One of the things I love about our business is the broad range of clients we work with, both big and small. One minute I might be having a meeting in the coffee shop round the corner discussing a visual identity for a local builder. The next, I’ll be back in the meeting room preparing to present creative routes for a large international brand with clients in several countries around the world.
Whether I’m taking a brief or presenting ideas, the ideal scenario for me is always face to face with the client in order to really get a sense of what they want and how they feel. However, when you’re working as part of an international team, it’s just not cost effective to get everyone in the same room. And, despite the plethora of digital communications at our fingertips, things can still get lost in translation.
Reluctantly, as we’ve grown our international client base, I’ve had to embrace the video conference call. Although I still think of Skype as the Powerpoint of verbal communications, I’ve had to find ways of making these meetings more productive. Here’s my advice for getting what you need from a virtual meeting whilst ensuring your creativity isn’t compromised by not having everyone in the same room.
1. Choose the best time zone
You might think being based in Greenwich works in my favour when it comes to international meetings. GMT puts me right in the middle of the world time zone grid, so if we need to schedule a call with colleagues from both South East Asia and the US, it often tends to happen during my workday. However, I always make a point of offering to take a more anti-social timeslot, so that it’s not always the same person that ends up with the rough deal. After all, someone who is at the beginning of their work day is likely to be more mentally alert than someone who has been hanging around for hours for the call, so my advice is be prepared to mix it up. Punctuality is key too – you’re not creating the best environment for communication if people have to wait around for the meeting to start because someone’s not ready.
2. Prepare thoroughly beforehand
There’s nothing worse than someone taking up time asking questions that could have been answered before the meeting, so don’t wing it – do your prep. If you’re leading the meeting, set a clear agenda so that everyone is aware of what’s expected. If you want people to review materials, share them with participants well ahead of the meeting so no-one is struggling to download something on the call. If you’re the one expected to feedback on something, take the time to review and discuss it with your colleagues beforehand so that you’ve formed an opinion before the meeting starts.
3. Appoint a chairperson
A virtual meeting always needs a proper chairperson to ensure everyone is behaving as productively as they would in the same room. It’s much harder to engage people on a call, particularly using something like Skype where you’re only getting one perspective at a time; it means a lot of the spontaneity that is key to the creative process is lost. It’s also more difficult to read people’s facial and body language. A chairperson can help to create spontaneity and enable you to perform like you’re all in one room by ensuring that each participant gets to express an opinion and say their piece.
4. Ban any distractions
Even when you’re on a video call, the chances are everyone is not on screen the whole time, and it’s easy for people to get distracted when they’re not in the spotlight. There’s nothing more off-putting than hearing someone typing in the background when you’re talking through a concept or presenting an idea. Where possible, request that participants turn off phones and email notifications for the duration of the meeting. They may think that they’re being productive by multi-tasking in the background, but you’ll find you get three times as much covered if everyone commits to meeting.
5. Document action points
Finally, make sure someone takes detailed minutes during the call with agreed action points, next steps and assigned responsibilities. Some people are more bullish in a virtual meeting than face to face; others may be the other way round so it’s important to ensure that everything that’s agreed is clearly documented, and everyone knows what they are accountable for. That way, less time is wasted on follow up after the meeting.
As designers, we may well be brilliant visual communicators, but when it comes to getting buy-in from clients, particularly across different cultures and time zones, a well thought through verbal communications approach is key. We should aim to be equally engaging in virtual meetings as we are when chatting through ideas in the local caff.
Simon is the Managing Director of Greenwich Design, a family–owned branding and design studio that has just celebrated the 60th anniversary of working with one of its clients.