Many of us have been thrown headfirst into interacting with others in our organizations long distance. Phone calls, email, chat or text were all familiar for most of us. However, for many speaking in public over Skype, Teams, WebX or Zoom is a new frontier and it is decidedly not the same has speaking to a live group of people.
So, how should one speak over webcast meeting?
First, just because you are in front of a camera doesn’t mean you need to be an actor. On the other hand, screen fatigue is a real thing and you need to do something to keep your audience’s attention. Don’t exaggerate but be conscious of your facial expressions. Make sure your eyes smile. Look directly into the camera and speak like you are speaking to a friend across the table. Be mindful to keep speaking and looking into the camera. Many of us know that when you are speaking in public in person it is good to make eye contact with everyone—the way to do this over a stream is by setting your eyes on the camera at all times.
Remember, you are speaking to people in their homes and adopting a “fireside chat” style will make many more comfortable. If it is a group of people you know you might even consider dressing down just a touch.
For those who speak with your hands, this isn’t going to work well and can even be distracting. If it helps, allow yourself to hold a pen or some other object to occupy your hands with a mind of their own. Do this outside of the camera’s view.
Preparing the shot before hand is helpful. Odd angles or a busy background can be distracting. But having some items on the desk or on the wall that say something about you can add a personal touch to the meeting. Try to make it feel as though you are inviting the audience into your home as well.
While we are a visual, image-oriented culture audio is very important. If you don’t have much experience speaking into a microphone, practice. If you are going to be doing a lot of speaking online it might be worth investing in pro-sumer USB microphone so you can place it correctly for the acoustics of the space you are working in.
Some verbs and phrasings we use when we communicate in business, in leadership roles and generally in our lives can have a subconscious (and maybe even conscious) affect on how people perceive what we say but perhaps even our overall character.
One such verb or phrase is “think” or “I think.” This is an easy one to get rid of as it is a throw away phrase anyway. When speaking or writing it is somewhat redundant to make the statement; if it were anyone else’s thinking 99% of us would describe who the thinking belonged to. So, there is no need to say it in the first place. But why skip the “I think?” It is because it can come off as the speaker being uncertain or still going over things in their head. Plainly speaking your opinion and why others should consider it sounds stronger both in person and on the page.
“Need” is another word one might consider dropping in their phrasing. It may sound silly but when used by a leader when requesting something from subordinate it makes the leader or the one asking sound like they are dependent on that other person entirely. If you are scoffing, consider that these are subtle, subconscious cues that don’t work on our active thinking. “Want” works in a similar way. “I want you to improve the quality of your work” versus “Please, improve the quality of your work” or even “Improve the quality of your work.” Notice the subtle difference in tone that shades the meaning of the statement in all three cases.
“Guess” is another one to watch out for—we all want to be heard as confident and sure. Using “guess” in your language does not accomplish that tonal goal. Likewise, “hope” can add a touch of uncertainty. Don’t hope for things, know that they will happen; make things a will to power over your goals, don’t hope.
Consider making some of these changes to your speech pattern and note if it changes the way people see you and your ideas.
Speaking in a group conversation can be intimidating and depending on the organization you work in or the expectations of your job there maybe nothing wrong with being quiet, it may be a liability to your career. It can even matter in social situations that come up at work. Generally, speaking there is nothing wrong with being quiet, but if you want to assert yourself more in conversations here are some ideas.
First, give yourself permission to be silent. Otherwise it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you never speak because of the feedback loop of pressure and anxiety you create for yourself.
You can try talking more often than it feels like you should. Even if this is a simple affirmation of what someone else has said. If you speak more often than you feel is necessary as a quiet person you are probably chiming in about the average amount. If you don’t force yourself to participate every so often you almost certainly will default to your normal amount of speaking.
While this may seem in opposition to the first point it important not deride yourself but at the same time encourage yourself. Don’t stress yourself out. Do your best to find a happy medium.
If it is work meetings you are concerned about make sure to be prepared, have some talking points written down ahead of time. If the conversation takes a unanticipated turn towards an unscheduled topic do your best to improvise.
Remember also that if the goal is to be heard and make yourself more present small contributions are better than nothing. Try accenting other people’s larger ideas with small thoughts. If someone is making an argument for or against a certain action or direction the organization might take fill in the gaps with little thoughts.
If you aren’t speaking remember to at least be honestly engaged in the conversation. Look the current speaker in the eye. Don’t appear too relaxed, sit up with a good posture. Take notes by hand even if you don’t need them. Be the person in the room who isn’t distracted by their cell phone.
While it is improbable to think one will go through life without ever offending someone, here are some faux-paus to actively avoid and the reasons why one should avoid them.
Don’t every tell a peer that they “look tired”. The imagery evoked by this comment is not flattering. Tired persons have darkened rings about the eyes, unkempt hair and maybe disheveled clothes. They cannot concentrate and are probably grumpy. If you are concerned about a peer just ask if they are OK. While asking if someone looks tired is usually meant to be helpful, it can often be misunderstood as a slight. Likewise, saying someone has lost a ton of weight implies they were fat to begin with, instead just tell your peer the look good without commenting on their previous appearance.
Sometimes slight rephrasings of comments meant in support of a colleague can totally change the interpreted meaning. If someone ends a romantic relationship, don’t ever tell your peer they were to good for them. This may be misconstrued as meaning the peer has poor taste in romantic partners. “Their loss” implies no criticism.
If you do need to criticize someone—hopefully in a helpful way—don’t ever tell a person that they “always” or “never” do something. In the real-world absolutes aren’t really factual. No person always or never does something. Often or frequently or another synonym implies a habit and habits can be changed where as absolutes feel written in stone.
Hopefully these tips will get you thinking about other common sayings and phrasings that might get misinterpreted.