HEI FYI

Tired of Zoom? It’s Not the Platform That’s the Problem


As professionals today, meetings are central to everything we do. We meet to plan, strategize, and implement. We also carve time out to collaborate, network, and connect. And perhaps most important, we meet for professional growth, personal learning, and inspiration. At their best, meetings are the heartbeat of our professional lives—they augment the humanity of our daily grinds and inspire us toward a better future. And yet, the vast majority of the meetings most of us attend are truly awful.

Enter Zoom—and all of the above is magnified. We’re hungrier than ever for connection and for the magic of a constructive professional gathering. And at the same time, boring and underprepared speakers, the takeover of one or more powerful voices, poorly planned agendas, and unfocused tangents zap our spirits and our energy.

Can anything be done? Are meetings the problem? Is Zoom the problem? It’s complicated but in short: yes, maybe, and no.

At HEI, we’ve unlocked powerful strategies for making Zoom meetings more engaging, efficient, democratic, and fulfilling than ever.

Pre-COVID-19

As HEI’s founder, I live near Washington, DC, and in a typical week, I could fill my calendar with endless events and meetings with colleagues in my field. Pre-COVID-19, I’d walk in the door, grab a coffee, say hello, and settle into my chair after some brief informal networking.

Five minutes into the meeting, usually more than half the room would be checking their cell phones or laptops. Total disengagement would occur across the room from the moment the lead speaker would start spouting off impressive bios of whomever was up to talk at us for the next 20 to 45 minutes. I’d often start to wonder why I was there and laugh to myself while they outlined the “engaging conversation that they had planned,” which was never really a conversation at all. Along with my colleagues in the room, I might start thinking about (if not working on) other tasks of the day. I might ponder how and when I could escape—though if I did, I’d have to do it with haste, as though an emergency task had beckoned me from the event.

The Virtual Now

Today, the same is true for virtual meetings, except now the breadth of potential distractions is tenfold. You can shut off your video and hit mute—and then check your email, pay your bills, or even order groceries (I’m guilty of doing all three at once)! So how do we make our meetings more engaging, meaningful, and efficient—especially on Zoom?

In more than half the meetings where I’ve been present, the extent of the “engagement” with audience members is no more than a Q & A session. Sometimes this is done with an open forum, and other times it is done through a carefully selected moderator who asks questions of the panelists. Unfortunately, no matter how well it is executed, this does not pass the sniff test for engagement. It’s the 21st century, and as viewers or audience members, we’re more sophisticated than ever. The old guard of “good” meetings would dictate that: human beings learn by hearing content, those with the most power and knowledge have value, and only a few voices really matter. Today, we need more and can do better.

At HEI, we use an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) framework in our meetings and in our research. AI beautifully adapts to the virtual space, and several of our staff members are certified to lead large and small convenings using AI in the XCHANGE facilitation approach. The core premise of AI can be best summed up in the words of David Cooperrider, the founder of AI: “We live in the world our questions create.” In other words, questions in and of themselves are not neutral, but they create change and impact what we see. Questions bring awareness and have power to be generative. Taking this perspective into how we prepare for and engage in meetings creates an openness to learning and a shift in how we seek to achieve meeting objectives. The following key beliefs guide our approach, and could improve your meetings:

  • Prize engagement over control. Many meeting planners default to one-way, speaker-centered approaches, because they depend on the certainty of a few leaders/experts controlling the space. Too often this is at the expense of deep engagement. Open up the gates to encourage dialogue and exchange. The unexpected may happen but can be managed through preparation, as we help participants first connect with each other on the places where they share values. For example, a simple question at the start of a meeting might include a small group breakout in Zoom, where a few people introduce themselves and answer one question: Why is it important for you to be here today? Or: What about this topic is meaningful to you, your community, the world? Connection—right there in the first few minutes of a meeting—makes each of the individual voices in the room more important than the resume of the first speaker.
  • In order for learning to be effective, it must be active. As a species, we learn by doing, not just reading, seeing, or hearing. It takes courage to invite engagement, challenge, interaction, and a diversity of voices. The primary role of a leader, facilitator, or educator is to create space for learning, which we know occurs through engagement. Even in meetings intended for the sharing of knowledge and content from a few expert speakers, the majority of what is conveyed will be lost without a few basic questions before, during, and after the learning content. Active learning requires that those listening have an opportunity to engage in the content in a meaningful way. For example, facilitators could provide a reflection guide and give the audience a few minutes to jot down some thoughts on the topic, or even to identify and post their biggest questions. After content is delivered, facilitators can then offer an opportunity for small group discussions about what was most meaningful to participants.
  • Democratize power and value. Our approach to meetings stems from our culture’s deep roots in hierarchy and privileging only a few voices. A democratic approach to learning together requires that more voices are welcomed at the table. Hearing from others with different viewpoints also contributes to a participant leaving a meeting with lasting learning. One way to do this is by valuing the voices in the room. For example, facilitators could invite the audience to contribute their wisdom, which benefits everyone. For Zoom meetings less than 50, ideas can be crowdsourced with the hand-raising function, or participants can be asked to share wisdom in 10 words or less. For Zoom meetings over 50, you can invite responses using Padlet, Menti, or another shared polling and brainstorming resource. You can ask those who have been radically inspired to raise their hands and share what has made such a big impact on them. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Storytelling is at the heart of connection. By providing space for small group conversations, we allow for the opportunity for meaningful connections—with the topics at hand and also with one another. How much more will a participant gain from the virtual meeting experience than when they hear a story about why the topic at hand is important to another colleague, or why something they heard was impactful to them personally and professionally? Ultimately, stories are what we remember and how we connect, and participants and speakers all have stories to tell about what is at the heart of a meeting’s content. Whether that topic is hard quantitative data, expert advice or learning, or big picture musings, all of us are in the “room” on the day of the event because something about this topic, this work, this professional life we live made it matter to be here. Tell that story.

We are all tired of boring meetings devoid of connection, equality of voices, and deeper learning. In this moment, where we find ourselves in a world comprised entirely of digital social spaces, now is the time to revolutionize our approaches for coming together. 

Want to learn more about our approach? We’d love to speak with you and help plan your next major convening.