Published in Mar/Apr 2020
At the end of Emma’s virtual team meeting, she felt frustrated. Her agenda was sidetracked, the discussion didn’t go as she had hoped and technical challenges got in the way – again. Despite encouraging her remote team to use webcams and to use the mute button to help diminish background noise, only a few followed through. She just couldn’t seem to make these online meetings work for her dispersed team.
Can you relate to any of Emma’s challenges? Maybe your role is different. You may be a presenter who speaks to a remote audience, a facilitator who teaches online classes or a coach who meets with virtual clients. Regardless of your purpose for online meetings, we can all relate to Emma’s experience with virtual events not going as planned for one reason or another.
While online meetings have become common in today’s modern workplace – and we are collectively getting better at them – most virtual meetings have room for improvement. According to one recent study, approximately nine minutes are wasted in every one-hour online meeting just trying to resolve connection issues.
So what can we do about this problem? In my almost 20 years of leading and facilitating online events, I’ve found there are five key practices that work. Each of them center on your professional online presence. You can’t control the behavior of other remote participants, but you can determine how you will show up in a digital environment. Applying these five simple, but effective, techniques will make all the difference in whether or not your online message is received as intended.
- Audio Authority
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of a crystal-clear audio connection in digital communication. Sometimes messages don’t get through simply due to poor audio.
When given the choice to connect to an online meeting by telephone or by voice over IP (VOIP), choose the one that will give you the best connection quality. If you have a poor signal, you might think, “It’s okay; it’s bearable.” However, it’s disrespectful to your audience to knowingly join an event with poor audio. Many online platforms allow for an audio test, so use it to check your sound quality and background noise levels.
A common mistake in digital communications is to use speaker phone (or the built-in-microphone on your device), which is designed to pick up far away sounds. This leads to unintended noise on the line and contributes to poor audio quality. Always use a headset for clear audio sound. You can also invest in a noise cancelling headset and install noise cancelling software.
Next, focus on your voice. If you’ve never heard the sound of your own voice over the airwaves, call yourself and leave a voicemail. Play it back and listen to the quality of your audio. Do you speak too fast? Do you properly enunciate words? Do you use too many filler words? One more quick tip: If it’s an early morning conversation, warm up your throat ahead of time with some simple vocal exercises, like humming your favorite song.
- Adjust Video
The fastest way to improve the quality of your online communication is to use your webcam for video calls. Video streaming leads to more effective communication, because you can see facial expressions and catch other nonverbal clues.
If you’re one of many people who don’t like turning on their webcam, I’ll say this in the nicest way possible: Get over your fear of being on camera. Put on your favorite solid-color shirt, some makeup (if that makes you feel better about being on camera) and a smile. Focus on your audience instead of yourself, and it will become easier over time.
Only turn off your webcam if the bandwidth capability doesn’t support streaming video. If you’ve adjusted every possible setting and the video deters the online event quality, then turn it on for a brief hello and then turn it off for the duration of the meeting.
To put your best face forward and show up professionally on webcam, do these three simple things:
- Adjust your webcam to the correct height so that your eyes are level with the camera. You may need to raise your device or lower your chair.
- Place light in front of you, not behind. If you sit with a window behind you, close the blinds or relocate your setup so that you’re facing the light.
- Check your background to ensure it’s appropriate. If you’re concerned about this, consider a portable green screen and use software to create an artificial background.
- Audience Engagement
The next key to digital communication success is to engage your remote audience. When you aren’t together in the same room, there’s tremendous temptation to multitask and only pay partial attention to an online speaker.
As an online meeting leader, you can set expectations ahead of each virtual event. Let everyone know the purpose of the meeting and explain any expectations for involvement. For example, your email invitation could say, “In this meeting, we will all be on webcam and will brainstorm solutions to X situation.” If you’re not the leader, you can request this information so that you are prepared.
Then, carefully plan the first 10 minutes of your online event. Have something on screen for everyone to discuss as they join, like an icebreaker question. You could compare the weather outside each window or discuss current events – anything to get participants talking and comfortable with each other. While I always prefer actual dialogue, the chat function also works to encourage conversation. This informal banter is the equivalent to small talk that takes place among attendees before any other in-person event. However, without the leader’s invitation, this dialogue usually doesn’t occur naturally in an online environment.
Next, find ways to use the platform tools (chat, polling, status indicators, drawing tools, etc.) to keep the audience involved. Whether you have an extremely large audience, an audience of one or anything in-between, your ability to keep them engaged and interested will directly impact the effectiveness of your message. After all, your message won’t be heard at all if no one is paying attention.
- Adapt Visuals
Most online meetings involve the use of visual aids, such as presentation slides. These enhance your message and should therefore be meticulously planned.
If you’re taking an in-person message (such as a presentation or training class) and moving it online, you’ll likely double or triple the number of slides in your presentation. This is to keep the screen moving and help capture audience attention, as well as provide extra instructions that an online platform may require. For example, if I share a chart and want my audience to zoom into a detail and highlight key points, I’d include a slide with directions on how to complete these tasks.
Visuals should be crisp and clear with only one main thought per slide. Sans serif fonts generally work best online. Your audience’s display options may vary widely. Will they have huge external monitors or be on mobile devices? Test your visuals in advance to see how they translate online. Use large font, high-quality graphics and minimal text when possible.
- Advance Preparation
None of these keys to successful digital communication happen by accident. They require advance preparation on your part. The famous saying, “Proper preparation prevents poor performance,” holds just as true for online communication as it does everywhere else. But what specifically do you need to prepare? Your workspace, your technology and yourself.
Start by taking stock of your workspace. Whether you work from an office, your home or your local coffee shop, your work area dictates the quality of your online connection. An enclosed space is ideal for high sound quality and allowing yourself to focus solely on the digital space. But since perfect environments aren’t always possible, spend a few moments optimizing the space you do have available.
To prepare your technology, ensure the basics: Laptop charged up, mobile devices updated and headset plugged in. Consider having a backup device ready to connect if needed. And most importantly, take time to prepare yourself – especially your voice and video.
When you decide to focus on your digital communication skills, your message will come across more clearly. By following these five simple keys to success, you and your team will be able to say, “We’re communicating well, and we just happen to be doing it online.”