By Jeff Leshay
“It’s the next best thing to being there!” Perhaps you or your parents recall that popular slogan from “Ma Bell,” or Bell Telephone, promoting its long-distance phone service back in the 1970s. Well, that motto may be even more apropos of today’s video-call technology, especially given the travel and meeting restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The quality and user-friendliness of videoconference apps are better than ever and do indeed provide us with the next best thing to in-person meetings and training sessions. For many years, I’ve provided presentation coaching, media training and message-development sessions via video calls, though more often than not as a supplement to my in-person engagements. These virtual meetings allow us to accomplish just about everything we can do in person – from the sharing of slides and interactive discussions, to on-camera rehearsals of presentations, mock media interviews and practice for quarterly earnings calls with analysts. We can even play back the on-camera recordings of practice runs to ensure real-time, meaningful feedback.
Yet despite the versatile, high-quality technology, all too often I see otherwise successful executives squander the opportunity to increase their influence and enhance their personal brands of leadership through simple video-call techniques. So, whether you’re using Zoom, Skype, Webex, or any of the other capable video platforms, here are “9 Fine Tips” I’ve found to be remarkably helpful in setting the stage for successful communications in a virtual world:
1. While content is not the primary focus of this particular blog, it’s important to remember that videoconferences are often shorter than in-person meetings, and like it or not, attendees are often somewhat distracted. So, your content should be clear, concise and compelling – three of my favorite C words.
2. Once you’re prepared with the right content, don’t forget to test the technology to make sure both video and audio are clear and that you’re familiar with the features. You want to be able to get off to a strong start – not one in which you’re uncomfortably fumbling to fix video or audio issues.
3. Get rid of any distracting visuals or bright light in the background. I recently conducted a virtual coaching session with an executive who sat down at the last moment with a shuttered window directly behind her. Because the shutters wouldn’t close completely, blinding streaks of light hit the camera and washed out the image of her. We lost several minutes of time as she repositioned herself elsewhere for the call. So, be aware of your environment and do all you can to keep the audience’s focus on you and the information you’re sharing.
4. Similarly, remove or quiet those things that may distract you – your phone, text messages and email arriving, an open window or door, a barking dog, and so forth.
5. Create a comfortable distance between you and the camera – not too close and imposing with your face distorted, and not so far back that you lose the intimacy and make it difficult for others to see or hear you. Head-and-shoulders shots tend to work well.
Also, position your laptop or other device so the camera itself is at roughly the same level as your eyes. This will help you avoid looking down at the screen in condescending fashion (and showing more of your nostrils than viewers prefer).
6. Embrace the camera itself as your friend to help you relax, speak more conversationally, smile, and retain meaningful eye contact with the camera – usually at the top of the screen. This will appear to the audience as if you’re looking directly into their eyes, making the experience even more inviting.
As a young TV news reporter struggling to get comfortable talking into a camera, I learned to relax by imagining I was sharing my story with an interested family member or friend. A trick I use now during video calls is moving one or more of the frames of audience members to just beneath the camera lens. That affords me the comfort of seeing their faces and establishes direct eye contact.
7. Energize your voice with passion, especially because video and audio technology tend to play down our level of enthusiasm. Vary your tone and pace conversationally, let them hear and feel your conviction, and hit those most-important points particularly hard.
8. Project similar passion with your body language – much as you would do in person. If you have a standing desk, by all means use it. We tend to project with greater enthusiasm and authority when standing. If you prefer to sit, then sit up straight. Either way, keep your hands in front of you to allow for expressive, purposeful gesturing.
9. And because communicating virtually doesn’t come naturally to many of us, there’s no better way to increase our comfort, energy and influence on video calls than by practicing, and doing so ALOUD. Record yourself as you practice and then play the video back, paying particular attention to the energy and conversational nature of your voice, and the expressiveness of your face and hands. You may be surprised by what you see and hear. Better yet, play it back for someone you trust to provide constructive feedback. My wife, Julie, has provided me with lots of that!
While nothing beats the in-person engagements we so enjoy, I hope you’ll find the techniques I’ve shared above helpful in making your online meetings the next best thing to being there.