That awkward silence

Workshops can be great, and the best bit is often the discussions to be had with the other participants in smaller groups. In real life, it can take a few minutes for the conversation to get going, but the facilitator is always on hand to guide the groups and make sure everyone knows what’s expected.

On line workshops are a different matter. How often have you been put into a break-out zoom room for a discussion and no-one really knows how to get it started?

Oh no! Am I expected to say something?| This better by worth my time…| (multitasking, doesn’t realise eyes are on them) | Say something, I’m listening

After two years of working from home or hybrid working you would think that we would be used to it by now but, nope, there is always an awkward silence, even if you know the other people in the group.

Real live, in person events may be back, but online workshops are here to stay and can be a really great way to network and learn, so make the most of them.

Here’s some of my tips how to make the best use of on-line break out sessions.

  • Quickly summarise the topic of discussion, and what the group has to do (note to organisers, put the discussion topics in the chat so people can refer to them)
  • Get everyone to introduce themselves, but only if there is time. Not worth it for a 5 minute break out. Start with yourself and stick to name, company, job title. I haven’t put this item first, as the conversation topic should be the focus, not the status of the participants
  • Be aware of how long you have been talking, try to make your contributions succinct. Time is usually much more limited in zoom discussions than in person meetings, and when you get pulled back into the main session you can’t carry on with your group chat
  • Make sure everyone has a chance to contribute. If someone is quiet, ask for their thoughts. Not everyone needs to speak, but make sure no one person dominates, no matter how knowledgeable they appear to be
  • After a few minutes, check that you are still on track to cover everything by referring back to the guidance for the breakout session. It’s easy to get sidelined into an interesting conversation, but you are there to learn about a particular topic
  • Does someone need to report back in the main session? Don’t waste time allocating at the beginning of the break out, but choose someone before the end of the chat. If someone has been particularly knowledgable and/or has been taking notes, put them forward, if they are willing. Be prepared to do it yourself, if no one else is keen
  • When reporting back, keep it short! Stick to the main conclusions of your group. If you are one of the last groups to report, you may want to just reinforce one point that has been made by other groups.
  • Bonus tip. Are you aware of how long you are talking? Even making a short point takes longer than you think and it’s harder to gauge when you are talking to a screen. I’ve started running a stopwatch on my phone when in on-line groups, partly to keep track of the session time, but also to make sure I’m not rabbiting on for more than a couple of minutes (less if it’s a really short break out).

Having purpose

Its a sign – arrow in the sky, Lewis, Outer Hebrides


When developing a business strategy, ‘why’ is the most important question to keep revisiting. Why does your business exist and are you being true to your vision? Why are you choosing one action over another? Strategy is about long term planning, and provides the framework for the activities of the entire business. It’s very easy to get immersed in the practical details – what you do and how you do it – the operational aspects of activities, staffing, resources, financials. Without understanding your purpose, why your business exists, there is a risk that your focus on the details will divert you from your original vision.

Most innovative start-ups start by recognising that they have can solve a problem better than anyone else, creating a unique business opportunity. A good strategy will focus on satisfying customer needs, but there is more to consider around why that problem is important to you.

Without a good understanding of why you are making the decisions that you do, it can be easy to lose motivation and for the long term direction of the company to drift.

Purpose and values

Closely aligned, it is important to define them in any business, large or small.

Some entrepreneurs may be very clear on their motivation to start a business, driven by what is important to them and and their own personal values. Others, having recognised an opportunity, may be more focused on taking action without really reflecting on how the business opportunity fits with what is important to them as individuals and on society at large.

More established companies may have started with a very clear proposition, but over time could have moved a long way from its initial position, as it pursues growth and profit. If they continue to be successful, does having a clear purpose really matter? The attitudes of customers and stakeholders change over time, so it is prudent for any company to review its strategy on a regular basis, ensuring that their values remain in step with the times.

I’ve recently returned from a holiday in the Outer Hebrides, where I took the opportunity to visit the Isle of Harris distillery. Its a great example of a small business with a clear purpose – to reverse the long term decline in the population of this magical island, by creating a new, sustainable business as a catalyst for positive change. Whilst producing gin and whisky is its primary business, its clearly defined purpose allows it to diversify into new areas and to support other local businesses too.


Environment, Social and Governance

If you have already clearly defined your purpose and values, can you align them in a way that is meaningful to others? ESG is much more than the latest acronym to hit the Boardrooms. Its a way of demonstrating that a company can make a positive impact on the planet and on society, while still adding value to investors. Its a complex subject, and it is not always easy to measure performance, but by setting out genuine commitments your company will benefit by attracting passionate employees and loyal customers.

If you are new to the concept of ESG, a good place to start is with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). There are 17 goals, with clear targets, and all of us can play a part in achieving them. Of course, not all of the goals will be relevant to you or your business, but they provide an excellent starting point. Identifying steps your company can take to contribute towards solving some of the world’s biggest challenges. Aligning your business activities with relevant SDGs will reinforce what is important to you, your employees, your customers and investors. It can also create exciting new business opportunities.

So why not ask yourself why?