Yes, I wanted to hear the CEOs of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google respond to a torrent of tough questions from Congress about competition and fairness when they testified last week before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee. But I was also really curious to see how these tech titans would fare on a high-profile Zoom call. It was a chance to see these leaders as we see ourselves day after day—via a built-in camera on a personal computer—instead of sitting at a big wooden table in front of members of Congress.
And if anyone was going to give a good virtual performance, it should be these guys, right?
Overall, I thought the leaders of these tech giants did well. They delivered a strong message and survived harsh questioning. And they nailed the basics of Zoom etiquette: we weren’t looking up into anyone’s nose, and they didn’t get interrupted by barking dogs . . . just Congressmen.
That doesn’t mean their performances were flawless.
Here are a few examples of some DOs and DON’Ts from the Big Tech hearing that can help you handle a contentious virtual business call:
Define success: The tech leaders’ job was not to persuade lawmakers, their minds were made up. Their job was to connect with the real audience: the investors, consumers, media, and everyone else who tuned in. They come across as everyday folks and kept their cool.
Share examples/feelings: Before their short opening statements, they offered condolences for the death of Congressman John Lewis. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about how he was the child of a teenage mother. Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke of growing up relatively poor in India without access to tech. They shared stories of specific small businesses they’re helping, which was better to do in the uninterrupted opening statements than while under fire (see below). Apple CEO Tim Cook’s script included a few humorous lines, a reminder that one of the easiest ways to connect with an audience is to make them smile.
Prepare for the virtual: A Zoom call requires amp-ing up your style and dialing down the background. In the virtual world, remember a few elements really matter:
- Eye Contact: The tech chiefs all set their cameras at eye level and looked straight into them vs. gazing down or up or off to the side. They maintained steady eye contact even under fire. Jeff Bezos was battered with details about deals he claimed not to recall but came across as helpful and confident thanks, in part, to his unwavering gaze into the camera.
- Gestures: With the exception of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, all the CEOs set their shots wide enough, so we could see them gesture naturally. Even when gesturing can’t be seen, it moves your body in a way that registers as comfortable and conversational.
- Dress and Set: They all wore neutral color suits and ties, showing respect for Congress’s formal style. They aimed at a clean, neutral background. Bezos and Pichai nailed it, but Cook, whose company is known for its elegant design, missed the mark with a jumble of sad-looking plants in the background.
Don’t get caught in the weeds. As part of a long question suggesting that Google searches result in not the most relevant but what is most profitable to Google, Rep. David Cicilline ended by throwing out estimates of ad revenue. “What’s the actual value? Two hundred, $300 billion?” Pichai tried to set the record straight, saying the number was $100 billion, but in the heat of the questioning, it didn’t matter. The congressman jumped in saying ” That’s a lot of money . . . let’s move on.” Always view questions as topics and pick the topic that best serves you. Pichai would have been better off turning the question into a topic explaining the vital role advertising plays in supporting the internet economy.
Pichai also was abruptly interrupted when he tried to defend against Congressman Cicilline’s accusation that Google squeezes out small businesses by “stealing” their ideas/content. Pichai tried to counter with the story of a Texas kettlebell business that Google had helped. A story like that might have worked well in his opening, but when he was under fire, it failed. In contentious exchanges, narratives make people impatient.
Fidget. Before a meeting, sit or stand in a way that’s comfortable. Don’t slouch but get out from the back of a chair and keep hands handy to gesture. You look more confident and studies show you also think better. Facebook’s CEO still has not gotten that memo, prompting a Jimmy Fallon imitation in which a member of Congress suggested Zuckerberg’s screen had frozen. Fallon’s Zuckerberg stiffly answered: “No, it’s just my face.”
Similarly, Zuckerberg sometimes appeared to be sneaking a look at his script without moving his head. He should have been more deliberate. I tell clients that no one expects you to have memorized everything you want to say. It’s more honest to simply glance down at notes.
Set aside time for tech: Tech titan Jeff Bezos had tech difficulties for about an hour, couldn’t get his picture full screen, didn’t realize he was on mute, and seemed to forget that he was always on camera, at one point sneaking a snack. All of this sounds pretty familiar to business leaders who don’t have any tech support. Set aside the time to make sure everything is working. It’s worth your image as a leader.
Bottom line, while there were glitches and gaffes, most people should remember that the most prized aspect of executive presence is showing grace under fire. In my view as a coach, these tech giants scored big.