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‹ View all articles15th July 2020

What to do when disaster strikes in your online meeting

You’ve rushed around tidying up and making sure your background looks relatively respectable so you can have an important virtual meeting.

Hair brushed, smartly dressed (from the bottom up at least) and notes at the ready. What could possibly go wrong? 

As most of us have found over the last few months, there’s plenty of room for the unexpected to happen which can threaten to derail your careful preparation, credibility and valuable relationships. 

We’ve all had those moments in virtual meetings that induce heart-in-the-mouth panic. For me, that’s included my toddler bursting in on a meeting with an important client, demanding a cuddle. And my overburdened laptop deciding (despite testing in advance) that it’s not going to show PowerPoint slides correctly and then crashing - mid client webinar.

It feels like the end of the world at the time - but is it? And what can you do to save the situation?

1. Be human, it’s already happened. 

When my son came in, I embraced him, introduced him to the group and gave him that cuddle. My clients said hello to him and he happily toddled off. Rather than being put off by this supposed intrusion, my clients actually welcomed the normality of the situation and were inspired to see how I handled the challenges of working from home with the demands of family life. 

It’s your response that matters. If I’d tried to ignore him, it would have been much more uncomfortable for everyone, not to mention the chance of kicking off a dramatic reaction – toddlers are not the best at keeping a lid on their emotions! 

Take these two infamous BBC interviews as examples, where children have played a starring role in otherwise serious conversations:

  • The one where Professor Robert Kelly tried to ignore his two children who came crashing into the room during an interview, closely followed by mum desperately trying to drag them back out of sight. Funny but seriously awkward viewing. 
  • Compare that to the recent interview between the presenter Christian Fraser and Dr Clare Wenham, where her daughter insisted on asking where to put her picture of a unicorn. Dr Wenham and the reporter handled it beautifully by involving the daughter in the discussion and winning the hearts of the nation. 

Who came out better in these situations? The people who were more human. 

2. Relax, you’re not in control. 

Getting stressed about the thing that’s gone wrong will only cause more panic and a less professional outcome. If we panic, our fight or flight response is triggered, which means you might ramble, go bright red or speed up - all things that spoil the opportunity to impress your participants. 

Better to acknowledge the embarrassment and find a way to re-ground yourself. For me with the laptop crash - the game was to stay calm and get back onto the webinar with my heart pumping as slowly as possible, so I’d get there sooner and be in better shape to impress them when I did.

3. Get it in perspective.

Assuming that nobody’s been seriously injured, this isn’t really a disaster. Even if it’s a highly important meeting or presentation, then chances are this is not as much of a big deal as you think.

Some practical suggestions for the moment:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Drink some water
  • Name what’s happening (“wow, I screwed up there, that’s embarrassing!”)
  • Ask something of your audience to give you a breather
  • Find a way to laugh (humour relaxes the nervous system)
  • Make sure you have a back-up person or tech support on the line with you (like I didn’t)

Some longer-term solutions:

The best way to prepare for this kind of thing is by developing yourself as a speaker, communicator and leader, so you’re confident to deal with whatever comes your way, even if/when you screw up. That’s why our clients are loving the chance to practice their virtual communications with our expert coaches, where they get feedback to help them improve and maximise their impact. You don’t get that kind of insight and freedom to test out your approach in day-to-day interactions with your colleagues.   

Or if it’s an irretrievable situation:

  • Give up for the day and reschedule
  • Email the key bullets you wanted to communicate
  • Record and circulate a video of what you wanted to say
  • Pick up the phone (remember those?) to one of the main participants 

Remember, we’re all welcoming people into our homes at the moment and we don’t have to pretend we’re in a boardroom setting. Our clients tell us this situation isn’t likely to change for the next 6-12 months, so we need to get comfortable with the unexpected.

We see this as a chance to change the culture around meetings more generally and welcome a more human connection between teams and clients. So when your blooper feels like the bottom has fallen out of your career, pick yourself up and show your human side – it’s your very best feature. 

If you want to stand the best chance of succeeding in your virtual communications, no matter what happens, please get in touch about our Virtually Brilliant training programmes.

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