Leading Authorities Discuss Virtual Communication Best Practices
Published: Jan 08, 2021
BY AMA STAFF
The sixth webcast of AMA’s Ask the Experts: Virtual Communication Series was held on December 16, and the program, Virtual Communication Best Practices Panel Discussion, focused on key takeaways from the series.
This event was moderated by AMA director of education, content and operations, Dorothy Deming.
The panel featured the following communication skills experts from AMA’s faculty: Tonya Echols, executive coach, leadership consultant, facilitator, speaker, and writer; Susan Mason, executive coach, trainer and instructional designer; Frederica A. Peterson, leadership consultancy CEO, coach, teacher and award-winning author; and Michelle Yanahan, business owner, organizational change management strategist and thought leader.
Ms. Deming: “Virtual communication is such an important part of what we do day-to-day now, especially [considering] we were so used to relying on in-person interaction. Susan, what is the impact on the way we communicate today?”
Ms. Mason: “Well, it’s having both physical and psychological impact points. My mind always goes to pro/con. There are actually some advantages. [Virtual communication] can be much more efficient and time-conscious. People come together in ways that are directed toward achieving things. So those are all pluses. But psychologically, the state of relationships, trust, and credibility, which depend so heavily on our ability to connect with people in a more holistic way, [can be adversely affected]. And I think everybody’s getting tremendous fatigue no matter what the platform is.”
Ms. Deming: “I’ll pass it to you, Frederica. What are your thoughts on the impact of communication today?”
Ms. Peterson: “In addition to what Susan said, there are the blurred lines between home and work. It really becomes a challenge for people from a communication perspective, because their personal lives are now melding into their professional lives. The comfort in which we’re able to communicate, the focus we’re able to give to our communication, [and] the accessibility—we’re almost too accessible now—[are all factors]. Some of the empathy is starting to erode, and not having the space to be able to think or focus the way that we used to, and feeling impersonal, [are other effects].”
Ms. Peterson also emphasized that, fatigue notwithstanding, video continues to be important when communicating, because eye contact is key to making effective connections.
Ms. Deming: “When I think about blurred lines, I think about how a lunch break doesn’t exist anymore. I haven’t had a lunch break since March!”
Ms. Echols: “I do think there are things that we’ve gained from it. There is the reality that some of this is not going away. Organizations have realized, ‘Hey, this works!’ Maybe 20-to-30% of it will stay the same [as it is now]. I think people are much more intentional and aware about their communication. I think empathy from just understanding each other has shot up. I think it’s made everyone a lot more human. Some of this will carry forward forever now.”
Ms. Deming: “I agree, and I think it’s so important to think of it in an optimistic way. I think everything we’ve learned this year is going to make us so much better in 2021.”
Ms. Echols: “Two hours of [not] commuting makes such a difference in your day!”
Ms. Yanahan: “I really see it as very much a balanced picture. Our investment in technology and being able to use all the tools is fantastic. But I do agree that we’re losing some of the human connection. Evolution has shown us that human connection is necessary for our survival. Yes, we’re losing that, but there are best practices and opportunities for really leveraging those [technological] tools to be even stronger as organizations.”
Ms. Deming: “What are some best practices we can use when communicating [virtually] today?”
Ms. Mason: “Never assume that the other person is paying attention. Do everything you can to help them pay attention. You have to pay attention to engagement, and the biggest tools you’re going to have are going to be your words and your voice. Getting to the point, being succinct, thinking about engagement, listening actively—it applies even more in a virtual channel—and the last thing I would say is become a thief: start paying attention to what you see other people do when they’re in a virtual environment, whether that’s on television, whether that’s in a meeting, and say, ‘I want that.’ As we evolve our best practices, you’ve got to steadily keep your best practices evolving too.”
Ms. Echols: “There’s one [best practice] that’s more technical: the importance of the camera. Play to the camera a little bit. Make sure your camera is in front of you, not off to the side. The other more tactical thing is two forms of grace: grace for others, and you having the grace to handle unexpected things, and not to get so flustered that it takes away from the things you’re trying to communicate. Maintain your grace no matter what’s going on, and give that grace to others if they’re having trouble.”
Ms. Yanahan: “In terms of best practices, I think with the virtual fatigue [that’s occurring], it’s important that we call people by name, allow some buffer times at the front and back of meetings—I think we’re too back-to-back with meetings—and also use probing questions to really pull people into the conversation. I know we talked about eye contact, but we’re also losing a lot of body language. Research shows that body language makes up to 70% of our communication. Last but not least, I think virtual communication can be very rich if we use all the creative tools at our fingertips. Video’s fantastic, audio’s fantastic, graphics are fantastic, music, chat—use all of those things that whatever technology you have available to you allows. You want to break up some of that fatigue. Bring something new in: use polls, use games. And share information and continue to share.”
Ms. Peterson: “I’m always on the eye contact piece, but I think I’m going to build on that a little bit. People want to know that you see them and hear them. We’re on these videos, we look like a stamp, half of us look like we’re looking at the screen but we’re actually reading our email. Let people know that you see them. Even though we’re [often] on video, there’s an assumption that nobody sees me. I try to talk to people [on video] and engage [as if] they’re sitting right in front of me. Being seen, being heard, feeling what you’re seeing and letting people know that—it’s so important. You get so much more meaning out of the interaction. It can also, potentially, [enable you to] stop having the ‘meeting after the meeting’ if we’re all focused and engaged with each other. It’s really being present, and letting others know you’re seeing their presence. And the other thing from that is having boundaries. If your day ends at 6, it ends at 6. If your day starts at 8, it starts at 8.You have to start having boundaries, because if you don’t, it’s going to start to affect you mentally.”
Ms. Echols: “Remember, when in doubt, cameras on. I’ve seen so much of people wanting to hide behind the black screen.”
Ms. Deming: “This is my favorite question, and I’m going to give it to everyone: what is the one thing you recommend to develop in your virtual communication skills? I’ll start with you, Michelle.”
Ms. Yanahan: “In virtual communication, remember the human element and how you can connect. Turn video on, ask people names, ask probing questions, bring them into the dialogue, and you do that also by mixing up how you present and how you’re holding your meeting—using the technology as best you can. And I’m going to do one-and-a-half, Dorothy: I think that we need to be repeating messages—repeating, repeating, repeating—in different ways, more so with virtual than when we’re face-to-face.”
Ms. Echols: “Also being authentic—because we don’t get to interact [in person]—I’m not going to see you in the cafeteria, or the shop across the street. And bringing in things about you. Letting people see quirky things. Do check-ins on random things, so that we can start to get to know each other. Let more of yourself shine through. Don’t be afraid that I’ve got to be this perfect image on my postage stamp. You obviously want to be careful, but make sure you’re incorporating those funny, silly moments. The more you bring yourself in, that’s going to help with that human connection.”
Ms. Peterson: “To me, it’s really around being present and not hiding. Building a connection depends on how you interact in this virtual environment: having the camera on, making eye contact, contributing to the discussion, not multi-tasking so much. We can bond on video, just like we do anywhere else.”
Ms. Mason: “Identify your virtual persona. We can be authentic and still flex our roles, still flex the way we communicate, flex the way we present ourselves. We’re told to always be professional, so what does that mean now in this space? Really test it out. Think about: How do I want to look? How do I want to sound? What are the ways that I want someone to encounter me and my ideas so that I am bringing the very best I possibly can, first to my brand, but then to my organization’s brand?”
Ms. Deming: “I want to thank you all so much!”
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