What I’ve learned about chairing international online meetings

Like most people, I’ve moved more into the virtual versus the physical world of work over the past two years. What I’ve particularly appreciated is that there are now no geographical and fewer time boundaries for running my training courses. A brilliant example of this was when I ran a one day intercultural course with delegates from Angola, Portugal, UK, Israel and Brazil – all in one session!

 Along the way, I’ve learned some key points about how to make the running of online meetings with both native and non-native speakers of English as successful as possible. I’d like to share these with you now.

 Starting the meeting

 It’s more important than ever to state the objectives and the agenda clearly at the start of the meeting. Without a clear purpose and direction, it is much easier for online participants to be distracted and to lose interest in proceedings early on.   

So, after your greeting, welcome and thanks for their attendance, I would suggest you do explain who you are, why you are chairing the meeting and what your key objectives are before running through the agenda. Before beginning, I think it’s also useful to state how questions should be handled because if you don’t, in my experience, native English speakers will interrupt constantly throughout the session, while many non-native English speakers won’t interrupt or get to speak at all!  

Communication and language 

I’ve become increasingly aware of how generational and psychological preferences can influence how we choose to communicate, especially online. Coming from an earlier generation, I naturally prefer physical face-to-face contact, whereas my millennial and GenZ clients, being digital natives, are more comfortable with virtual and less physical interaction. There are, however, some communication challenges online which are hard to overcome, namely: 

  • It’s difficult to read body language because there are fewer social clues
  • Introverts generally find it harder to participate and interrupt online (unlike extroverts who are more likely to be comfortable with online meetings)
  • The nuances and indirectness of the English language can get lost or misunderstood 

Have you ever heard of Global English? It is a simpler, more direct use of English without idioms, metaphors or slang and is more easily understood (especially online) by non-native English speakers. This version of English is different from the more informal language typically used by native English speakers. Examples of Global English vocabulary are: 

  •  ‘inform’ instead of ‘tell’
  •  ‘occupation’ instead of ‘job’
  •  ‘requirement’ instead of ‘need’
  •   ‘receive’ instead of ‘get’ 

I’ve found that the way to address communication difficulties is to avoid overloading people with information in one go and to clarify and repeat frequently. Focusing on enunciation more than usual is also important, especially if you have speakers of other languages involved. 

Whatever your audience, I would suggest consistently checking people’s comprehension by asking questions and playing back their responses for confirmation and agreement. 

Technical points  

Firstly, and in my opinion most importantly, you should be aware of your angles! It amazes me how many people (including those interviewed in TV) still don’t realise that a camera pointing up at you makes your chin and nostrils appear disproportionately larger. It’s far better to raise your computer’s camera to at least eye level or higher (but not too close) which will also improve your posture. Ideally, your face should frame the screen and not be too far away either so that participants can see you properly. 

I know it’s difficult to look directly at the camera if it’s not below eye level and that you can get distracted by having your own image on your screen. I suggest using the gallery view and hiding your own video on your display. This will give you somewhere to look, prevent you from getting distracted by your own image, also enabling you to maintain eye contact with each participant (depending on numbers).  This eye contact is more important than ever because body language is so much harder to read online. 

I’m also not a fan of virtual backgrounds. I find them distracting, especially when the participant frequently recedes into them. Why not explore ‘Together Mode’ on Teams which makes you seem like you are more in a room? I am also a fan of ‘touching up’ my appearance on Zoom. This makes my face look less severe and more polished. 

Lighting is another important point to take into consideration. During the day, if possible try to face a window and if it’s dark outside, position a lamp above your camera and pointing at your face. 

Red flags 

In my experience, hybrid groups are less successful. By this I mean having a group composed of some people together in the office on one camera and others individually participating online from their remote locations.   It’s very difficult to create cohesion and engagement in these circumstances as I’ve found the office based group are harder to see (as the camera is further away) and are easily distracted, talking amongst themselves with the microphone off. 

I also know from experience that you should watch out for silence on the part of participants as this does not necessarily mean that everything is alright. Silence could in fact be a sign of problems which need to be addressed. 

Occasionally, I’ve had participants who don’t want to turn on their cameras - in one case because they were in their pyjamas at 11am! But if your camera is not on, you become truly invisible to the group and you run the risk of being ignored and not included in proceedings which is exactly what happened in the pyjamas case.  

Still on the subject of clothing, received wisdom says that one should avoid wearing stripes, zig zags or confusing patterns as these distract from who you are and your message. Instead, aim to wear plain, bright and pastel colours which work best for visibility, but not white which lessens your visibility. Another thing that is distracting online is fiddling, for example, with a pen. This is because your hands are more noticeable online. 

After the session 

If it’s a regular session, I think it’s helpful to set up a spreadsheet to record what was covered and agreed in the meeting.  Without meeting face to face, it’s much harder to remember the individual details, to ensure everyone is onboard and understands and that actions will happen. I’m suggesting a simplified communications plan which could contain the following information: 

Communications plan


Final thoughts 

In spite of all the benefits and alternatives that online platforms have given us during the pandemic, I still firmly believe, however, that online meetings are not a long term, 100% substitute for meeting face-to-face because it’s undeniably harder to build trust and client relationships online only.