As we talked about returning to in-person meetings and presentations, my colleague mused, “I don’t know if I remember how to talk in front of a real live audience, and I think I completely lost the ability to have a conversation.”
We laughed, but the exchange made me realize that communicators need to polish skills we may not have tapped during the pandemic, particularly because our past year focused primarily on written communications, website postings and hours of back-to-back daily Zoom meetings (made bearable by the puppies, cats and even goats who sometimes crashed our meetings).
So much of our effectiveness as communication strategists relies on the ability to craft powerful language that resonates with our audience, and to read a room, based on our attendees’ body language, eye contact and engagement. We can better advance our priorities by adapting those well-honed in-person skills to reflect the new hybrid, highly virtual world in which we now live.
Not surprisingly, a recent survey conducted by OnePoll (on behalf of Eargo) of 2,000 Americans over age 40 found that “three in five people say the pandemic has put the ‘art of conversation’ in serious decline … while 57 percent believe it is significantly harder to have an engaging rewarding conversation over the phone or video chat.”
As many return back to their offices or new hybrid work styles, this study reinforces the essential human need for personal interaction. The pandemic expanded the channels we now use daily, but effective communication strategies remain unchanged.
We need to get back in practice. We can begin re-entry by meeting in person with a ready-made audience: direct reports and close collaborators who undoubtedly are as eager to return more fully to advancing the organization’s mission, to projects set aside for the past year and to conversation that has absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic.
Following COVID-19 guidelines in place for your organization, gather in person to plan for a year that has the pandemic fading away. Encourage rigorous debate and what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen referred to as “cooperative overlap” -- as distinct from interrupting -- no need for raised hands. Reconnect.
Coming back together at a common workplace helps to remind all that a shared organizational mission and new ways of in-person collaboration can lead to stronger ideas and a better work product.
Talk about what each colleague has learned from operating in physical isolation that can be applied to the group’s current work style and approach. Working remotely has brought together colleagues from different fields who might not have collaborated in the past. Build on those fresh connections by forming new work “pods” to tackle projects.
As we re-engage in person and incorporate new ways to partner, we must plan for continued use of online communication tools. Zoom is here to stay. Yet it can make individuals feel that they are being talked at rather than with. We need to make it work for us.
Consider, when you are on Zoom, is your audience really engrossed in your PowerPoint presentation, or are they hiding behind photos of their kids and dogs, multitasking by catching up on email and texting? Sure, you probably have done so yourself.
At the height of the pandemic, many of us had to rush from Zoom to Zoom with little time to become acquainted with those in the meeting with us. As we enter a new Zoom age, let’s carve out time for introductions that go beyond name and title; have everyone describe their roles and connection to the topic under discussion.
As presenters, we need to work even harder at engaging the audience. Let’s ditch the 45-minute PowerPoint presentations with dense copy. Drastically limit the number of slides. Include only major takeaways with visuals that support messages. Then send the backgrounder and deck to participants in advance of the call.
Avoid reading your scripts -- become so familiar that you can have a conversation and pause for comment and questions. Remember to take a breath, and let your audience absorb what you are saying. Open the question and chat functions for those who don’t want to interrupt the flow (a great way for shier participants to have a voice).
Resist the temptation to have an unwieldy number of attendees unless you really want to deliver a lecture, or, if you have a reason for a large Zoom meeting, plan for breakout rooms that will allow attendees to focus on common topics.
Maintaining a group size that enables give-and-take is critical to engagement -- and taking polls during the session allows for a fluid, real-time reaction and dialogue that adds to the value for participants.
Don’t only practice your remarks in advance, but also be sure that you can use the technology and that you are positioned and framed properly. Maybe you can’t observe participants’ body language, but you can establish eye contact, be animated and vary your facial expressions and tone.
By polishing our in-person presentation skills, and adapting them to new hybrid models, we can achieve a smooth re-entry to pre-pandemic communication roles and make new tools work effectively for us and our audiences.
Nancy Seideman is vice president for academic communications and reputation leadership at Emory University.