In mid-March, we suddenly found ourselves working from home. While some teams had been distributed all along, many more had to adjust very quickly to the realities of remote work. One of those realities is virtual meetings. These days, we’re all spending a lot more time on Zoom.
For those of us used to in-person interactions, Zoom presents some unique challenges. It’s hard to keep energy up, read others’ body language, manage eye contact, and get engagement from the full group.
When we’re meeting in person, we feed off the energy in the room. We can easily clock when someone nods their head in agreement to what we’re proposing. Shy or introverted people have an easier time signaling that they have something to contribute.
How do we achieve the benefits of an in-person meeting when we’re all sitting in front of a camera in our respective homes? Carolyn Holland, an actor and business coach, has some important insight. She stopped by our most recent Campfire Chat to share what leaders can do to establish the right kind of presence on Zoom and keep their audiences—be they customers or clients—fully engaged.
Projecting Strength and Confidence
As a leader, you set the tone for the Zoom meeting. It’s important that you come in with a commanding presence; that makes it easier for people to lock into what you’re saying and to stay interested throughout the video call.
In person, our signifiers of strength might be a power suit or a crisp button-down, or perhaps a firm handshake. Over Zoom, those signals are lost. We have to turn to other means to project calm and confidence.
This starts with focusing on your breath. Before you hop on your next Zoom call, take a few deep breaths. These help to ground you in the moment and can even improve your posture.
Deep breaths also prevent you from speaking too quickly. Remember: It’s important to maintain a slower cadence on Zoom so that people can easily understand you.
Eye contact is also critical. When meeting in person, we all know how to look someone in the eyes! However, if you’re looking at your screen to see other participants, you’re not looking into your camera. And it’s looking directly into the camera that gives others the sense that you’re making direct eye contact with them.
Of course, you’ll need to look at the other participants part of the time. But try to balance looking at your screen versus your camera.
Try looking directly into your camera when you’re making an important point. You can also give eye contact when others are speaking, to signify that you’re listening intently.
Finally, just be yourself. Some of us aren’t comfortable on camera, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to avoid stiffening up and going into “meeting mode.”
Instead, keep it conversational. What conversational means to you might depend on your company culture, who you’re meeting with (team versus client), and the topic at hand. But given the feeling of distance that’s already inherent to not meeting in the same room, be sure you don’t bring a robotic presence to the virtual table.
Creating the Right Atmosphere on Camera
Beyond your personal presence, consider the space around you. Your environment can play a role in how engaged your audience remains in your Zoom call.
Start by considering where you want to take the call from. Strike the right balance between what’s practical, given your living circumstances, and what will read as professional.
It’s okay (and in fact, it’s preferable!) for your audience to feel like they’re in your home, but you don’t want to air any dirty laundry—literally or figuratively! Pick a bright room that has some visual interest, but not too much clutter. If you sit in front of a busy bookcase, your audience might spend more time scanning your titles than paying attention to your presentation.
It’s also important to bring your camera up to eye-level. If you place your computer on your desk, your camera may be angled upwards to capture your face. That leaves your audience with an awkward view of the underside of your chin.
Try raising your computer off the desk by six inches (or more or less, depending on your height). Bringing your camera to eye-level will help you appear as if you’re sitting up straight across the table from your other meeting participants.
Bringing Your Audience In
Now that you’ve thought about your own presence on the Zoom call, it’s time to think about how to bring others in. This begins with getting everyone involved to show their faces on camera.
To encourage folks to turn their screens on, it helps to set that expectation ahead of time. Note it in the meeting invite—that way no one is caught off-guard or hesitant to join because they have messy hair or are still in their pajamas at three in the afternoon.
Once everyone is on the call, if there’s still some hesitation, it’s okay to call people out. Address those camera-shy folks by name, and ask that they turn on their cameras. Reiterate the importance of using the camera function, and share how being on-screen will help with productivity and connection in the session.
Throughout the meeting, there are various tools you can use to ensure you’re getting participation across the board. Polls are a great, interactive way to get everyone to lock into the topic at hand and energize the group. You might even consider switching things up with a standing Zoom meeting as an experiment in changing the group’s energy.
Encourage people to use the chat function and check in using Zoom’s set of nonverbal feedback tools during the meeting. Call on people by name so that the whole group has a chance to speak. And keep the calls as short as possible, out of respect for everyone’s time.
Part of what’s so difficult about getting used to virtual meetings is that we’re accustomed to seeing the whole person in a meeting. We read things about how others are feeling based on nonverbal cues. Your approach to engaging your audience digitally should address these constraints and offer new ways to connect.
Don’t Forget About the Personal
Yes, we’re talking about business calls, but in our new pandemic world, business Zoom calls are the most (if not the only) outside interaction some of us are getting all day. We can’t have those fortuitous chance meetings in the hallway or pop our heads into a neighbor’s cubicle for a quick chat.
Zoom is now the stand-in gathering place for those interactions. How can your digital meetings embrace that?
At the start of the meeting, establish a personal rapport. It’s alright to have a little chit-chat before diving right into the meat of the meeting. Build five minutes of casual conversation into your agenda. That way, participants have time for some unstructured interaction and can still accomplish everything necessary in the meeting.
Another way to build an emotional connection over Zoom is to incorporate metaphors into your speech. Metaphors can help paint a picture and build an emotional—rather than a purely intellectual—connection. When you can get everyone on the same page in their hearts and minds, you stand a better chance at clearly communicating your point.
Generating Participation from Everyone
Participation is often unbalanced during in-person meetings, but virtual meetings can make it all the more difficult to get everyone involved. You don’t want everyone talking over each other, but you also don’t want people sheepishly sitting there, afraid to chime in.
There are a few strategies you can employ to ensure everyone gets a chance to voice their opinion. Do you find yourself so focused on your own presentation—sharing your screen, flipping through slides—that it’s hard to manage feedback from the group carefully? Consider designating a co-host to help you run the meeting.
Having a co-host can help you stay on top of responses that are coming in through chat. This co-host can watch other participants’ reactions and alert you when someone is trying to raise their hand or interject.
Some teams have implemented a method where they “go around the Zoom” and ask everyone to chime in one at a time. Go down the line alphabetically, and ask your team to share ideas. Depending on the size of your team, sorting out the alphabetical order of the group can even be a fun team-building activity!
For larger group calls, there are other specific considerations. First, ensure that participants are muted when they join. In order to say something, they should raise a hand or put a comment in the chat section. You can then unmute as needed.
Breakout sessions are also a great way to get more participation from a large group. If you have a meeting of 15 to 20 people, consider creating five breakout groups of three or four. These groups can then easily discuss a topic amongst themselves. Later, they return to the larger group to share their thoughts or learnings.
Finally, for those participants who might be timider about breaking in on what the speaker is saying, there is a tip for politely interrupting. By piping in with the speaker’s name, then waiting for acknowledgment, it’s easier to get that comment heard.
As the leader of the group, you also have the power to encourage people to speak up if they have something to add. That will help your audience feel less hesitant to do so.
Even as we see most states move to reopen and a global shift back towards business as usual, it’s undeniable that virtual meetings will remain an important part of our business lives going forward. By finding ways to keep these meetings engaging for everyone, we ensure better collaboration with our teams and stronger relationships with our customers.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.
Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.
Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, Kate; daughter, Leni; and black lab, Royce.