If you want a fully engaged audience, spend time planning this part, too

Have you experienced this?

You’re leading an online orientation for prospective volunteers – or perhaps it’s a volunteer training – or even a staff meeting – and the energy in the room never quite gets off the ground.  Your participants seem quieter than usual, more distracted, and not fully focused on your objectives.

You may be tempted to blame the malaise on “zoom burnout.” With so many online meetings, perhaps your group is just plain tired of staring at a screen. Lucky you for facilitating an important session at the wrong time.

What I’ve discovered over these last many months, though, is that volunteer managers (and anyone, really) can shift the mood of the group by focusing on one area of facilitation:

The warm-up.

If you search online, you’ll find plenty of tips and strategies for facilitating in our new remote universe.  What you won’t find, though, is much time spent on those first few minutes of your meeting. That’s a shame, because I find that the quality of my warm-up has everything to do with a successful online meeting.

Your warmup is just as essential as the content that you deliver. It’s your golden opportunity to fully engage participants, and to do so from the get-go. It’s the moment when the folks who log on recognize themselves as a cohesive group – a cohort that is united to learn or brainstorm around the task at hand.

As a trainer, it’s rewarding to work with a group that’s warmed up, excited, and ready to dig into the presentation. That’s what happened last month, when I facilitated an online workshop on (yes) online facilitation for my volunteer managers association, NVAVA. The first quarter of the session was devoted to the warm-up, because I wanted the participants to experience and reflect on the upside of a strong opener.

Planning an engaging warm-up is simple if you adopt these three actions:

1,  Acknowledge as many people as possible

People are more responsive when they feel seen and validated. The simple act of saying hello when someone logs on goes a long way to keeping them absorbed in the session.

If your group is small and you have time for conversation, all the better. If the group is larger, make a point of at least greeting everyone by name. If your group is too large for that, make sure to wrap up your welcome by saying “I know we have a large group today and I wish I had time to welcome everyone by name. Please know that I see you on the call and I’m so glad you’re here.”

2.  Use a warm-up question

As with live trainings, icebreakers go a long way towards establishing rapport. They also help to accustom the group to engaging from the start – and frequent engagement is important for online facilitation.

You don’t need to do anything complicated. Just pose a question (make it visible on your screen share) and ask participants to write their responses in the chat. If you want to get sophisticated, set up a poll and then share the responses.

3.  Make your warm-up question funny

Research shows that that people absorb information better with humor, so set the tone for an upbeat session with a funny icebreaker. Ironically, the current pandemic has given us plenty of new options. I’ve had great responses to, “Honor code: who is wearing sweatpants?” or “What’s your go-to pandemic comfort food?” The questions generate a surprising amount of conversation.

Planning your warm-up is not time-consuming or difficult. It’s more a matter of being thoughtful, of creating an environment where participants are receptive to what you have to say and willing to engage.  You have important information to share: make sure your audience is ready to hear it.