The Covid pandemic has seen a massive increase in the use of Zoom, MS Teams and other virtual communication platforms. Many people have found talking via a screen to be an uncomfortable and difficult experience, and that the quality of the communication is somehow lacking. Why is this the case?
Having observed people’s on-screen behaviour over many months (and coached them in how to improve it), I’ve concluded that a lot of the time there’s really not much difference, fundamentally, between how people are on screen compared with how they are in in-person meetings. The problems they have and the mistakes they make are the same; it’s just that these become highlighted on Zoom because everyone is in full focus, all the time, each in their own little box. There’s nowhere to hide! It’s a massively exposing and revealing process. Plus, people get to see themselves doing what they do, side-by-side with the people they’re talking to, in real-time (unless they’ve discovered how to turn that feature off!). Pretty disconcerting.
“What?!” I hear you ask. “How can virtual possibly be the same as in-person?” OK, I agree that the virtual space does have some special features that make it feel pretty hostile and unnatural, and these aren’t the same as when you’re actually in the room with people. When you’re Zooming, you have to make sure the lighting’s OK, that you’re not offering people a bull’s-eye shot up your nose, or you look like you’re hanging off the bottom of the screen by your chin, or your laundry’s hanging out to dry behind you. And there’s a load of tricky stuff about making eye contact through a camera that isn’t where it should be, taking turns to speak, not checking your emails on your phone under the desk…
Hang on a minute though…those last bits – eye contact, taking turns, not being present and giving proper attention – you get those the whole time in real-life meetings as well, don’t you?
Exactly my point. And you get a lot of the other stuff in real life too – basically, people feeling exposed, judged, unconfident, not wanting to be there or speak out. It’s just that with Zoom and the like, there’s now a load of reasons why – reasons that take the responsibility away from us personally and place them firmly with the technology we’ve suddenly become obliged to use.
What Makes For Good Communication?
So what is the secret of great communication, and how can this be applied to the virtual arena?
Communication Is Multi-Dimensional
Communication is about much more than the words themselves. A lot of research shows that the words we use and the actual content of what we say makes up only a small percentage of the meaning we convey. In his now famous study, the Armenian psychologist Albert Mehrabian concludes that meaning is comprised of how we look (55%), how we sound (38%) and lastly, what we say, the actual words we use (only 7%). Mehrabian found that, when we’re communicating well, these three components are congruent and supportive of each other; in other words, the way we sound (tone of voice) is reflected by the way we look (facial expression, body language), and these both reinforce the meaning of the words we use. So for example, if we say we’re excited in a dull voice with a hang-dog expression, no one will believe us! A statistic claims that around 90% of all disputes are caused by tone of voice. Just think back to the last time you had an argument with someone; how much was the tone of voice to blame?
The Perception Gap In a Digital World
If you don’t maintain congruence between the three components (visual, vocal and verbal), you will probably fall down the Perception Gap. This is the gap between how you intend to come across to people and how they actually perceive you – the impression they have of you and the message they take away. If you aren’t congruent, then you’re not in control of the impact you make, and you leave yourself open to (mis-)interpretation. A dangerous place to be!
Why is the Perception Gap so prevalent in a virtual environment? Here are a few of the key reasons people fall down it…
The main reason is that the virtual space likely accentuates the instinctive inhibition many people have about speaking in front of others. The difference with virtual is that it moves the argument onto a technological plain rather than just a human one. “Zoom is just a weird environment, right? So how can anyone possibly look and sound real on it?… It’d be completely different if I was in the room with you. And anyway, everyone feels the same about it. We all make allowances for each other… “. In other words: impossible to change, so no point trying.
Second, I’m in a box. I’m just a talking head, so the need for body language, using my hands, etc doesn’t apply.
Third, I’m speaking through a microphone, so voice projection isn’t relevant here either. The mic will do all the work for me. No effort needed.
I find that one of the most striking manifestations of virtual discomfort is when people refuse to turn on their camera – which is like turning up to an in-person meeting with a bag over your head!
The list goes on and on.
But communicating through a screen doesn’t have to be like this!
How You Can Express Yourself Better Digitally
Yes, admittedly, virtual is a strange place – yet it can also be a more democratic and intimate place than an in-person environment: there’s no pecking order about who sits where, you’re close to people with nothing to get in the way, there is, up to a point, an imposed etiquette around taking turns to speak and being respectful of each other’s space…and it’s no stranger, if we’re honest, than many of the in-person places we find ourselves in and are expected to perform in as a matter of course (presenting in front of a load of people, pitching an idea, negotiating a difficult conversation...).
Just as there are many ways to improve our in-person performance, there’s a lot we can do to come across better on Zoom and any other platform. For instance:
Show more of yourself
Don’t feel constrained by the box that virtual platforms put you in. If you set your camera up correctly you can show the top half of your body rather than just your head. This allows you to use your arms to punctuate and choreograph what you’re saying, dramatically increasing your impact and presence. Oh, and it’s not true that the mic will do all the work. It only picks up what’s there. If you’re not projecting vocally and varying the tone, pitch and pace of your voice, the mic won’t somehow magically do it for you.
Nod and smile
When someone else is speaking, it’s important not to interrupt or even voice your agreement because any ‘noises off’ tend to disrupt the digital flow. So nod silently occasionally instead: this will give the speaker the confidence that they’re being listened to. And if you smile from time to time, this will help introduce a note of approval, harmony and good humour into the interaction – which never does any harm!
Forget you’re on camera
Performing effectively into a camera is not much different from performing in the void of ‘real’ life, whether it’s to a large audience of blank faces, a meeting where no one gives you a clue as to what they think or feel about you, or even a difficult conversation where you’ve had to go out on a limb and are feeling exposed. So, just like the film actor or TV presenter talking to a character or audience that isn’t there, the key to performing into the void is to talk to the camera like it’s your friend.
‘You’re talking to one person. Use the camera as a best friend, not as an audience. Relax into it. You’re just talking to your best mate, that’s all. You like him and he likes you and he’s ready to listen to every word you’ve got to say, he’s very interested in you.’
Virtual Platforms Are A lot Like Real Life
When you stop to really consider the dynamics of performing on Zoom, it quickly becomes clear that in essence it presents the same challenges as performing in person in real life. The only difference is that we’re expected to be OK in real life. There aren’t the same widely recognised extenuating circumstances as there are when we’re virtual. But for most of us, the feeling of exposure and unreality is the same – if not worse – when we have to make a presentation to a crowd of blank unresponsive faces as when we’re staring into the screen of our laptop.
So the big lessons for performing well on Zoom translate directly into real-life situations. These big lessons are that you need to be congruent and that you have to use much more energy – in your voice, your face, your body – than feels comfortable in order to bridge the Perception Gap and come across in the way you want. In a sense, what you’re doing must feel bigger than normal to look and sound real and natural. It will feel strange to start with but quite natural after a while. It’s the craft of performing yourself.
And that thing about seeing yourself when you’re on Zoom? Don’t switch it off. Use it! It’s a brilliant feedback mechanism for checking in in real-time on how you’re performing, whether there’s congruence between how you look and sound and what you’re saying, and for helping you to bridge the Perception Gap.
We Can Help Improve Your Digital Communication Skills
Thanks to the irreversible momentum it gained during successive lockdowns, digital communication is now firmly established and will continue to be a big part of everyday life and business into the indefinite future. That is why it’s important that we develop our virtual selves so they are perceived in the same way we are in person to have a consistent personal brand across these environments. Communicating well, whether in person or on-screen, broadly requires the same understanding, self-awareness and techniques.
If you wish to learn more about how you can improve your digital communication skills to ensure you always land on target, then you can enquire with our team. We are specialists in 21st Century communication and can help you make clear and strong connections professionally and in everyday life.