How to Get People to Speak Up in Virtual Meetings

How do you ask for ideas or feedback during a virtual meeting in a way that returns valuable answers (and not just from the usual extroverts)? Thankfully, virtual meetings give you more tools to overcome that obstacle, with features such as chat, Q&A, breakout rooms, reaction icons, virtual whiteboards, and a range of apps that have made it easier than ever to ask questions and request ideas from meeting attendees. This article covers eight tactics for getting responses from even the most mute-happy meeting members.

1. Share Your Questions Ahead of Time

If you’re asking people for insight, it’s only fair to give them as much time as possible to think about the problem at hand. Once you’ve established who’s attending the meeting, email them up to five of the questions you will be asking. Place those questions in the meeting agenda and the calendar listing so everyone knows what’s coming and can prepare.

2. Establish Rules that Encourage Participation

It’s easy for an idea-elicitation session to veer off course when people start confusing developing ideas with debating them — and many will be reluctant to raise their virtual hand if they think their idea may get shot down. So be clear about the purpose of the session with a statement like, “The purpose of this meeting is only to collect ideas and build upon them if we can. In the next meeting, we’ll have an opportunity to assess them and pick our favorites.”

To help maintain speaking time balance, communicate parameters like “We only have an hour, so please keep your contributions brief to give everyone ample time to speak.” Also, keep things moving by recommending that long-running conversations be “continued offline.”

Finally, ask people to turn on their cameras if they feel comfortable doing so. Camera usage in a virtual meeting should be a rare opt-out, not an opt-in, because being seen increases the likelihood of participation. (It’s not a lot to ask because no one in an in-person meeting gets to sit under the table).

3. Ask Simple Questions in Chat

Too often, meeting participants see and treat the virtual meeting chat window like a live microphone at a 4th-grade talent show — there to record any cheer, random thought, joke, personal story, or idea that strikes anyone at any point. But used strategically and with the understanding that many people are more comfortable typing than talking, chat can successfully elicit ideas that might be challenging to extract otherwise.

Practical and easy chat tactics include simple polling (“Type 1 for Choice #1 and 2 for Choice #2”), simple prompts (“Chat one word that best describes the product”), or simple feedback (“Share one thing you learned from last week’s event”).

The key here is simple: asking for one short and specific contribution, versus a general ask like “What did you think?”, “What questions do you have?” and “Tell us about yourself.” Again, you may get answers to broad questions from the traditional speak-up crowd, but assuming everyone in the meeting is qualified, you want answers from as many different people as possible.

Once you receive these brief chat contributions, the next step is to…

4. Follow Up on Those Questions

You’ve now broken the ice. Because the original request was easy, many people feel comfortable contributing ideas and — with your help — can now elaborate on those ideas. For example:

“Steve, can you unmute and tell us why you chose #2?”

“Kelly, you described the product as innovative. Can you unmute and share why?”

“George, that’s great how your team became more efficient. Can you unmute and share some examples?”

Even for those least likely to raise their hands in a meeting, following up audibly on a contribution they typed into chat is easier than responding out loud from the start.

An effective way to invite further discussion on an existing topic is to ask for agreement, such as “Type A in chat if you agree with Kelly or want to suggest another word that describes the product.”

The key here: Call people by name and repeat their contribution. This practice demonstrates that you value the team and their ideas, which may increase their comfort in participating.

5. Be Clear About What You’re Asking For

When I want to motivate responses without applying direct pressure, I’ll often say, “I’m just looking for three ideas.” That relieves some anxiety because I’ve made it clear I don’t need everyone to talk, but it also raises the stakes because we’re not proceeding until I get my three ideas.

What I’ve found is that people are more inclined to volunteer when my expectation is clear. If I ask for any ideas, I’ll often get none. If I ask for three ideas, I’ll typically get three. The last contribution frequently comes quickest because it feels like completing a task, not merely being part of an exercise with no clear end.

6. Don’t Shame Attendees

One sure-fire way to increase peoples’ hesitance to contribute is to shame them. No one shames their team on purpose of course, but some meeting leaders create that impact unintentionally when they complain about the lack of response: “Nobody has any questions? Really, nobody? Come on, this is important. I can’t believe there are no questions.”

As a direct result, your team may feel uncomfortable and guilty. You’re also likely to hear relatively meaningless contributions from people who just want to end that awkwardness.

Another form of shaming happens at the end of the meeting when the meeting leader calls on (really, picks on) people who haven’t yet contributed. Remember that, during a meeting, staying silent is a legitimate entitlement and may reflect a valid work communication style or severe discomfort. Your goal is to make the opportunity comfortable, not compulsory.

7. Count Away the Silence

When no one speaks up to answer your question, it’s time to transition to a new question or revise the old one to make responses easier, but how long do you wait? J. Elise Keith, founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings, recommends a five-second rule: silently counting five seconds for an answer to a question before moving on. The idea is that four seconds will likely cut someone off, and six seconds puts you deep into excruciating silence territory.

I prefer seven seconds (and so do others), but season to taste. Whether scientific or magic, the rule gives the meeting leader a tool to support inclusion, prevent awkwardness, and — for sure — eliminate guesswork.

At my organization, the tactic has become so well-known that leaders sometimes say wryly, “Well, that’s seven seconds, so I guess it’s time to move on.”

8. It’s a Conversation, Not an Interview

You may have a list of questions to ask but contextualize each one to avoid coming across like a census-taker. Instead of saying, “My first question is… my second question is… my third question is…” say something like, “The next question relates to what Jim said earlier…” or “The next question gets at an issue we’ve been discussing since last month’s Town Hall…”

The key is making yourself a participant in the conversation, not just the conversation’s note-taker. If people see you care enough to pay close attention and be involved, they will be more comfortable sharing insights with you.

Getting most people to respond to questions during any meeting can be a challenge, but virtual meetings give you more tools to overcome that obstacle. And if all else fails, you’re only five-to-seven seconds away from the next opportunity.

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