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In a few short weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed working off-site from a “nice to have” to a “have to have”—and that may be the reality for months to come, if not longer. This transformation of replacing face-to-face conversations with digital technology requires a whole different set of communications skills.

In order to be effective in maintaining relationships with clients, colleagues, adversaries and members of the judiciary who are no longer available in person, we all must learn to be video stars.

Some 93% of all communication is non-verbal. Silent cues such as body language, gestures and facial expressions convey meaning and intentions, which are harder to convey when you’re the only one physically in the room. However, by using the following practical strategies, you can take your remote communications to the next level while staying virtually connected to the world.

Look at Your Camera

Although video conferencing via mobile device or computer is a good substitute for face-to-face conversation, the technology loses much of its impact when participants don’t use their cameras proficiently. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Making and maintaining eye contact happens through the camera lens not via the screen.
  • Looking down, gazing out the window, checking incoming emails, glancing at notes or focusing your attention anywhere except directly on the camera contributes to listener boredom, disengagement and communication snafus and can be taken as an insult.
  • Adjust the screen before you connect to ensure the maximum visibility of your face; always be aware of where your camera is focused and what others on the call are seeing.
  • Try to do calls standing up when possible. Your voice will have more tone, depth and breadth if you are standing and moving, and gestures and body language will come to you more naturally, making your actual communication more interesting.
  • Put a note or reminder, such as a photo or drawing of a face, behind your camera lens and speak to it as you would someone at your desk or across a table. But be aware that your listeners may not understand you as well as if you are actually in the same room with them.
  • Try not to close your eyes or put your hand, papers, pencils or anything else in front of your face while speaking.

Watch Your Screen

When others are speaking, look at your screen and note the verbal and non-verbal information they are communicating. Remember, your listeners will still be seeing you in real time, so be aware of your facial expressions when others are speaking. Your face is filling their screens, so try to appear confident. Also consider how you are reacting to what they are saying and remember that your expressions are amplified when your face takes up the screen or is framed in a box.

Control the Physical Environment

Glaring lights and background noise can be part of any environment, and people are forgiving, but this is still business, and creating a professional setting is important.

  • Before the video conference, evaluate the sound and lighting conditions. Adjust the lighting so your face is fully lit, and make sure that there are no bright lights or reflections shining into your camera in the background.
  • Make sure that there are no visual distractions or personal objects extraneous to your communication in the background. Is a plant growing out of your head from the viewer’s perspective? Keep what’s behind you looking very orderly and professional. A neutral background is recommended.
  • Lighting is one of the most important considerations when you’re on a webcam. Since your face needs to be lit (not the back of your head), lighting should come from the front. Soft, indirect light is best. Utilize natural sunlight coming toward your face or invest in a small portable light—there are a lot of options online. Avoid bright surfaces, and being backlit from windows, that can wash out your image.
  • Avoid wearing patterned clothing; solid colors are always preferable for on-camera interviews. Remember, this is a business meeting, so dress for it.
  • When communication begins, inquire whether all participants can hear what is being said by you and others. If necessary, re-connect or re-dial to ensure a trouble-free connection.
  • Turn off music, televisions, fans, air conditioners or heaters, white noise machines or any other device that makes a noticeable sound. Ask all participants to do the same.
  • Explain how participants can use the mute function if they need to prevent other participants from hearing sounds that may be coming from their location. Make sure they also know how to unmute when they want to contribute further to the call.
  • If possible, use a headset instead of a speaker phone to keep your hands free and ensure good voice quality. Use the best audio connection you have, whether that is your phone or computer microphone.
  • Anticipate any interruptions that may arise, such as barking dogs, doorbells, curious children, and other home environment sounds, and try to control their occurrence for the duration of your communication. Put a sign on your door to let family members know when you are conducting a video call and discuss the expectations you have for them during such events.

Prepare Your Computer

Close any open apps on your computer and mute or disable all notifications before initiating your remote conversations. If you are going to share documents on your computer during the conference, make certain nothing is open on your desktop that should not be viewed by others.

Use Your Voice Mindfully

Verbally sharing facts and emotions without visual clues provides less information to listeners’ brains than they are accustomed to. This makes putting genuine energy and enthusiasm into your voice essential in order to communicate your key messages. Enunciate clearly and modulate the intensity of what you’re saying, varying the loudness, pitch and tone of your speech to engage your listeners.

Consider your favorite radio or podcast hosts. Even though you don’t see them, it’s likely you picture them as you are listening. Note how they use their voices to make information more interesting and memorable to their audiences.

Build Trust and Relationships

You’ve already put time, thought and consideration into this business relationship. Now is not the time to act casual.

  • Pause from time to time to assess whether you are communicating what you intend to. Pose questions to secure feedback. Encourage other participants to speak up honestly, contribute to the conversation and make sure you give them time to answer.
  • Be alert for signs that others on the call are becoming distracted or disengaged. Remember that today participants in video conferences are likely to be conducting business from home. They may be experiencing new or unusual stresses from the pandemic, including personal or family experiences with the virus.
  • Be genuine and fully present. Acknowledge the challenges in conducting business as usual under the circumstances. Take breaks and schedule follow-up communications, as needed, in response to unanticipated interruptions or family circumstances.

Technology doesn’t always work as expected, especially when systems are being taxed to the limit, as they currently are. Have a backup plan ready to go, even if that is just an old-fashioned dial-in to a conference call line. It’s better to keep the conversation going and the work moving forward than have to reschedule everyone involved.

Keep in mind that not all participants will be fully comfortable or conversant in how to use remote meeting technologies. Consider providing instructions to all invitees about how to access the meeting with the initial invitation and have patience with those who may be having technical difficulties. You can even offer to schedule a trial run with the technology prior to the scheduled call.

And, finally, if the inevitable happens, the dog jumps on your lap or your 4-year-old loudly announces she has to go potty, be of good humor. We are all human, and, in the new normal, everyone can relate.

 Jamie Moss is president of newsPRos.