Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, July 2018
Have you ever run a virtual meeting — over the phone or by video — and felt like no one was on the other end of the line? Have you ever asked a question in that situation and been met with what feels like an ocean of silence?
Sure, we all have. It’s hard enough to maintain someone’s attention when you are in the same room — when we’re connected only by phone or computer, the hurdles to capturing attention are even higher.
So, how do you make sure that other people are listening and engaged when you are in charge of a virtual meeting?
In some ways, the same basic principles of persuasive communication apply. Hone your message to a strong, direct statement. Know your audience: what you need them to know and what they want to know. Make sure the information you present to them is easy to follow and that you emphasize your key points.
But delivering these over the phone or video has its own unique challenges and its own unique solutions. The following techniques can help you grab your audience’s attention, keep them engaged and pull them back when they get distracted (and they will).
1. Repeat: As speakers, it’s natural to worry about boring your audience by saying the same thing over and over. But here’s the key: In any presentation, and especially in a remote presentation, any given audience member is going to miss a significant percentage of what you say. An email comes in, a colleague drops by, another meeting is coming up — the ways we can be distracted are endless. So if a piece of information is crucial, say it again — and again, and maybe even again. You can acknowledge the repetition, but don’t fear it.
2. Use bullet points and verbal highlighting: Let your audience know that what you are about to say is crucial. “There are three main things you need to know: one … two … three …” Or: “The most important thing to remember is …” With these signals, you are telling your audience to pay attention. They might even take notes when they hear these words. This is a great technique in any communication setting, but it’s essential when you are speaking over phone or video.
3. Plant a participant: A great way to make sure everyone is paying attention is to encourage participation: comments, questions, conversation. But especially when engaging remotely, people tend to hesitate to break the ice. Try designating a team member ahead of time to comment or ask a question to get things rolling — don’t spring this on them. You never want to embarrass someone by calling them out when they are unprepared.
4. Spread the responsibility: Have team members take on a section of the meeting — give an update on a project or an aspect of an ongoing initiative. Changing the voice will capture everyone’s attention and get people used to contributing.
5. Share the screen: Ask someone to pull up a document while you continue to speak. This allows group participation without ceding control of the meeting.
6. Take a poll: Use polling software to gather responses; that way, those who are uncomfortable speaking up still can participate and make themselves heard. It also keeps your audience active and engaged.
7. Give your audience time: Most facilitators wait five to eight seconds for an audience to answer a question before moving on. It’s awkward to sit in silence. But when you are on the phone or video, participants might have muted their line or hesitate to be the first one to speak up (see above). You may need to let that silence hang a bit longer to get the response you want.
8. Be a tough cop: If things start to veer off course, be assertive about keeping things to the stated agenda. And police yourself most of all: Don’t start digressing as the leader of the conversation. Stay focused on your message.
9. End on time: Or early! Stay on task so that you can wrap up well within your stated timeframe. No one ever wants a meeting — be it live or virtual — to go late, especially when they have a full slate of other meetings that fills the rest of their day. Give everyone a chance to absorb the information you’ve imparted and to clear their heads for the next task to come.
So much of effective communication is about making a connection, and there’s no doubt that a virtual connection is more difficult. But with a little time, preparation and a few key techniques, you’ll be able to engage, inform and persuade your audience whether they are across the room or across the globe.