When you’re making a presentation or conducting a meeting in a conference room, it’s easy to tell when people are engaged and when they check out. If you’re open to them, body language clues can help you know when to change your delivery or ask for questions. When you’re in a Zoom room, however, much of the context is missing.
Zoom fatigue is real, but that doesn’t mean you have to surrender to the technology, says Susan McPherson, author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships.
“Technology is a tool, not a means to an end,” she says. “To forge lasting relationships, we need to learn to be more intentional and authentic and reconnect with people as human beings—especially right now. It’s using our tools with intention and compassion.”
While most of us would agree that meetings were tedious before, virtual meetings can make them even worse, adds Karin Reed, CEO of Speaker Dynamics, a corporate communications training firm, and coauthor of Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work. The book was recently added as part of Stanford University’s School of Business’s “Essentials of Strategic Communication” course for the Spring 2021 semester, proving that Zoom meetings and the like aren’t going away soon.
“Remember all that stuff you’ve known forever about what makes meetings more effective, that you never bothered to do, like having an agenda or coming prepared?” she asks. “All of that is more important online because the flaws in the process are even more obvious.”
To connect with people and read the room, you need to know how to overcome the shortcomings of the technology and resort to some best practices.
McPherson suggests starting meetings with an ice breaker—but not about the weather.
“This goes back to years of conference calls when you’re waiting for others,” she says. “The default is always, ‘What’s the weather in your area?’ But that doesn’t do anything for the meeting.”
Instead, she suggests asking a question. For example, If you could be anywhere when the pandemic is over, where would that plane take you? Or, how are you really doing? Is there anything you need support with?
“Those are the types of questions we tend to not ask when we’re virtual,” says McPherson. “But if you ask questions that get more meaningful responses, you can have a much deeper, richer conversation or meeting.”
“Zoom is a misnomer, and the challenge of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Facetime is that we’re not making eye contact,” says McPherson. “I’m not looking at you in the eye if I’m not looking into the camera.”
Don’t interpret someone’s body language as compared to when they’re in real life meeting. “Lack of eye contact doesn’t mean they’re not listening,” she says. “We’re not the same when we’re in these tiny boxes. Unlike real life, you’re not seeing their whole body, which takes a lot of information out of the equation.”
But simply looking at your camera is not going to make you an effective virtual communicator, says Reed; you also have to change your mindset. “The camera is the conduit to your conversation partner. Focus not just your eyes, but your energy through the lens, in order to truly connect with the person or people on the other side. Otherwise, you will just look like you’re being held hostage by the camera lens,” she says.
Stop letting your slides dominate the screen. You bring the value to the meeting, not your visual aids, say Reed.
“The typical virtual presentation looks like this: You introduce yourself, you introduce the topic, you share your screen and present way too many slides,” she says. “Then you ask at the end if there are any questions. By that time, you are lucky if anyone is still listening and awake.”
The in-person equivalent of doing this would be introducing yourself and then turning your back on the audience while reading off your slides for the entire slide deck, says Reed. Instead, deliver your presentation in digestible chunks, sharing only a few slides at a time before toggling back to gallery view.
“It changes everyone’s virtual environment and forces them to re-engage with you,” she says. “Plus, it allows you to actually drive dialogue by putting people front and center, not your visual aids, which too often become visual crutches.”
Dealing with distractions
When you’re in a Zoom meeting, active listening is important, even though it’s also hard. “We have so many more distractions than when we’re sitting around the conference table, like text messages or children at home,” says McPherson. “This is a distracting time with very real and understandable reasons.”
Depending on the dynamics of the meeting, McPherson says the senior person in the room should set the stage for compassion and empathy. “We all can benefit from more of that,” she says. “These are some of the hardest times people have ever gone through, and compassion can go a long way to help the meeting and help each other.”
Be prepared to circle back to the reason why everyone is there, suggests McPherson. “Every 10 or 15 minutes, remind everyone what the meeting is about,” she says. “When you’re sitting and staring at a computer, it can be easy to forget what you were there to accomplish. Why are we here?”
The truth is that virtual meetings are a separation from real life, says McPherson, but you can still use them to connect. “Honor that the experience is different,” she says. “But bring in some of the similarities can make it feel more humane. Lead with kindness compassion and bring your best listener to the table.”