Watching Greatness… in a Conference Call?

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Facilitator and Coach at The Latimer Group.

When I want to improve at something, I study other people who do it well. I watch elite runners and examine their form. I read writers who inspire me and examine how they build a story with prose.

One of my recent fascinations is watching people who excel at Zoom, Teams, and WebEx calls and trying to identify what they are doing and how they are doing it. They draw the audience in, make it a conversation, and come very close to simulating the reality of in-person interaction. And the impact? Their audience is more relaxed and engaged, and the conversations are more collaborative and productive.

Here are three important observations I’ve made about what they do and how they do it:

  1. They get people to engage right away – with video and audio. The first thing they do is invite the audience in, including them, acknowledging them up front, and making it clear they are part of a conversation.

    How do they do this?

    During those crucial first minutes as everyone is signing in, connecting to audio, getting situated, they invite people to turn on cameras and they welcome each person by name, wishing them a ‘Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening’ (thoughtful of their time zone) and then pausing, giving time for a response – a brief exchange.

    Videos start to fill the screen. People who might have planned to remain passive listeners become active contributors to the call. There may still be a few who choose not to, or are unable, but once a majority is achieved, the tide turns, and everyone feels more compelled to show up and engage.

    And it doesn’t end there. They plan the flow of the call ahead of time to ensure regular opportunities for active participation. There are questions or activities at thoughtful intervals, but also peppered throughout to keep it lively. Audiences are asked regularly to reflect or respond and don’t have time to get complacent.
  1. They make eye contact and speak conversationally. It feels, as an audience member, like they are looking right at us from across a table and speaking to or even with us, not at us.

    How do they do this?

    They set their camera up at eye level so that they are looking straight ahead, not up or down. In their background, we see the wall – and possibly shelves, photos, books, plants – behind them, not the floor or ceiling, as if we are seated across the desk or table from them. The “barrier” of the screen is invisible. It feels “real”.

    They keep all the content they want to refer to (slides, notes, audience video, chat) in the immediate periphery of their camera. Other screens are used for auxiliary information, but anything essential is easily accessible without looking away.

    Their discourse is engaging and feels authentic and audience focused. It allows for natural give and take, with room for audience members to speak up and contribute.

    They do not rely on a script, and their use of notes – if any – is minimal and does not cause disconnect. There may be some fillers that creep in, but not enough to clutter their speech pattern because they have practiced out loud. This means that they are familiar with the flow of the message – the key points they need to land and the phrasing with greatest impact – and they deliver it fluidly. It is not perfect, which again makes it feel real, but if they misspeak or can’t find a word, they move on and don’t draw attention.
  1. They pay close attention to their audience and use every piece of information. They manage the conversation like an orchestra conductor, drawing in a variety of voices and ensuring optimal contribution.

    How do they do this?

    They use names to bring people in and make it feel more personal. This is easier if they have checked the pronunciation of these names at the start of the call – or asked the audience to replace any usernames or email addresses with the name they wish to be called.

    When two people start talking at once, they give way to one and then come back to the other. They pay attention to those who have taken themselves off mute and encourage them to take the next step and share their thought. They notice when someone laughs or smiles knowingly and use that to invite new voices into the conversation.

    They make the absolute most of the limited audience information they have.

    Again, it is about the set-up; they put their audience front and center – i.e. on their main screen, right under the camera. This way, they can check in regularly with what the audience is doing and how they are reacting, without looking away. They watch faces, movements, and mute signs to create the best possible balance of voices.

    If someone puts a comment into the chat, they may call it out and possibly even ask the person to expound. These written threads get woven into the larger conversation seamlessly.

    When people speak, they listen. They respond thoughtfully to each contribution and, where possible, tie in to key themes. And because they have listened, they can refer back to these comments at later points in ways that make the audience feel acknowledged and the conversation, interconnected.

There is an art to this. It is not easy; it takes effort, planning, and focus. But when it is done well, it is captivating and memorable.

It comes back to one of our favorite quotes at The Latimer Group, which comes from George Washington Carver, “When you do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.