By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When the world was stopped in its tracks by a virus, John Chen, who claims not to own a crystal ball, guessed things weren’t going to get back to normal soon.
“My dad is a doctor and my mom a nurse, so I know how viruses work. While I love our medical and pharmaceutical industry, making a vaccine doesn’t happen overnight, let alone getting one approved for humans,” Chen said.
So, when we shifted gears to working from home, pairing shirts with our PJs, and frantically locating our unmute buttons, Chen began writing a book to help us navigate the world of virtual meetings. “Engaging Virtual Meetings” will launch on Oct. 21 and might just be a cure for Zoom Fatigue.
“As soon as the Stay-At-Home order hit, we all got this adrenaline rush and urge to figure it out. That is why people stockpiled toilet paper and shelves went empty,” Chen said. It was the same with virtual meetings. Now, seven months in and Chen observes ‘Zoom Fatigue’ on 80% of meetings, especially if you are on mute, with your camera off.
“As humans, we rise to a challenge with our fight or flight mechanism, but that wears off. A lot of people like to sprint, but how many people train for that marathon? And a virtual marathon is something different,” Chen said.
In January 2020, Chen, who also is CEO of Geoteaming, was set up for his best year ever.
“I had sold programs, gone on the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride at Disney World in February and then in March, I lost 15 programs,” he said.
His first response was to start a virtual team building course on the strength of his 2011 book called “50 Digital Team Building Games.” After all, he has been practicing these concepts for 35 years. He even quotes research showing that one can increase trust by 20% or more by using technology, such as video, to communicate.
“I started a Virtual Team Building Program that went viral because it got picked up by libraryjournal.org who quoted it as a resource. Librarians worldover, picked it up and shared it.”
Chen’s free class was the clincher!
Chen’s six step method for engaging virtual meetings
Engage and interact with every attendee.
Never lead a meeting alone. In a larger meeting, if you as a speaker must focus on the group, but get someone to help you manage chat and security.
Good looks: Figure out your lighting and background, backdrops can help. Looking good means sounding good, so have a professional microphone.
Air traffic control means two people can’t talk at the same time. As rooms get bigger, it gets harder to control, monitor the air or voice channel so it’s efficient.
Get productive with virtual tools: from the chat window to simultaneously editing a document to high-end tools. We are all here to do work when we are not having fun with family or friends. Figure out the right tools for the right job for the right audience.
End on a high note. It comes from product marketing research which says that in a 60-minute demo, architect your last five minutes to have a high point for a sale. Virtual meetings are the same.
“That was my gift back to coronavirus to deal with it,” he laughs. His publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., got wind of the class and asked if he wanted to write his second book. “I said, let’s do it.” The book was greenlit and rushed—six months from start to finish.
“I wrote this book in eight weeks. In the middle of which I even had one of the first 200-person virtual conferences for a Fortune 100,” Chen said. The conference turned out to be a boon because it christened the book.
“The book was titled Virtual Team Building, but my publisher wanted to change it. The reason: only 10% of the world is interested in building teams virtually, but everyone is meeting virtually and having the same challenges and problems,” Chen said.
While Mark Twain is said to have averaged around 1,600 words a day, Chen claims he averaged 6,000 for the last five days.
“I reused 20% of my last book because in the virtual team building classes, what I knew was even more true.”
“I can’t make vaccines, but I can make your next virtual meetings just a little more engaging,” Chen said. While it focuses on two platforms— Zoom and Microsoft Teams—his tips can be applied to any platform.
“I hope readers learn how to make their virtual meetings engaging. If not for yourself as a host, do it for your attendees who are suffering,” Chen said, getting existential. “If we could reduce suffering in the world by a little bit, that would be great—and virtual meetings is our new world.”
Chen has worked with about 2,000 people, helping them host and lead virtual meetings with amazing results. One man used three techniques from Chen’s course to make a presentation to his Chamber of Commerce and reported the presentation was a hit.
“He told me people loved him and his session, they got a chance to talk to each other, and those are big things,” Chen said.
Another woman hosted paid business networking meetings and hadn’t been able to have her meetings end on time despite cutting 16 minutes of content.
“I shared one of our principles called ‘Never Zoom Alone.’ She got her meeting to end on time while including the content she had to cut down by having two people to help her, Chen said.
For those of us struggling with virtual meetings at home, Chen calls out three problems he often sees. The first, forgetting to unmute.
“I’m thinking of printing t-shirts with ‘You’re on Mute,’ so all you have to do is wear the T-shirt and stand up if the speaker is on mute,” he said.
The second flaw is to not design your meeting to be engaging.
“If you want engagement, engage. In a mid-size meeting, for instance, ask people to physically raise their hands. Get people to turn on their cameras.
Make people a part of your meeting,” Chen said.
The third flaw is more complicated but common: not designing meetings for psychological safety.
“Google researched top-performing teams in the world and found their secret sauce wasn’t the team’s style, players, managers, computers, or money, but that team members felt safe to take risks with other people in their group or meetings,” Chen said. A way he suggests we do that is to let people talk in their own time.
But is it that simple to read your participants or the room virtually? Chen thinks that as a speaker, you really need new setups. For instance, his setup has six monitors on which he can enable Gallery View to watch around 250 participants at a time.
“I can ask everyone to applaud and look through the screen, call a person by name, say thank you, or call someone who is not applauding and ask them to. That person is in a 250-person room wondering how I can see them.”
Chen tells us about author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who reportedly spent $5 million on his setup.
“He can see 20,000 people in a 360-degree stadium. You actually see footage of him running around virtually high-fiving everyone. You can literally feel that energy in the meeting.”
What Chen finds unique is that humans are designed to engage and connect. He recalls a recent host who ended the meeting with: Thank you for letting me into your home.
“Isn’t that lovely because I’m getting a tiny window into your home. I see some of your art, or hear your dogs bark. I never knew that until today, that really got to me,” he said.
Chen proposes tools to help us connect better virtually—the first audio and video, the second is chat.
“Twitch.tv, the live streaming platform for gamers, has a chat screen where you can ‘blow up the chat room.’ The room has over 10,000 people and the chat moves so fast, you can barely read it. But kids get emotion from that. They can feel whether the audience is engaged with what they are doing or not,” he said.
Chen suggests the use of emotions (on Zoom) where you can cheer, clap, or do a ‘ta-da,’ and change the color of hands to match your skin tone. “People should take advantage of these tools for diversity and inclusion.”
The third tool he heralds as a powerful engagement tool is Breakout Rooms.
“On Sept. 21, Zoom released self-directed breakout rooms where people can change rooms if they don’t like the one they are assigned to,” Chen said. “As people, we want to be in control of our experiences. Imagine bumping into a person and having a great conversation, we’re replicating things that happened face to face.” Chen points out that it is up to the virtual speaker to find ways to engage with people and teach them.
But there’s a flip side to this engagement —the phenomenon of ‘Zoom Bombing.’ People getting into your meetings to disrupt it most commonly through racist or sexual backgrounds or comments.
“People who haven’t been able to control this have had to end meetings. It’s terrible people would use their time in this way, but it happened to me thrice.”
On the third occasion, Chen was in the middle of testing out a virtual Santa experience.
“Some people came in with a Nazi flag as their backdrop and said a lot of disparaging things. So, my co-hosts and I reverse zoom-bombed them.” Chen got his participants, except for ‘Santa’ and another friend who was dressed as a Cookie, to hide by turning off their cameras.
“As soon as the Zoom bombers came in and began talking, I muted them, removed their ability to unmute themselves, and then on cue, 17 cameras turned on. Santa told them they were bad kids and all of us started singing, ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’ Then, we posted it to Twitter to shame them,” he said. Now, that’s what we call an engaging meeting.
But with families and friends meeting virtually and schools having virtual classrooms, Chen suggests having Passwords and Waiting Rooms turned on for meetings.
“It’s unfortunate but it’s essential to know, which is why I have a whole chapter dedicated to security in my book. When and if Zoom Bombers get in, mute, and then remove them, ensure your account is set up so if you remove someone, they cannot get back in. He also recommends that people report Zoom Bombers.
“Zoom has a way to track a person and can ban them. The other thing is to turn off screen sharing for others by default.”
Chen’s book with all its tips and tricks is available for presale on Amazon and Goodreads. It will also hit independent local bookstores. But since our new reality is virtual, you can also go to engagingvirtualmeetings.com/conferences where Chen is launching his book with a 4-day virtual conference from Oct. 21-24.
“For the price of the ticket, you get a book shipped to your house and get to experience nine of the top virtual speakers. My friends and I will demonstrate different techniques of how we can be engaging with each of you,” Chen said. The last day of the conference is called Celebrate Day with fun activities such as a scavenger hunt, bingo, trivia, and a dance class. “If you’ve thought about how you can have a virtual activity with your group, this is a great place to get ideas.”
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org