We’ve all been in “that meeting.” The one where the conversation has gone down the rabbit hole and participants are cringing, trying to figure how to get back out.

In the past month, we’ve noticed several instances of this rabbit hole scenario — but also a consistent trend of elements that are causing the group to stray off-topic, and those that are helping to rescue the group from it. Here are a few ways to help you keep the group on task.

The common denominator is the use of visuals

Corporate Path Leadership is attributing the rise in the importance of visual impact in meetings with the rise in virtual meetings themselves. We’ve watched with fascination at how the visuals themselves can not only send a meeting off-course, but also bring the audience back.

Here’s why. In face-to-face meetings, the team members and facilitators have the ability to read each other’s body language. But in virtual meetings, the only true common denominator for the audience is what they see on the screen. Even if meetings are video attendance-based, the attendees are usually small screen icons off to the side when someone is sharing content. This makes it harder for the participants to truly interact with each other and help each other out of those rabbit hole scenarios.

So how can you use visuals to keep the meeting on track?

The key is to think about what type of conversation you are having with your audience and match the type of visual to best focus attention on the level of detail required.

Example 1: When you want your audience to focus on the details
What we have seen work well recently is the use of very detailed visuals when the facilitator needs the audience to focus on making detailed decisions. An example of this might be showing a technical screen or web user interface when you want the audience to make decisions on how to improve that user interface. What we’ve experienced is that when the user interface itself is shown, it is easy for the audience to maintain focus on how to best suggest interface improvements. But the moment that the facilitator switches from visuals to a white board screen or general list, the more the attendees lose focus and creep down the rabbit hole.

Example 2: When you want high-level input from your audience
The inverse is also true. When you need an audience to focus on strategic/high-level input, the more you can show a broad visual or conceptual image, the more the audience will keep their focus at a high-level. We’ve recently participated in situations where a leader has used broad visuals successfully, but the moment the visual switches to something granular (like an application of the broad idea), the faster the audience loses focus and starts down a rabbit hole of minute feedback, straying away from high-level input. Good examples of high-level visuals include photos on a theme, charts and graphs that use color to convey meaning while avoiding clutter or too much detail.

Our advice here is simple:

ONE – Prepare your visual elements as you are preparing your agenda.

TWO – Make sure you match detailed visuals with detailed input conversations, and high-level visuals with high-level conversations. Include one or two extra visuals to have as backup, to refocus attendees just in case they begin to stray off-topic.

THREE – When needed, orally mention the visual on the screen to keep the audience focused.

FOUR – For each visual you show, think of an example input point from the audience that matches the level of input you are seeking. This helps to give the participants an idea of what you are looking for.

Our advice is to test out your next idea generation session with the application of specifically tailored visuals for the brainstorming section. We think you’ll see immediate results in helping your audience stay focused.

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