The Magic 6

6th November 2020 |   Dr Penny Pullan

How to lead virtual (and hybrid) meetings.

In spring 2020, meetings changed. Instead of physically meeting up with colleagues, everything moved online during lockdown.

Of course, sales teams have been catching up with colleagues in the field by phone or video chat for years, but, in March, everything went remote: team meetings, client meetings and much, much more. While meetings need to be engaging and effective, we know that too often remote meetings are deadly dull, leaving people “zoomed out” and drained of energy and enthusiasm. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be like this!

There is an additional challenge now in the autumn of 2020. With offices opening up, we’re moving into a hybrid situation with some people in the office and others dispersed geographically, either working from home or elsewhere. The difficulty is that it is very hard to create a level playing field for meetings in this new hybrid environment.

The Magic 6
Figure 1: The Magic 6TM for starting up a virtual meeting with clarity (©2007 Making Projects Work Ltd, used with permission).

Naturally, those in the office will be able to glance around and pick up the body language of others in the room. Those joining remotely are likely to miss out on subtle nuances and dynamics of conversation, and they certainly won’t be able to join their office-based colleagues for a catch up over a coffee during the breaks. When we were all remote, there really was a level playing field. Now instead it seems that there will be an inbuilt advantage for those in the office.

Level playing field

So, what can we do? It’s important to create a level playing field intentionally for everyone who joins your meeting, no matter where they are joining from. One way to do this is to choose to hold hybrid team meetings virtually, removing the advantage for those in the office as everyone will join individually from their desk, wherever that may be.

Whatever you do, plan for a really effective and engaging virtual meeting. Design your meeting to make it easy for every single person to collaborate, to get what they need from the meeting and leave with absolute clarity.

This is where the Magic 6TM comes in (Figure 1). This framework provides you with six key things to agree at the very start of each meeting, to ensure that it runs as well as it can and that everyone has absolute clarity. It also tends to reduce the time spent in meetings, especially virtual ones.

In practice

Let’s explore how this framework brings clarity to a meeting between the head office sales team and their colleagues dispersed around the country when they wish to adjust sales targets for Q4.

  • We are here to. This is the whole point of the meeting, stated in a few words. Four to ten is ideal – keep it high level! In our example, the purpose is “We are here to agree final sales targets for Q4 2020.”
  • Today we will. This lists four to six more detailed objectives, which are likely to map to chunks of the meeting. Each should align with the overall purpose, stated in the previous step. Here is what our sales team came up with:
    1. Set up the meeting for success using the Magic 6TM
    2. Update on the international and national contexts for our sector for Q4.
    3. Hear from each team member about their own client position as we approach Q4.
    4. Discuss options for going forward.
    5. Choose two options to present to senior management.
    6. Review actions, checking that everyone is able to complete theirs as committed, plus review the meeting, exploring what went well and what could change for the better going forward.
  • Our plan. The time plan, showing the start and end times, plus breaks. It also shows if any guests are planning to join the meeting for a short while. Our sales team have chosen to meet at 11am, with break for lunch 12-12:30, then they will carry on until 1:30pm. There are no planned guests.
  • Who’s doing what? Remote participants can easily tune out of a virtual meeting, so I suggest that you give out roles to people during the meeting, to share the load and involve people. In this session, Mary takes on the time keeping; Steve keeps the action list updated; Sue facilitates the meeting and Khalid acts as the technical producer, making sure that key parts of the meeting are recorded or handling breakout rooms. They will all be paying attention as they play their roles and Sue, as team leader, will have more bandwidth left to do a great job at making sure that everyone is taking part.
  • How we work together. This is seldom discussed, but it makes such a difference to hybrid and virtual meetings when “how we will work together” is clear and everyone agrees how the meeting will run. How will our sales team work together effectively in this meeting? Here are a few rules that they decide to follow:
    • Mute if you’re in a noisy environment (eg, pets, kids, traffic noise).
    • One conversation at a time (they frame it positively, rather than saying “Don’t interrupt”, which would focus people on interrupting!).
    • Everyone will be invited to check-in every 10-20 minutes and in random order. (This is powerful. With this in place, people know that they can’t get away with day-dreaming and only respond when their name is called. They need to pay attention as they’ve agreed to respond regularly.)
  • What’s next. Be clear on what happens next and how the actions will be followed up. In this case, Sue will take the two options back to senior managers to choose a way forward for Q4.

Maximising engagement

Salespeople know how to engage clients, but how does this transition into virtual meetings? When you lead a virtual meeting, you are head-to-head with the distractions enticing your team members’ focus away. These include email and social media, which are often available on the same screen as your meeting, as well as things happening around them. It’s a real challenge! In my book, Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams, I discuss a number of strategies to engage remote participants. Here are three of the best:

  • We have already introduced the idea of regular, very short check-ins with each person every 10-20 minutes. While it is tempting to use a set order, when you agree with everyone to use a random order, people know they could be called on and asked to contribute without warning and are likely to pay attention.
  • Use visuals, and not just pictures on your slides. PowerPoint and other presentation and screen-sharing tools provide options to annotate and draw on the screen. Use these tools and invite your participants to join in too. If people can see something moving, it piques their curiosity and keeps them watching, fascinated as to what will appear.
  • Use the narrative form. Our ancestors used stories to pass ideas down the generations before humans learned how to write. Our brains pay attention to and retain information in stories, so people will pay attention and listen out for the beginning, the middle and the ending of what you have to say.

Time to reflect

Finally, why not reduce the hours that your colleagues sit for in front of screens in video meetings? There is a simple tip which makes a lot of difference. Try starting your meetings at five minutes past the hour and finish them by five minutes to the hour. This extra ten minutes every hour allows time for a comfort break or to move, plus a chance to stop and think in between meetings.

Dr Penny Pullan is an expert in virtual and hybrid Leadership and has 19 years of experience of working in this way. Her book Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams is available from Kogan Page

It’s a CEO Today top five book for lockdown. Dr Pullan works with individuals and organisations to develop virtual leadership capabilities. You can contact her via, via LinkedIn, via Twitter or by phone at 01509 821691.