THE VIRTUAL COMMUNICATOR: It’s Not as Easy as it Seems
Our “new normal” as virtual communicators has progressed in the last few months. As we’ve talked to clients, the first conversations were about how “easy it was” to make systems and processes work virtually. Corporate teams did a great job of setting up transitions and processes to move a workforce to a virtual setting. The first focus was the technology of communication…but it wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
Then, the conversation shifted to communicators and we were asked: “What should leaders be doing to create a virtual culture?” This was our article, “Leading through Video” that focused on how to stay visible with employees. Overnight, a leader’s toolkit expanded. Many had to adapt quickly to engage an invisible audience in virtual town halls and conferences…and it wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
And now, conversations are shifting from leaders to everybody else, and we’re hearing: “We need help with this. We don’t understand the ground rules of virtual communication. My team can’t run meetings, my team can’t lead customer conversations, my managers can’t influence their teams. We need help with platforms, we need help with focus, we need help with engagement.” None of it was as easy as it seemed
How can that be?
Remote working and virtual working may not be synonymous. Remote working is a term we’ve used for a while to refer to someone who doesn’t come into the office. They may work remotely every day or just some days. It implies a different way of working and sometimes a different schedule. Remote workers set their own timeline, their own space and their own approach to their role. It works well for people who can work independent of almost everyone else.
When we made everyone virtual, we realized that every employee couldn’t work independent every day. We needed to communicate and interact with each other. And most people can feel work happening if they can “see” work. So overnight, virtual working required video. It’s a good way to get interaction and to talk to someone.
But it also required employees to sit at a computer and interact with a laptop screen for 8+ hours every day. It’s like playing a video game for hours on end. It wears you out. And it didn’t really follow the same practices of a remote worker who’s working, but within their guidelines and time frames. And very few were sitting for 8+ hours.
And now we’ve figured it out. It isn’t the same setting, and it isn’t as easy as it seems. In fact, it’s different from both perspectives.
For a listener, it’s more removed and more independent. You can get most of the experience through video, but it’s not always clear and focused. That’s because communicators are distracted by new steps and not always “ready” to manage a meeting. Listeners also have a harder time interacting with other listeners. It’s not like sitting in a room and observing others. Technology controls your view, and you get a snapshot of those talking a lot, not those who are quiet. And if a listener doesn’t like the pace or the interaction, they have the power and independence over video to turn off their camera, turn off their audio and just “leave” for a few moments.
That changes the power of the communicator. We’re not used to people connecting and disconnecting so easily. It makes things very disjointed. While the listener is a little more distant, the video makes the communicator more intimate. It’s a close-up shot of you. Yes, you can change that if you know how, but some communicators aren’t really sure where the camera is. So, the snapshot may have them looking down, looking left or all around, and it makes it harder to focus on them and harder to hear what they say. And many communicators say they’re managing too much in this new format, and it feels like a juggling exercise to run a virtual meeting.
It is different, and it’s a new set of skills. And it’s why in response to the questions and discussion mentioned above, we’ve pulled our best practices together to create “The Virtual Communicator” program for leaders, sales teams, internal teams, project teams, and anyone who is trying to improve their impact in a virtual setting.
Our premise is that it takes three things: Preparation, Participation and Presence.
Here are a few highlights from the program.
We’ve always said that a prepared communicator sends an agenda in advance, so participants know what you expect them to do in an upcoming conversation. It’s a best practice for all meetings, and it’s a necessity for the virtual communicator. It’s hard for the virtual communicator to generate participation in the moment. When listeners aren’t prepared to participate, the virtual meeting falls flat. This makes the communicator lose confidence, and the listener lose interest. And that’s when listeners disconnect. They can turn on/off technology at will.
Sometimes, technology is the challenge for communicators and listeners. Platforms are being over-worked, and they aren’t running beautifully. But most of it is operator error. The leader is dropping calls, dropping people, talking without sound, talking with too much sound, etc. The first two minutes of any virtual meeting should be ground rules for technology and participation. No one is doing it, and everyone needs it.
Once the ground rules are set, the communicator has to signal participation. We introduce techniques for getting involvement early and keeping it throughout a meeting.
It takes facilitation skills, and few communicators have had much experience with facilitation.
Technology works against you on this one. Technology pulls the talkers front and center. If you’re speaking, you show up more on the screen. The communicator needs to know who isn’t talking to make sure they have everyone engaged. And the quiet listeners are hard to “see.” We’ve developed a simple workaround that helps a communicator track a full group and still keep their focus on the conversation.
Your presence is as important on video as it is in a conference room. In fact, it’s a more intimate snapshot. We don’t see the communicator from head to toe. We see a close-up shot from the shoulders up which makes connection and expression the most critical style component.
That’s a challenge because many communicators don’t seem to know where the camera is. In order to make a listener feel seen, you have to be talking directly to them. Communicators seems to be looking down and all around. In the close-up shot, the lack of connection is front and center.
You can adjust the listeners’ view…. you can improve it, but you have to think about it. Some teams are having a lot of fun with backdrops. They are fun, but distorting, for important meetings. It seems as if someone is behind a curtain pulling on your body parts. Ears get cut off, arms seem to be broken, etc. It will be a “to do” for marketing teams to improve the green screen backdrops. For now, find a real setting in your house that works for important meetings to avoid the distraction.
It’s a new medium, and it requires a new set of skills. They aren’t totally different, but they aren’t as easy as they may seem. If you’re beginning to focus on the skills of your communicators, we’d like to help your team manage and improve their virtual setting.
Learn more and sign up for The Virtual Communicator today.