Opening your online meeting

Published by Jackie Barrie on

On stage, you would usually open your meeting with impact. Get introduced by the MC. Walk on stage to a round of applause. Start your talk with a powerful story or compelling statistic.

Online, it’s not so easy. You get that awkward pause while you admit and welcome people from the waiting room, meanwhile, other attendees are arriving late, turning on their webcams and slowly connecting to audio. Sometimes you’ll get one who unmutes to ask a question, or who types a public apology in the chatbox to explain they have to leave early.

Lots of speakers and trainers start their events with an icebreaker to ‘warm up’ the audience. But many traditional icebreakers don’t convert well online. Even when they do, many people don’t use them effectively.

I recommend that any icebreaker you use should have a point. A point that connects to your topic. And that point should be clear to participants, otherwise, they will be sighing inside (you might not see them, but it’s certain to be true). And that’s not the mood you want them to be in before you get into the meat and drink of your valuable content.

Here are some ideas for you to adapt according to your presentation style and desired outcome.

1. “Where are you?”

This is a common icebreaker to make connections among your audience. There are several ways you can collect the information:

  • Type in chat
  • Pin on map using (this tool is also useful for brainstorming, clustering and upvoting)
  • Draw local landmark for attendees to guess (use whiteboard or pen-and-paper held to camera)

2. Polls

To start the interaction early (and set expectations for the rest of your meeting), you can collect information from attendees using polls. Questions you might ask include:

  • Mood of the room (so you can adjust your message accordingly): “How are you feeling today?” Rank 1 (low) to 6 (high)
  • Tech check (so you can give the right instructions): “What device are you using?” Desktop/laptop, Tablet/smartphone, Dial-in
  • Working environment (so you can make allowances): “Do you have distractions/background noise where you are?” Yes, No

You can use in-built Zoom polls (set up in advance) or external apps (some are now integrated within Zoom but may need attendees to be on the latest version which you can’t always assume):

3. Making an entrance

You can use Zoom’s virtual background feature to play your video showreel (silent) behind you or with you off-camera before you jump on screen.

You can also use virtual backgrounds to display headline images above your talking head to introduce new segments of your session.

The downside of virtual backgrounds is that they can cause migraines and some neurally diverse people find them difficult, especially if you don’t have good lighting where you are, and your movements cause body parts to seemingly disappear/reappear. That’s why I only use them briefly, if at all.

To change state and regain attention, you can play snippets of copyright-free music sourced (free or paid) from sites including:

I often share my screen during breaks to show the clock (full screen) at This helps get people back on time, especially when you unmute yourself a minute or so before time’s up and give an audible reminder of when the meeting is due to restart.

MongrelVids has created a shareable 30-second Countdown clock on YouTube.

4. Getting-to-know-you activities

If you have a group who don’t know each other, you might want an icebreaker where you find out a bit about them.

  • Pet parade: Pets often walk in front of the camera at some point anyway, so you might as well get it out of the way and invite attendees to introduce their pet at the start (or cuddly toy)
  • Show and tell: Ask them to show something from their desk or elsewhere in the house that tells everyone something about themselves or the topic
  • Pig personality profile: See page 38 of Experiential Speaking or search it on Google
  • Questions in a hat: See page 62 of Experiential Speaking (online, you’ll have to collect questions in advance or via the chatbox rather than on scraps of paper)
  • Renaming e.g. Add your favourite hobbies to your name (idea by networking speaker, Will Kintish)

5. Knowledge checking

Why guess what information to include in your presentation? Why risk either (a) telling them what they know already (b) providing advanced information that goes over their heads because they don’t know the basics – either of these are a waste of everyone’s time. All any speaker or trainer can do is ascertain where they are and suggest next steps / inspire them to think of their own next steps.

To find out how much your delegates know in advance, you can interview a handful of attendees before the session to find out what they need to know (idea inspired by Alan Stevens).

At the start of an online presentation, you can:

  • Measure level of understanding using a shared whiteboard with a line where people annotate where they are at before/after your session (this also makes good screenshots for social media)
  • Quiz e.g. multiple choice using polling feature, or definitions collected in a word cloud
  • Renaming e.g. add years of experience (this helps when putting people into evenly mixed breakout rooms)

Have you got your own ideas about how to open your online meeting effectively? If yes, please let me know and I’ll add them to my new book about online engagement (crediting you, of course).

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