The rapid transition to home working catalyzed by COVID-19 has led to a flood of senior executives, HR Directors and managers attempting to influence via a range of virtual platforms. However, many have not prepared thoroughly enough for their online debut, and it poses a risk to the perception of their leadership quality. To paraphrase Hotel California, with online sessions, the audience can leave any time they please. It’s seamless. There’s no walking past you to get to the exit. With a click of the mouse you are ejected.
Since March, I’ve been 100% virtual in my keynotes and leadership development sessions, connecting to groups in the United States, Europe and Asia. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and learned a lot along the way. Below are a collection of simple but powerful techniques to boost impact and leadership quality, that are also informed by a decade of previous experience as a seasoned online learning designer, presenter and facilitator at the London Business School and elsewhere.
I have also weaved in a series of insights from my career as an award-winning business writer, international keynote speaker (the old way, face-to-face) and former national television news producer with the BBC and ITV. These high-value tweaks will improve your chances of engaging your team, your customers, or your suppliers.
1. Start with your normal energy (then double it)
A webcam steals energy and charisma. So, you need to be ‘bigger’ and more expressive in your performance. There’s a good rule of thumb: if you think you’re being a bit ‘over-the-top’ that’s probably about right!
A fast-emerging method is to change your set-up to allow you to stand up for your presentation – this will immediately improve your energy levels and convey more dynamism, which will be a real boost for your leadership quality.
2. Align your message, voice and body
Psychological research shows that if you fail to align what you’re saying with how you’re saying it, the credibility of your content suffers. To get the maximum effect, think how you might better support your subject with an aligned vocal tone, volume and pitch. Match your body language in the same way – on a webcam this is mostly about facial expression and hand gestures.
Skillful alignment helps you to be yourself, but with more skill. Unless it’s not appropriate for your message, always begin with a big smile to show you’re excited to be leading the session.
It’s also important to work out how you want your audience to feel during and after your presentation. This will naturally align your message with your style.
3. Connect through the lens
Our human instinct is to make eye contact to bond with people. However, this is a bad idea when it comes to video conferencing. If you think you are locking eyes with a participant, it’s likely that your are not doing that at all. From their perspective, you are looking ‘away’.
You might even be checking your emails for all they know. To truly connect with your audience, look directly into the lens of your webcam. This feels distinctly odd at first, but you get used to it. You can also watch videos of your rehearsals and performances to check how you’re coming across.
4. Be brief, be bright… be gone
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” wrote William Shakespeare. Could he have been talking about online engagement? In other words, be very careful not to make your session (or the sections within it) too long. As virtual events are often shorter, your session will always be, to some extent, a ‘taster’ of your content. Embrace that fact, rather than trying to fit it all in.
For added impact, follow your live session with a text summary, slide set, video or podcast that can contain more detail.
5. Creativity cuts through
Let’s be honest, people hated your text-heavy slides in the face-to-face world. The difference? Back then they were trapped in an airless conference room and couldn’t escape. Try this approach online and you’re toast.
Be imaginative, bold and creative with images, videos and even sound effects. Try to get a few laughs. Research shows that a joke or a relevant story helps people to engage with what you’re saying, remember it, and take action afterwards. And remember, if you see your online audience smile, you’re doing it right.
6. Don’t waste the waiting time
Virtual meetings for larger groups often have a ‘waiting room’ before the session begins. Don’t squander this opportunity. Offer creative ways for people to interact. In this way, they get used to ‘leaning in’ rather than being a passive observer.
In my sessions, I post an arresting image and an interesting question or statement (e.g. ‘Happiness is…?’ or ‘Today, I’m grateful for…’) to encourage participants to comment in the chat box. You can take it further and invite people who’ve made a particularly interesting comment to elaborate with their microphone and camera on.
In fact, a human psychology phenomenon known as Consistency Bias indicates that we always want to be harmonious with previous actions. If a participant has interacted once in the chat box, they are far more likely to do it again. Use this ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique to your advantage.
7. Audience engagement is not an optional extra
To show off your leadership quality, it’s vital to engage your audience early and regularly. I carefully design the flow of my sessions so there is never more than seven minutes of content delivery (and often as little as two) without a break for interactivity: a poll or quiz, facilitated discussion, a white board exercise, a video clip, individual reflection or small group breakout.
A great way to inject life into a session is to design for interaction with a co-host or session sponsor. To illustrate this ‘chat show’ option, here’s a three-minute clip from a ‘Peak Performance’ series I co-hosted with Jamie Anderson and Freiderike Fabritius earlier this year.
I’m no Steven Spielberg, but here are a few things I’ve learned from trial and error. The ‘staging’ and technical details are non-trivial. I’ve seen senior execs address their troops as if they’ve been kidnapped by a terrorist cell and are giving the presentation against their will, in a darkened cave, and from a deliberately humiliating angle. Take care to frame yourself with your head towards the top of the shot. Make sure you are well lit, ideally using natural light. Invest in a good quality, USB-connected microphone, HD video camera and a few lights. Having a separate camera to the built-in one on your laptop also avoids the classic ‘up-the-nose’ angle!
9. Structure (like your life depends on it)
Contrary to popular myth, in-the-moment ad-libs don’t emerge from half-hearted preparation. Spontaneity only happens because you know your material backwards, forwards and sideways. Jazz musicians aren’t able to improvise because they’ve just picked up their instrument. The best ways to tactically depart from the plan is to have one in the first place. Make sure you:
- Rehearse your material repeatedly with different audiences to get feedback
- Insist on a technical rehearsal with the platform you’re using
- Create a time-based session structure that breaks the session into short bursts of content delivery and interactivity.
It’s such a waste that so many great people are failing to make an impact online. Use these simple tips to ensure you show off your leadership quality online. Good luck!
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