Takeaways from a truly exceptional virtual discussion experience.
Last week I was afforded the opportunity to participate in a panel hosted by SMPS’ Austin chapter. I’ve participated in about half a dozen virtual panel discussions in this Zoom world we’re all experiencing, and this one was truly exceptional. I wanted to share a few takeaways from this experience as all of us are increasingly part of virtual meetings and panels with internal and external stakeholders and we are all learning “best practices” in real time.
- Set brand standards for virtual meetings, from dress code to virtual backgrounds to agendas. Our marketing team armed us with digital backgrounds to avoid the chaotic distractions of our personal levels of taste. I have also been given free advice on lighting after presenting a financial management seminar that upon rewatching appeared to have been inspired by The Blair Witch Project.
- Virtual conferences and events have got to reflect your personality and your firm’s culture. The brilliant moderator of the panel who inspired this article is Janki DePalma, associate and business development manager with DCI Engineers and member of Zweig Group’s 2020 ElevateHer cohort. She introduced the panelists to each other a couple of weeks ahead of the meeting. She did this not just with our resumes and professional profiles, but she also took the time to explain why she invited each one of us to participate in the conversation and how she was connected to each of us. Her welcoming tone set a foundation of downright friendliness, which made it so much easier to have a conversation with total strangers. This may seem like a small detail, but as someone who has more public speaking anxiety than your average monk who has taken a vow of silence, this was a wildly inclusive action.
- The best panels I have been part of are those in which the moderator briefs the participants on the audience demographics, the promotional efforts and positioning, learning objectives, and what we ought to prepare to discuss.
- Prepared, empowered speakers are impactful, and a great moderator does what they can to make that happen without being overly scripted or formal. Janki shared half a dozen questions with the group of panelists via email in advance, and then asked us to tell her if there were any specific subjects that we would like to opt out from contributing. It was more helpful to know what I wouldn’t have to stress about than if she would have asked us to volunteer to speak to specific topics.
- A terrific moderator also provides the framework for how the conversation will be structured, telling us who might expect to be “called on” for specific topics.
- Extend graciousness by scheduling a 10-minute platform dry run, like my colleague Olivia Thomas, our marketing and events coordinator, does before every one of our now-virtual learning experiences. Olivia walks through the presentation and animation details, the agenda, the start and end time, the participant feedback process, and she comments on what she sees and hears, which helps with the details like voice inflection before we “go live” and embarrass ourselves to the two people who show up to one of my accounting seminars.
- Create a PDF or image of the “ground rules” for the panel so the participants can read over the topics as they join the meeting, since some people hop on earlier or later in the conversation. The ground rules, such as how to ask questions during the panel, how to follow up for more information, muting yourself except when speaking, etc., should not just be displayed right at the launch, but ideally available in a “waiting room” or otherwise visible throughout the meeting. To really nail the details, brand the ground rules with a “thank you to our sponsors” to maximize visibility for the sponsors of the conversation.
- For presentations with slides, moderators need to get these in advance. You never know when an errant shih-tzu, in my case, may lose their aforementioned “shih,” or when your internet may be uncooperative. Knowing that a moderator is fully armed with my content is one less weight on my shoulders as a very frequent presenter who hates presenting. This protocol also ensures a set of fresh eyes on your content for the kind of typos you don’t notice until you’re preserved for all time like an insect in the amber that is a recorded Zoom meeting.
- My last tip is to have a moderator who is aware of the end time of a conversation. As a panelist, I feel obligated to prioritize the conversation I am having, and I just hate to wrap up the meeting, even when I am over-committed. Giving the moderator true insight into your schedule (“I can stay until noon, but I’ll be missing a weekly touchpoint call that starts 15 minutes before that”) is an expectation we need to set for the panelists we invite into our discussions. I try to carve out hold times on my public calendar to prepare for and calm down after panel conference calls if possible (to be direct: I have to rock back and forth after public speaking for at least five minutes before picking my day up).
The panel itself was on the topic of “diversity, inclusion and equity: beyond the buzzwords” – rest assured that I will dive more into the takeaways from this conversation in another article. For now, and as we work toward planning a virtual conference, it seems important to capture the things I’ve learned so far as a virtual panelist.
Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.