How to lead better virtual meetings

Maegan Stephens

Written by

Maegan Stephens

Leading effective meetings is hard enough; and suddenly, we all have to be just as effective without the benefits of meeting in person.

That means connecting with people, delivering a point of view, facilitating discussion, and charging toward a new action or result by the end of your meeting — all while dealing with poor video/audio connections, home distractions, and the pressures of this moment.

At Duarte, we’ve also found ourselves in back-to-back virtual meetings throughout the day. Yet, as a communication company, we owe our clients and customers the best experience, even in today’s virtual world!

Here are some techniques we use to make our virtual meetings run smoothly, as well as a Facebook Live video on leading virtual meetings from our series, Comm Together.

Duarte video: Tips on leading virtual meetings with empathy


Lead with empathy

If you’re running a meeting you have the most important responsibility: To lead everyone to a successful result.

You want to do that with empathy and authority. As the facilitator of the session, it’s your job to guide your participants, the hero of this interaction, to greatness. That means you are the mentor of the meeting.

In this climate, every conversation carries more stress and distractions than usual, so empathy is essential.

One great tool that can help you lead with empathy is to hold a “check-in” at the beginning of every meeting. This can be as simple as a “How are you doing?” but we recommend doing it in a specific way.

Center yourself first

If you’re leading the meeting, you need to be a little more together and a little more OK than everyone else. Take a deep breathe before you start that meeting, or maybe even jump into a 5 minute calming mediation.

Open with a clear question

You can build an empathetic connection with your participants by drawing them into conversation with you. Ask them something specific or less common than “How are you doing?” Maybe, “Have you gotten a chance to get any fresh air today?”

Make a personal connection

Say hello or thank you to each person as you go, calling out the person by name to let them know you are really listening.

As the leader/mentor, you’re also in control of the first thing your participants see, which should be your smiling face! So turn on your camera and ask your meeting participants to do the same if they feel comfortable. If they don’t, that’s ok! But we still recommend you turn yours on so participants can more easily follow what you’re saying and feel connected to you.

Be sure you maintain eye contact by looking straight into that camera. You’ll likely have to play with the position of the camera to get this right. You could watch a recording of yourself leading a previous meeting or jump on a video call with a friend to test out the right angles.

Make sure to move the video of your meeting participants as close to the camera as you can so you can still see their faces while making strong eye contact.

Shorten your default meeting times

One final suggestion on leading virtual meetings with empathy comes with some controversy. As employees, many of us are feeling extra pressure to stay productive and deliver value to help our employers through these tough times. Yet that can lead to an extra-packed workday where we find ourselves in meeting jail without a chance to breathe or bio-break.

The best way to be empathetic to ourselves and our colleagues right now, might mean giving everyone some time back.

You can reclaim some space in your day by moving meetings from a standard 30/60 minutes to a new default of 25/50 minutes. This idea isn’t new. David Silverman wrote a Harvard Business Review article on The 50-minute meeting in 2009.

Plus, some calendar platforms give you the option to change the default length of meetings. You’ll need to get buy-in from people in your organization to pull this one off, but the pay-off in productivity and happiness could be big.

Setting the stage for collaboration

At Duarte, we believe every presentation should serve a purpose – if there’s no need to persuade, there’s no need to present.

Similarly, when you lead a meeting, you should be working toward an end goal and you’ll need the participation of your meeting attendees to get there.


Presenting virtually


If you’re thinking “Nah, I don’t really need their participation,” then you could earn some goodwill by just sending an email or a video update.

Virtual collaboration is tricky but completely doable as long as you guide your participants on how and when they should participate. Try these tips for virtual collaboration.

Give explicit instructions about collaboration

Should they turn on video? Should questions go in the chat box? Should they unmute to interrupt you if they have something to say, or make a note of it somewhere on the slide you’re showing?

Plus, tell them when collaboration will take place. At the end of your prepared remarks? Are they speaker #3 on the agenda? Will there be multiple collaborative portions throughout the meeting?

Expectation-setting helps you get what you need as the leader of the meeting, and it helps make the interaction effective for your participants.

Use your digital collaboration tools

Many meeting platforms have built-in collaboration tools for live slide annotations, quick polls, and digital whiteboards. You can also move meetings forward by asking participants to fill in a shared document so they can see everyone’s contributions live.

Collaboration tools are great, but remember to only include them in the meeting if 1) they have value and 2) you taken time to learn how to use them.

Put specific expectations in the meeting invite

If you aren’t already in the habit of creating meeting agendas and sharing them with your participants in advance, start there. But you can save even more time by putting those expectations directly in the meeting invitation.

Include whether you’d like them to be on video or not, whether they’ll need to be able to go off mute to join in on group discussion, whether there’s pre-read material (and what to do if they can’t get through the pre-reads beforehand; should they still come to the meeting or send you feedback offline later?).

Setting clear expectations reduces uncertainty and anxiety, and that’s something we could all use help with right now.

Getting results

When we saw memes floating around that said “I guess we’re finally going to find out which of these meetings could have been emails,” we chuckled.

It’s funny because it’s true: so many meetings seem pointless. But as the mentor of your meetings, you can change that. You’re leading a meeting because you are trying to move a person, or a project, from point A to B.

Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish in the meeting. This advice is the same for in-person or virtual meetings, but it’s even more crucial in a virtual setting because collaboration and consensus take longer.

People are chatting and checking emails. There is cringe-worthy cross-talk: “You go-no, wait. Me?” — and so many bloopers: “Oops, I forgot to unmute/turn off my video/close the door … ”

Given all of those challenges, you’ll need to set manageable goals for what you can accomplish in a virtual meeting so you can get results faster.

Once you get the feedback you need, wrap up the meeting and send the recap and next steps ASAP. If you wait until 4pm to send recaps on half a dozen meetings that happened throughout the day, something is going to fall through the cracks.

If your gut reaction here is “I don’t have time to recap until the end of the day,” we get it. But ask yourself, is it more valuable to pack our day with meetings and fall short of hitting your results, or is it better to build in follow-up time throughout the day so we can accomplish what you set out to do?

At minimum, we recommend opening the meeting invite, hitting Reply All, and drafting key points you want to remember for your follow-up. You can even create a meeting recap template in your email to save yourself those extra minutes of formatting.

As the leader of the meeting, you have an important responsibility. We’ve compiled these recommendations to make it easier for you to take care of your projects, your people, and yourself, both during the uncertain times we’re in today and in the new reality we’re all driving toward.


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