up their answer to their camera all at once so that everyone can see all the answers.
    • Have them hold it up long enough for everyone to read all the answers.
    • The facilitator should read aloud some of the answers while saying the name of the person who shared the answer.
  • The greatest power in this activity is the moment when everyone is sharing their answer and seeing everyone else’s answer. It’s engaging and it creates a sense of connection with everyone in the meeting. The number of people in the meeting won’t affect the outcome—in fact, just the opposite. The more people who participate, the more visually stunning this exercise becomes.

    Note from Bob:  Virtual Meetings are here to stay!  This brief “Excerpt” just scratches the surface of the great ideas John Chen shares to help you maximize your virtual meetings. You will want to benefit from all that John has packed into his book! Click HERE to order your “ENGAGING VIRTUAL MEETINGS” book today.

    John Chen

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    John Chen  is the extreme leader of Geoteaming. John is a recognized thought leader on developing highly functioning corporate teams and an expert on digital team building.  John is also the the author of “50 Digital Team-Building Games”   and winner of numerous professional awards.  You can reach John at john@geoteaming.comFacebookTwitter YouTube

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