Published On Fast Company
Pro tips from a speaking coach to remove the dissociation we all feel when talking to someone else on a computer screen.
Recently, I was coaching a sales team that was new to presenting their products on a video call. When they started their pitch, I realized I felt like no one was talking to me. It was impersonal, and frankly, I was bored.
Where the new normal is virtual for the foreseeable future, how can you increase your leadership presence when you are presenting over a webcam?
STEP 1: “IT’S ALL IN THE EYES”
Eye contact is the biggest trap when presenting virtually.
Social protocol and the lack of holographic technology affirm the communicators’ usual tendency to “look at the person.” This means that you are looking down at the screen. While it is a natural tendency to look at someone’s face when you are speaking, it seems like you are not making eye contact and looking down—which confuses your audience. They may be thinking: Are they texting? Are they reading emails? Are they trustworthy? Am I boring? Am I not trustworthy?
It may also build up a confrontational ambiance. Any of these implications, built up throughout successive meetings, are detrimental to potential discourse. To get rid of any perceived frostiness between the participants, and engage your audience, know where to look and when.
Look into the camera when you speak. Sure, this might feel like you are speaking to Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but you look like you are making eye contact with your audience. Then when you are listening, you can look back down at the screen. When speaking, speak into the camera. Some clients have asked me, “How will I know what the other person’s reaction is if I am looking into the camera?” Check-in. Feel free to glance down now and then to gauge their reaction but speak into your camera.
Pro tip: Pretend the person is right behind the camera or that the camera is the other person’s eyes.
STEP 2: GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO TAKE YOUR TIME
Making a contingency plan is always the best plan. Don’t forget that you are at the mercy of a network of signals and soundwaves in an online meeting. It may be that the internet is starting to cut in and out. Or, the file you were about to screen share has disappeared right before the meeting. Also, the PowerPoint that your entire team was relying on you to present isn’t loading fast enough. As soon as any of these things happen, you also start using every filler word known to humanity: “Um, hold on, just a sec, uhhhhhhh, okay, it’s loading, just hang on.”
Take your time. Instead of overpopulating your phrases with words and compensating for the internet dysfunction with misplaced enthusiasm, keep calm. Rephrase your first reactions. Ask your correspondents to “Stand by” or disclaim the interruption early on and then clam up. Not only will you look in control, but everyone will appreciate the breather.
STEP 3: LOOK ALIVE THROUGH YOUR GESTURES
If you and I were meeting together face-to-face, I would never be as close to you as I am on a webcam. We pick up on so much more movement or lack thereof. If your default is not to move at all, your audience starts to feel uncomfortable, like interacting with an AI and not an actual person. Or, you choose to move too much, which becomes distracting to your audience. Instead, it is essential to channel your energy into your gestures. Allow yourself to gesture in your way. Using gestures in a natural, professional, and relaxed manner will replenish the energy of the interaction.
Remember, you are the leader of your own actions. You have to find a balance between the theatrical and the improvisational, the creative and the technical, the facilitating and the active. But bear in mind that even while facilitating others, you are equally active as a listener, as a leader.
Not only does this demonstrate your leadership presence, but it also circulates a calm throughout the meeting. This is the crux of effective leadership. It’s tied to the performance of the entire team.
We like our workplace better when it’s creative and not complacent. When it challenges, it is engaging. And vice versa. Think of corporate culture as an organ made of striations and channels that carry jolts of energy through it. If the striations get disrupted, the channels weaken. Subsequently, less of the energy courses through, and the organ grows sluggish. The organ needs to function regularly, and not sporadically.
Further considerations on your part may alleviate, if not entirely cure, the malady of dissociation inherent to virtual interactions. Not only will these strengthen your leadership position, but also bring lucidity to your meetings and to your enterprise’s purpose as a whole.