Dealing with the Invisible in a Virtual Meeting


In physical training and meeting rooms, physical distractions are mostly visible and audible to people physically present in the room, though not completely. Something that is happening outside a room window may be visible only to one or two people, depending on where they are standing or sitting. Also, a silently vibrating mobile phone might also be only present for the person who has that phone in his/her pocket. But mostly, distractions are shared, and have a fairly uniform impact on the whole room – noise outside the room, sunlight streaming into the eyes of a large number of people,

Facilitators manage physical distraction in different ways – curtains can be drawn or blinds down, people can be asked to keep noise down in a corridor, or distractions outside of our control can be acknowledged and at least collectively accounted for.

The only distractions that are truly not (usually) that visible or audible in a physical room are inner distractions (the mind wandering, emotional concerns etc). These may be shown to others or not but are not – by and large – physical.

So, now to a virtual meeting.

Here people do not share the same physical space, though attempts may be made to compensate for this through the use of webcams. Webcams do bring use closer to showing our physical space to others and this will partly show any physical distractions that might be impacting on our audio interaction – phones ringing, people coming into the room etc |(depending on where the webcam is located and how much it shows).

There are different views as to the current state and usefulness of webcam technology. It can still be grainy, inconsistent in terms of quality, can be jerky and even lag behind spoken audio. In my own experience virtual improv works better with either excellent and consistent quality video or no video and just audio (and delivered in the style of a radio chat show – round an informal virtual chat show table!).

And now, onto the distractions. Audio distractions have the biggest impact and can include:

– some voices sounding like high quality radio and some sounding like old-fashioned telephone voices

– lagging and distorting voices (and cutting out)

– phones going off and the sound of typing

– voices of other people in a room not on the call

– different volume levels

– different levels of comfort and familiarity with virtual meetings and calls

– some people on echoey speakerphones

Some of these things can be reduced or eliminated with a technical check-in/rehearsal before the meeting and by suggesting a clear spec. for example: use landlines, no speakerphones, be in a room without distraction from others etc.

You can also do a warm up game or activity that familiarises people with the technology. We can play a game where each person can practice volume levels, clarity etc.

But what if the distractions are just there and not easy to control? It can be easy to get distracted by the distractions. My own general rule is to name them, acknowledge them lightly. If someone is clearly only half attending and multi-tasking, I’d do just as I’d do in a physical room and name that behaviour and invoke a ground rule. One key ground rule for virtual improv is: No distractions in the physical space you are occupying during this virtual meeting. Another way of framing that: Take personal responsibility fully present in the virtual session.

If we are in a conversation which involves taking turns, be ready to pass over someone where a distraction is disrupting the process. Do it lightly but firmly.

If someone drops off the call, again, don’t get paralysed by it. Move on quickly. Be ready to restart or simply pass to another participant.

Prepare newcomers to this process for distractions and how to minimise them. Maybe send out a briefing page in advance of the session.

One warm up I enjoy is to do a simply shared storytelling or name game where we also tune into each other’s volume and clarity. We can then gently ask people to sit closer to the microphone or turn off background distractions etc as we go – until we are all tuned in.

Finally, there’s another opportunity – more radical.

Virtual meeting is a unique approach to non-physical connecting and it relies on technology and also the meeting of people who are in different quality separate physical spaces. How can we make a virtue of that? Some fun activities arise:

– we could ask people (in improvised mode) to describe to us their surroundings (as if they were an octagenarian musem guide, or as if it were a wildlife tv programme!).

– we could ask people to describe their surroundings in a made up poem or song

– we could also explore the dynamics in communication of our different qualities of voice and possibly video and debrief this – it could be a great way of exploring difference: different standpoints, different ways of seeing and hearing the world.

– we could play status games with volume and clarity!

– we could also explore the difference between audio and visual “signals”

– we could explore intimacy, comparing it to physical/virtual presence as well as video and audio connection

– we could explore understanding and misunderstanding and how collaboration is affected when we are not physically present and when we can see/not see each other

So a new territory for facilitation arises, not in spite of the virtual medium, but because of it. I think this new territory is at the beginning for facilitators.

Case study – an experiment in virtual meeting

I carried out an interesting experiment at Brighton (UK)’s  White Night Event la few years ago,.This was an event with performances and creative events happening over night, all over the city. It created a perfect opportunity to try something virtual and get input from different parts of the world, especially the USA.

We had a room full of people at 3am in the morning. There was a flip chart and also we had a projector and laptop connected to the internet.

First we carried out a brainstorm on the topic of “How would you keep two children entertained on a rainy day if you had no money and there was no TV available?”

We brainstormed in a room of very chilled out and “up for it” people (It was 3am!). I collected all the ideas on the flipchart in classic brainstorming mode. Some ideas were good, but most were what you might expect:

– “take them to the park”, “get them doing crafts”, “do some storytelling”, “get them to make a den” etc.

We then set the “experiment” in motion and everyone in the room became a spectator. We connected the laptop and projector and went into an established online/virtual chat room which described itself as a place to meet online and for “chilling out”. (It was for adults only). There were about 30 people in the online chat room and there was a lot of typing going on, some of it clearly drunk and a bit abusive. Others were engaged in small talk and some flirting. It got laughs in our room as what some people were typing in the chat room was a bit risky!

I then went into the chat room myself and “said” I was looking for ideas on how to keep two kids entertained without TV on no budget! We watched and waited.

We got about 30 ideas within about three minutes. In one case a trio in the room were clearly “bouncing off each other.” Others replied individually. Many ignored us. I was amazed at how quickly the ideas came, how much “fingertip flow” there was. Some responses were offensive, some a bit “cold” and unfriendly “(Kill the kids and solve the problem”, “put them on the streets to earn their keep”, “tranquillise them” etc).

But many were radical and fun,  way beyond anything we had come up with in the room where people could physically see each other and feel a bit “nervous” among strangers.

Of course, had I gone into a physical room where people were already even more comfortable with each other, things might have flowed better in our “real” room. But to be honest, the room at 3am was pretty relaxed right from the word go!

The “virtual” chat room came up with ideas such as “make it their problem, not yours”,  “get them to build a utopia on no money” (which spawned lots of new ideas in the physical room”, “make them angry enough to make their own entertainment”.

All in all the virtual room ideas were more radical and creative, but also a bit harsher,  a bit more unrelenting.

Does fingertip improvisation bypass some of our natural reticence? Or does it plunge us into reckless, coarser creativity?

When we debriefed the experiment in the “real” room, many in our physical room stated they were amazed at how much better the virtual room’s response was in terms of flow, immediacy of response and their wish to “think out of the box”. Our own brainstorm results looked a bit lame in comparison.

I’m now wondering what is freed or released virtually that is more held back physically in a room?


Paul Levy is the Author of Digital Inferno

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Digital Inferno by Paul Levy

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on February 20, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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