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I recently heard an “Oh Wow” story that shined a light on the pitfalls of modern business communication.

My friend Nicole was telling me of a recent conference call discussing a global restructuring for her company. The conversation centered around key employees that executive management wanted to retain and their associated compensation packages.

Nicole hadn’t spoken yet when her former boss said, “Well, if Nicole leaves, we are in big trouble.” He hadn’t realized she was on the line! In this case, it was a positive statement about Nicole (and was to her benefit from a negotiation standpoint), but it could have just as easily gone in the other direction.

Coincidentally, I was almost a part of an “Oh Wow” story just last week. I was on a conference call with a colleague talking to a prospective client. We were in the middle of an important part of our conversation when there was a sudden silence – followed by a beep. My colleague and I could hear one another but could not hear the client. She assumed the client dropped, but from many years of experience conducting business virtually, I did not assume the same and cut her off before she started in with a confidential comment not meant for the client’s ears.

Sure enough… when the client rejoined the call and we could hear her, her first comment was “That was so weird, I could hear both of you talking but you could not hear me.”

Yikes! Close call.

Don’t get too comfortable just because you’re virtual

Unfortunately, these two examples are not exceptions of virtual faux pas. “Oh Wow” stories continue to increase. Perhaps it’s because virtual business is becoming more of the norm vs. the exception and we’re all getting a bit too comfortable.

Or perhaps the growing telecommuter population is fostering a more relaxed mindset where we may not be operating at our peak. Whatever the reason, it seems we’re not diligent until something goes wrong.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You do not want to be the person known for the “Oh Wow” story that someone is re-telling after your next meeting. Instead, you can be the “Oh yeah!” person known for operating flawlessly and effectively in virtual environments.

Five tips for stellar virtual meetings

The next time you find yourself planning for a virtual meeting, either as host or participant, follow these five tips to ensure success:

1. Be prepared. As prepared, if not more, than in an in-person meeting – in terms of pre-work, research, review of agenda, attendee list, and knowing what your role will be. Consider “why,” “what” and “who.” If you’re hosting it’s even more important to be prepared so people understand the purpose of the meeting (why), what  will be covered and what needs to be accomplished, who will be in attendance and the role that each person will play.

2. Always assume the worst. (This is the only time you’ll hear me promoting a pessimistic view!) What I mean by this is always assume the worst of the technology – meaning, it can go wrong! That video camera may be ON when you think it is turned off and you’re in your bathrobe. Even though you heard a beep and you think the other person dropped – assume they did NOT and do not speak up with a comment you would not share in person.

And conversely, if you did not hear the beep of someone joining, do not assume they are not there. There is a very good chance they ARE! This has happened time and time again on calls I’ve been a part of, and I can bet you’ve probably experienced this more than once yourself. Remember, too many things can go wrong. Technology is not foolproof. Bottom line: it is better to be super cautious then full of regrets later.

3. Dress to impress – even when working from home – research shows that wearing more formal clothing changes the way your brain works, affects your mood and ultimately helps you to perform better. And, you never know when someone will say “I’d really love to use video for our call today, do you mind turning yours on?”

4. Rev up your energy and executive presence. Your energy levels are even more important in a virtual environment. It is difficult to maintain focus and engagement when only connected by audio. Whenever possible, use video to conduct your meetings. When audio is your only option:

a. Stand up when you’re talking. This helps you to project your voice and deliver your message more confidently. Smiling also changes the tone of your voice and invites people to listen.
b. Be clear and direct with your message. In the absence of a presentation or visual aids, use metaphor and analogy to articulate your point. This is especially effective when introducing a new concept.
c. Before you speak, identify yourself. Each time! Don’t assume they will recognize your voice. This is especially important the more people you have on the line.

5. Foster engagement. When leading a meeting get everyone involved. In today’s world of uber multitaskers and distractions it is difficult to hold everyone’s attention in a virtual environment. Enlist these rules:

a. Ban the mute button (unless of course someone has horrendous background noise disrupting the call). This fosters open dialogue and encourages participation from all.
b. Actively call on participants and ask for their input and ideas. This cuts down on what I like to call “sleepers”: those people who are dialed into the call but not actively engaged.
c. Have individual roles identified beforehand and facilitate dialogue during the call. Focus on a productive outcome versus status check-ins and read-outs.
d. Keep your meetings as short and lively as possible. If using web conferencing technologies, make full use of the “raise hands,” “chat” and other engagement features.

If you follow these guidelines for effective virtual presence, not only will you avoid negative “Oh Wow” situations, but you’ll be able to communicate effectively and professionally in any situation.

I’d love to hear from you. What will you do differently the next time you participate in or host a virtual meeting?

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*image courtesy of Erik Sparre-Enger

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