Love them or loath them, virtual meetings are here to stay.
For many leaders, conducting meetings online is familiar and comfortable, especially for international teams that always met virtually or industries where frequent videoconferencing was routine.
But if you found the switch from in-person to virtual meetings to be a major challenge, you are not alone. Various studies have shown that it is more difficult to get virtual teams to bond, harder for informal leaders to emerge, tougher to create genuine dialogue, easier for misunderstandings to escalate – and yes, easier for participants to tune out.
As an international keynote speaker, the transition from face-to face programs to webinars and virtual keynote speeches wasn’t natural for me and it wasn’t easy. But after eighteen months I’ve become more effective in this medium.
Among the many lessons I’ve learned to date, here are four to keep in mind as you prepare to lead your next virtual meeting.
1. Don’t get so caught up in the technical side that you forget about people
Charles Eide is the founder of Eidecom, one of the largest event companies specializing in virtual events. He knows that a basic laptop probably doesn’t have a microphone that’s nice enough to supply completely clear audio, so he suggests a high-quality headphone with a built-in microphone. Rather than relying on natural sunlight, he advises you have some basic lighting items like a ring light that’s placed slightly above your screen to give your audience a bright view. (Eide’s tip that I adopted immediately was to avoid WiFi drops by plugging my computer directly into the modem through an ethernet cable to ensure stable internet connection.)
But, as crucial as it is, mastering technology isn’t the main challenge for online meetings. Eide says the largest obstacle for leaders is creating meaningful connections to your team members online. I agree.
In my face-to face presentations, I loved the personal connections I made with audience members by having informal conversations before or after the event. It was during these “offline” interactions that people asked important questions and shared success stories. I also gathered valuable feedback from reading body language cues – the eye contact, smiles, nods, or puzzled looks that let me know if the point I just made was clear or needed further explanation. Going from such a rich communication medium to a leaner, virtual one made it harder for me to remember that I was still dealing with people.
The risk for all leaders is to overlook the importance of basic communication skills, such as showing empathy, ensuring inclusion, active listening, telling stories, asking open questions, co-creating guidelines for team interaction, breaking into small discussions groups, and all the other attention-enhancing strategies that can get overlooked when staring at a computer screen.
2. Keep your meetings short
My previous in-person seminars were full-day programs. As I moved to online webinars, meeting planners requested 2 ½ – 3 hours, maximum, and my 60-90 minutes keynote speeches were edited to be delivered in half that time.
In Eide’s experience with large events, he has seen the same time issue, and he shares this insight for all meetings: “Whether it be a huge annual conference or a small meeting, you must understand the needs of a virtual audience. Your team members tuning in on their laptops will simply not have the same attention span as they would for an in-person meeting. Shortening the length of your meetings will provide the right balance for engaging your team virtually.”
3. Project virtual presence
Because my areas of expertise include body language and leadership presence, I understood from the beginning that projecting presence virtually would be significantly different for me than it was in face-to-face presentations.
This is true for you as well.
While in-person meetings allow about 7 seconds to make a first impression through your walk, stance, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and tone of voice, on a computer screen it’s only your visual image that sets that initial impression. And it does so very, very quickly. A study at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging that discovered it takes the brain just 200 milliseconds to gather most of the information it needs from a facial expression to determine a person’s emotional state. That’s why you can’t wait until you’re on camera to “warm up.” You’ve got to appear already expressing the facial expressions and emotions you want to project.
In most cases, the expression that serves you best is a smile while making “eye contact” with the dot on your screen. A genuine smile stimulates your own sense of well-being and is inviting. It signals that you are approachable, cooperative, and trustworthy. In addition, smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way.
Also, pay attention to your gestures. On stage or at the front of a meeting room, large gestures are fine, but on screen you are more effective when you keep your gestures close to your body and within the frame of the camera. Sweeping gestures that continually go out of sight are annoying and counterproductive. Smaller, slower gestures will enhance your credibility and help the audience more easily understand your message. To do this, you’ll need to back away from the camera so we can see your arms and hands, and so you aren’t just a talking head. The more of your body we can see, the more trustworthy you appear.
4. Nail your ending
A final tip for keeping your team from tuning out comes from Eide: “It’s always tough to craft your meeting’s ending but try to do what you can to avoid the generic, ‘does anyone have any questions?’ phrase. Provide a conclusion slide that recaps the presentation and includes a call to action. Whether you’re proposing some new solution to a problem or have a branded message to pass along, include something that speaks to the emotions of your team. As a bonus, consider including a surprise at the end, such as a downloadable video, research paper, or statistics sheet that reinforces your message. This gives them something to think about well after the presentation is over.”