John has always been great at playing to the crowd. With just a subtle arch of his eyebrow or a sly half-smile, John can bring the house down or rev people up. He’s a communications superstar who knows exactly what every audience needs to hear and delivers it perfectly. John is justifiably proud of his superb communications skills.
But now that John’s team members, colleagues and managers almost all work virtually, his self-confidence has taken a big hit. The expressive face and animated gestures that won John kudos as a great communicator when working face-to-face just aren’t translating well in a virtual world. People no longer seem to hang onto John’s every word, and in fact, he’s not even sure they’re listening at all. John has lost his mojo and he wants it back.
I have invited Charlotte Dietz of SpeakWell Partners, an absolute communications whiz who works with speakers up and down the corporate ladder to share insights with people like John who pride themselves on their ability to connect with people in a face-to-face setting, but struggle to engage people in the virtual world.
Public speaking is a full-body sport, says Charlotte. To keep people engaged and maintain a strong presence when face-to-face, you must use your full body — your posture, gestures, voice, eye contact, and movement. Demonstrating a compelling presence is no less important in the virtual world, but it’s done a bit differently. Here are some tips.
- Find ways to play off your audience. Exceptional communicators tend to draw energy from and respond quickly to others’ reactions. And we do mean quickly! Our brains have the ability to scan and process up to 11 million bits of information per second. Should we speed up or slow down? Tread more lightly or inject more drama? Pause for effect or keep on rattling off startling facts? When we can’t see our audience, we have to find ways to listen exceptionally well. Stifled laughter, heavy sighs, or dead silence all can give us clues as to what to say next and how. If you are using some kind of web meeting poll, don’t be afraid to do a quick poll to find out peoples’ level of engagement or energy so you can rethink your delivery.
- Always be authentic. It’s easier to see through someone’s inauthenticity when you can see their face. When you smile, are your eyes activated too, or is your smile simply pasted on to an otherwise blank face? When you claim to be humble, is your chest puffed out? In the virtual world, it takes a little more effort to assess whether someone is genuine. Listen deeply and you can hear it in their voice, tone, and choice of words. Just because people can’t see you, it doesn’t mean they can’t see through you. Do a “smile test” with some of your friends to find out what they can hear when you smile one way or another.
- Be extra-animated. It can take more energy to come across as enthusiastic and energetic when people can only “see” you through your voice. When communicating virtually, go ahead and stand up just as you would if you were in person. Use your body language and hand gestures to accentuate key points and punctuate certain words. Even though others won’t see you, they will hear the energy coming through far more than if you stay seated with your hands on the table droning through your pre-written script!
- Tell a story. The science is in: storytelling is a magical tool for great communicators. When we tell vivid, character-driven stories, it not only activates all the cortices of our brain with sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, but it lights up the same cortices in our listeners’ brains as well. That’s called entrainment and it’s the key to engaging people. And, since our visual memory is unlimited, use creative imagery to augment your narrative whether it’s a memorable series of images in your slide deck, video clips, or a graphic you paste right into your virtual meeting space. This will help your message and story stick long after your meeting has ended.
- Structure your presentation as a conversation. Even if you’re presenting to dozens or more people (who may be on mute much of the time), lay out your presentation as a two-way conversation. As you create your storyboard (highly recommended!), picture your audience’s reaction to your ideas. Create the next bit of content in response to that anticipated reaction. Lose the business jargon and speak conversationally. Once you’re through, practice your session with some friendly colleagues, pausing to ask what they are thinking, feeling or asking at each juncture. If your assumptions were off-target, revise as needed. Feedback is the “breakfast of champions.”
- Get out of your own agenda and into others’. We tend to get caught up in what we know and what we want others to understand. Sadly, that me-centered thinking almost guarantees that we will miss our mark. As you design your session, ask yourself: How can I be of service to others? What will listeners need to consider this as a good use of their time? How can I structure this session to allow members to share their ideas and opinions? Take advantage of a virtual working environment by inviting your audience to give you guidance by using an online conference area or survey, so you can synchronize your content and delivery to their needs.
- Brains reward play. We know from research on the brain that dopamine is the pleasure/reward chemical, and when it is awash in our brains, it activates our cognitive learning centers. So activate those brain centers and have some fun. Build in interaction every few minutes, whether it’s a typed-in shout-out, a quick poll, online brainstorming, or a verbal response to a fill-in-the-blank statement.
- Introverts wanted. Here’s some good news. If you have an intense fear of speaking to a crowd (in this case, defined as a group of five or more people), you are not alone! You just may shine more brightly in a virtual world, where your expertise can be demonstrated without all the commensurate presentation agita. But, you still need to be just as animated as your more extroverted colleagues to create a memorable presence. Without others watching, you may find your confidence and comfort level go through the roof.
Great communicators are memorable and tell meaningful, vivid stories that are easily repeated. This is the pathway to engaging people, and as they say, “engagement is the gateway to influence.” People like John who excel at playing to a crowd are exceptionally good at instantly calibrating their tone, gestures and words in response to audience feedback. Now, in a virtual world, we need to understand and apply tools that ensure our communication will continue to bring value and meaning to our audiences.
Charlotte’s book recommendations:
- Winning Body Language by Mark Bowden. This is one of my staple resources. Smart, creative, scientific and even esoteric.
- Act Natural by Ken Howard. An actor’s wise application of theater techniques for speakers.
- Story Smart by Kendall Haven. The compelling art and science of story. Why it works and why you need to talk “story” more.