I guess I should start by congratulating all of you who weren’t used to being on multiple conference calls a day. Congrats! You have all survived a very steep learning curve over the past few weeks or probably months. Good job. I guess something that is bound to a steep learning curve is a bumpy ride. You’ve likely been educating yourself on the job and on the fly, meaning you do not necessarily get all things right from day one.
As I am joining more and more conference calls in the past few weeks, both for work and my private life, I have been wondering why it is so hard to get it all right in conference calls. Why is it apparently so difficult to reach the same level of effectiveness compared to what we did in physical meetings, brainstorm sessions, or anything similar form where we met in the real world? Here are some thoughts.
- First of all, we are simply further away from each other than we were before the various types of lockdowns we’re currently in. Before COVID-19, we typically had a mix of online and offline meetings, allowing us to catch up in physical form if we missed out on the digital one. Or we just walked into colleagues at the coffee machine. That is different. The informal chatter is reduced and it is with great joy that I see humanity, or at least pretty much everybody that I have spoken to misses it dearly. Humans are hardwired to connect to each other both verbally and physically and that simply became more difficult. A lot can be said with how you shake hands with somebody, or how you look them in the eyes while you shake hands. In the virtual world, we bring in nuances by blurring our background or not, by wearing a suit or a hoodie, or we might even tell the other party we’re having technical difficulties so can’t put on our webcam just now.
- Second, I guess the majority of us are still beginners at using those tools. I am currently in an international business development position with a software company, meaning I participate in all kinds of conference calls pretty frequently, but there are definitely a large number of industries and professions that never had the need to work like that. I mean, some of my friends are medical specialists. It makes no sense to host video calls with your patients. Oh, wait. It made no sense. Because all a sudden it does, while everyone tries their best to reduce contamination possibilities to a minimum. For them though, they are still in the early phases of proper conference call etiquette and although they’re learning, it brings in challenges from to time.
- Third, there is a large variety of tools and we are expected to have installed all of them and know how all of them work, taking into account all these tools were originally built with a different purpose in mind and for different target groups. Oh and they all work on different devices nowadays, which we wanted off course. Another call? Another tool! As a participant, make sure you have the most common tools installed on your preferred device. As a moderator or host, please do not come up with some unknown app you thought was interesting and wanted to try. you will lose time, you will lose audience engagement. And if you do: make sure to tell your audience, and take care of a frictionless onboarding experience.
So how can we get our heads around this?
Suppose you are hosting some conference calls, video meetups, virtual beers, and cheers, or whatever fancy name you want to give to your kind of digital gathering, I think pretty much anybody can benefit from these tips.
- Number one: communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Assume your audience doesn’t know how to conference call. Assume they don’t have the tools installed. Assume they are not aware it makes sense to use proper headphones or not to stay in the kitchen during rush hour. Tell ’em. Give people basic instructions on the tool(s) you will use, where those can be downloaded, when the meeting room when will open, when the official program will start, what the agenda is, when there will be a break and what ways you are offering to stimulate interaction between you and the audience. Take Murphy’s law for granted and leave no room for doubt!
- Know your tools. While it is quite difficult to kick yourself out of a physical meeting room, it is quite easy to achieve that in the digital counterpart. And that is not making a good impression with your audience. Knowing your tools and knowing how to use them also means you know the ones you don’t want to use. Obviously, it is best to stick with one, but I do understand you need various tools for various purposes, beyond the ordinary digital waves and smiles. But please, limit it. People get confused when you can post questions through multiple channels (unmute yourself, raise your hand, wave in front of the camera before being given permission to unmute, use the built-in chat or use the accompanying WhatsApp group, just to name a few).
- Practice, practice, practice. This is obviously true in the real world but is brought to a new level in the digital world. Practice hosting the call. Practice how it feels talking to a screen for three quarters in a row. Practice how easy it is to use one tool with another and whether you are really able to answer questions on the fly, or whether you should fit in a Q&A at the end. Practice how you like to run that YouTube movie you really want them to see. Does the streaming service keep up with the pace if you show it from your screen? Or should you come up with an alternate way? Check the speed of your internet connection, in the room where you will be during the conference call. How did you ask? Plug in an ethernet cable to start and check. Pull it out, move to the desired room and see what speeds you’re getting. If there’s a big difference, you might have an issue.
- Being a presenter does not mean you also need to be the moderator. Or, in other words: if you need or want to present something to one or more people, make sure somebody else takes care of the tech part. I mean, we’ve been doing that in the physical world right. If you are on stage, somebody else takes care of the lighting, the technology and you might even have one or two persons with ‘walking-mic’s’ in the room. Apply the same principle to conference calls, especially if you’re addressing bigger audiences.
- Keep the pace up, as well as the structure. If you are presenting on a physical stage, you can physically interact with your audience. You cannot do that on a conference call. Well, you can, but really only in a very limited format. So, you need to figure out other ways to keep your audience engaged and active. That means keeping the pace up when you are telling. The same applies to structure. People need structure, or they’ll be lost and switch to their email or phone (which you don’t see, even if the cameras are on). Challenge them to think, hide the stuff on your slides you don’t want them to see yet. And hide it once you have finished talking about that bullet. Consider working with slide decks with single words, single sentences, or single full-screen images. Storytelling is very strong if done properly!
- Don’t try… Please be certain of what you’re doing, preferably as a result of some of the above tips. Things usually tend to get fuzzy when a host or presenter starts the sentence with: “Okay, let us all try to do x or y or z”. You are in the lead, they will follow (really, try that for once!). Or: they expect you to lead them through the course and be certain of how you want to approach things.
There is obviously many more that we can talk about in regard to conference calls under COVID-19. But I hope these tools make life it a little bit easier for you to host those calls. And if it isn’t making things easier for you, I hope these tips help your audience in attending your calls and virtual meetups. which would, in return, make your life more pleasant or help you achieve what you wanted to in a better way! Great performance is not reached when we just try and go. Great performance is achieved by looking at the theory and trying to incorporate that into your way of working in a structured manner while allowing yourself to reflect. Good luck!
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