How to Run Successful Virtual Public Meetings

November 2, 2020 | Leonard Greenberger

In the age of coronavirus, virtual meetings are quickly becoming the norm – including for public meetings designed to engage with local communities near active industrial site remediation projects (known as Superfund sites at the federal level).

When the virus first hit hard in March, most agencies simply postponed meetings required by state and federal law. But now that more than six months have passed and with no end in sight, the shows must go on. Here’s how to make them work:

Pay close attention to your non-verbal cues. When people are angry, worried and suspicious, they judge your trustworthiness and credibility mostly on how you look rather than what you say. You send the most important cues, whether in person or online, with your eyes. Looking up, down or side-to-side, or blinking too much or not enough, will hurt you. Don’t sit or stand behind a desk or podium, or too close to the camera. Frame yourself so people can see your shoulders.

Practice, practice, practice. People often let their guards down in a virtual setting. You’re giving a Broadway performance, so you can’t suddenly blow your nose or roll your eyes or wipe your brow. The only way I know to avoid these negative signals is to practice, practice, practice – just like any professional actor or athlete. Clients often ask if they can use a teleprompter in a virtual setting. I’m not crazy about that because it can become a crutch. You should be able to give your presentation in your sleep.

Think through accessibility. Since many remediation projects take place in communities that value anonymity, you need to make people feel safe and secure. Let them know if they’re being recorded, and don’t share their images or contact information. Although room size and fire marshal requirements don’t apply, some platforms cap attendance. Also, make sure your choice offers the right translation options; at one in-person meeting several years ago, we needed Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole translators.

Plan to fail. What if screen sharing isn’t working? Or the video feed suddenly winks out? If the camera suddenly zooms out or pans down, what will people see? In other words, wear pants! Think about how someone, or some group, can hijack the meeting, and how you and your platform are going to respond. (When I first signed up with a certain popular choice, it defaulted my background to a photo of Bill Cosby.)

Remember that you’re doing this because you want to, not because you have to. Public meetings are anxiety-provoking, but it’s important not to think of them as a chore – or of your audience as an adversary. This is an opportunity to tell your good story well. Although remediation projects often evoke anger and worry and suspicion, they are ultimately about making a community cleaner and safer. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing!”