"Sorry, I was on mute. What did you say?"
If you had a dollar for every time you’ve heard this in conference calls, you’d likely have retired years ago.
Online meetings are excruciatingly painful, riddled with bridges that don’t work, dropped calls, and people talking over one another.
So how can we do it better?
The answer might come from a century-old technology.
The need to connect with people who can’t see us was precisely the problem experienced by the early pioneers of radio. Radio was essentially a form of conference calling. The best radio announcers knew their audiences like friends and spoke to their audiences with charm, brought them close, and gave them a feeling of belonging. They were "reaching out" years before the term became fashionable.
Radio networks were not slow to realize the power of the radio, and they harnessed that power in the words, in the cadence, and in the music of speech.
That is just precisely the way we should run our online meetings. Here are six techniques taken from the world of radio that are guaranteed to improve the ratings of your online meetings:
Prepare to talk about things that interest your audience and address them as individuals. Think about your audience and talk to them in a way that takes into account their place (culture), personality, and preferences. Also, like a good call-in radio program, ask questions and make the call interactive.
Take the advice of the U.K.’s most popular mainstream radio broadcaster, Terry Wogan: "We're not talking to an audience. You're talking to one person and they're only half-listening. It's a mistake to think that everybody's clinging to your every word." Single out people on the call by name to keep them engaged.
Since you can’t see important gestures and body language on calls, all you have to go on is voice. Bring people close with your voice. Alistair Cooke had the knack for this. The veteran reporter presented "Letter from America," his 15-minute radio broadcast, every week for 58 years between 1946 and 2004. Sir Harold Evans said of Cooke, "He unfailingly read his words into a microphone in such a beguiling manner it was as if you and he had just struck up a friendly conversation."
The big secret is to treat people as if they are in the room with you; for example, talk about the weather, celebrate birthdays, or chat about real life. Speak with a smile in your voice; people will feel it.
A club's collective memory, past experience, and shared rituals is what keeps its members coming back. This was one of the secrets that made people tune in to serialized radio programs week after week.
For today’s online meeting, create the feeling of a club by announcing who is present at the beginning of the call, welcome each member, introduce them, and add a few words about what each participant brings to the meeting. Create shared rituals, such as starting and finishing with a round of "greet and go." Introduce weekly features to help build culture and common values. The best sign that this is working is shared laughter and a busy chat window.
Your job is to skillfully entertain, inform, and involve an audience you may never meet in person and convince them that you care. Garrison Keillor, presenter of the long running, much syndicated Prairie Home Companion, said "I feel obligated to do something for [my audience], just as you would be obligated to clean your house and make food if you had friends coming over."
Compensate for not being able to see their body language, habits, and mood by listening hard. Remember the 1-2-3 rule for talking about tricky situations; namely, for every fact you mention, you should talk twice as much about the solution and three times as much about the relationship.
Remember, there is a huge gap between your colleagues putting you on mute and the total audience immersion of FDR, about whom Halberstam wrote, "If he was going to speak, the idea of doing something else was unthinkable." Somewhere in that vast ether you can find your radio voice. And then, people may listen.
David Lavenda is a technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. Susan Fisher is Principal at First Class, a communication, leadership, talent development consultancy, and training organization. Follow her on Twitter at @susan1stclass