Interviews

Optimizing the Online Experience

Published: July 1, 2020

Brad Phillips (Throughline Group, USA)

Brad Phillips (Throughline Group, USA)

Good advice on high-impact strategies is welcome at a time when you are expected to lead or engage with others almost exclusively through online platforms. Brad Phillips, CEO of Throughline Group and a former journalist, delivers invaluable insights for standing out and staying attentive as we increasingly work and live online during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the days to come. Throughline Group is a media and presentation training firm with offices in New York, New York, and Washington, D.C., USA.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are still living under some degree of lockdown and working remotely. What general advice do you have for those whose interactions with colleagues are now entirely virtual?
“Zoom fatigue”—a term that has gone mainstream during the pandemic—is real. Think of the contrast between in-person and remote meetings. When you participate in an in-person meeting, all eyes in the room tend to be directed toward the person speaking, essentially allowing listeners to be “off camera.” But that dynamic doesn’t exist in the Zoom world. When you’re a box on a screen, you can easily feel like you’re always “on,” preventing you from ever being able to relax.

Several additional factors are at play. Technological glitches, such as short delays, can lead to unnatural and stilted conversations. Group chats can be more chaotic than collaborative. The many faces on the screen require your brain to do a lot of additional work, as we humans register nonverbal cues far more naturally in person than in the virtual world. And we’re also focused on how we look—our physical appearance, our framing, and our backgrounds.

Given all that, the overarching advice is to ask yourself whether every video call needs to be a video call. Would it work better over Slack or another collaboration platform? Would a simple phone call result in a more focused conversation? Don’t be afraid to suggest that cameras can be turned off for some meetings, or for some portions of meetings. Our pre-pandemic world didn’t depend solely upon face-to-face communication, and our new reality shouldn’t depend on it, either. Reducing the number of video meetings will help us all appear fresher during the ones that remain.

For the video calls that remain, give your eyes and brain a break by tweaking the settings. Instead of accepting the default view, which displays many different attendees, try speaker view, which highlights the person speaking and fades other people into the background. You can also select “Hide Myself,” which prevents you from being distracted by your own appearance but allows others to see you.

People are spending much of their day in virtual meetings. How do you set yourself apart and stand out from others in this environment?
There are two ways to approach this question. There’s the person running the meeting and those who are attending it. Numerous polls tell us that participants are distracted while virtual meetings are taking place. One memorable survey conducted by Intercall, the world’s largest conference and collaborations service provider, found that 55 percent of people admitted to eating or making food during conference calls!

So, if you are running the meeting, establish a start and end time and stick to it. That means you need to create a specific agenda and provide a clear sense of what you hope to achieve by the end of the call. For instance, if you are tackling a big project, a meeting that covers all the points would be a long, ineffective marathon. Instead, schedule a series of shorter meetings, each with a narrower focus on a few key points and clear calls to action.

 

Our pre-pandemic world didn’t depend solely upon face-to-face communication, and our new reality shouldn’t depend on it, either.

Limit the invite list to only those who can best deliver upon those goals, and actively moderate the session so that everything keeps moving. Before the meeting, establish how you will be accepting comments or questions. Will they come at the end? Throughout the meeting? Only in the chat window?

Another key principle for meeting leaders and participants is to “break the pattern.” We humans acclimate quickly to and tune out from unchanging stimuli—think of Ben Stein’s famously monotone character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—so we need to break patterns regularly to retain or regain audience attention.

In the virtual world, that might mean using interactive devices such as surveys, inviting participants to raise a virtual hand to ask a question, showing a brief video clip, sharing your screen to show a visual or chart, or doing a “lightning round” to ask each person on the call to offer an opinion on the key matter at hand in 30 seconds or less.

Few people wish meetings would last longer, so attendees can stand apart by coming into the meeting with prepared (but conversational sounding) talking points. Before the meeting, they should practice making their points, expressing their concerns, and making their case as efficiently as possible. That may seem like overkill, but the alternative is doing more thinking in real-time, extending the meeting length and potentially reducing the impact of your words.

What are some ways to overcome “meeting fatigue” and get your message across?
Unless your job requires you to be available immediately for non-urgent matters, block a few hours on your calendar each day. Perhaps you mark the late morning and early afternoon as “unavailable” for meetings, allowing you to maintain a solid window of non-Zoom, productive hours.

If you’re working from home, put on a mask and go for a walk or run in between video calls.

I’ve also found one additional tactic to be especially helpful, even if it’s not specifically about meeting fatigue: Each day, I block out one hour to return emails, usually in the late afternoon, and use that time to do an “email marathon” while listening to 1980s music. That allows me to respond to messages in a timely manner without feeling like I’m being held hostage to every ping in my inbox. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a little Prince to get them through the workday?

In terms of getting your message across, all the fundamentals of in-person presenting apply virtually, but two items gain even greater importance.

First, there is a large body of research that suggests humans remember visuals far longer than they remember words. Rather than slides filled with words, you can use visuals to get your messages across. The visuals shouldn’t always be obvious. Visual metaphors and analogies that don’t make sense without your spoken explanation build anticipation from your audience, which will want to know how that image connects to your topic. (You can learn how to create captivating visual metaphor slides here.)

 

Humans remember visuals far longer than they remember words.

Second, stories—which include first-person anecdotes, personal a-ha! moments, case studies, and concrete examples—are particularly effective when sharing messages intended to offer a recommendation, express values, or make the abstract concrete. Because our brains are naturally wired for narrative, stories tend to regain attention from those who were busy sneaking a peek at their phones.

Spokespeople are also taking media interviews virtually. Speaking to the press can be daunting unto itself. How can a spokesperson effectively navigate a high-stakes interview under these unique circumstances?
It’s useful to remember that remote interviews are nothing new. For many decades, media guests have been ushered into empty studios, told to look into a camera, and asked to answer questions heard through an earpiece from an anchor thousands of miles away.

Of course, when working from your home office or work desk, you must act as your own technician and set designer.

One of the more important elements you should consider is what you have going on behind you. If you are giving media interviews from your home, makeshift, thrown-together backdrops are not going to cut it. As proof, just look at the many reporters, anchors, and other media guests who have created nice studio backgrounds in their homes. Their impressive example has set a higher expectation.

Paying attention to those details doesn’t have to be a costly endeavor, but it should be thoughtful. At a minimum, you should clear your desktop and clear out crowded, messy bookshelves behind you. Remove any object that could distract your audience. Stick to only a few books, perhaps, and some tasteful objects—photos, artwork, memorabilia—that either speak to who you are or what you do. You can also incorporate subtle branding into your design—maybe an institutional logo or backdrop.

 

Shorter is better in the virtual world.

Your laptop camera should be at eye level so the audience is not looking up your nose. If the desk, table, or pile of books your laptop is resting on shakes when you gesture, adjust the setup so it is secure. Close all your other apps or windows so you don’t have a notification popping up in the middle of an interview.

As for the substance of the interview, the rules remain the same as any engagement with the press: draft engaging messages, bolster them with compelling examples and statistics, and anticipate the more challenging questions you might receive. One other trick of the trade might be useful: picture a specific member of the audience with whom you’re speaking and speak through the reporter to that person. That doesn’t mean you should evade questions, but you should answer them in a context that makes sense to your envisioned audience member.

We’re all currently grappling with very sensitive issues and a lot of uncertainty. Whether it’s speaking to the media, or even to your staff or attendees at an industry conference, how should we talk about things like an organization’s future plans, the impact of the pandemic, or racial injustice and other issues?
No one has all the answers. But that shouldn’t prevent you from delivering to the audience substantive, credible, and reassuring messages that matter most.

There’s a simple framework to do that. I see it as a three-part approach: purpose, process, and commitment. What’s your purpose—why do you do what you do? What’s your process—how do you intend to approach decisions? What’s your commitment—to your employees, clients, and the public?

As examples:

  • You can’t guarantee there won’t be layoffs or cutbacks due to the pandemic. But you can commit to doing everything possible to maintain the workforce, including letting expensive leases lapse and allowing more employees to work from home.
  • You can’t fix all the problems that have disadvantaged some communities from advancing in certain career fields. In the past, I heard many employers complain about pipeline issues that prevented them from considering a large enough pool of minority candidates. But many employers now recognize that those excuses, rationalizations, and reasons from the past no longer cut it. Even without all the answers, they can commit to taking concrete steps to create a better pipeline, for example, by strengthening and deepening their relationships with local universities and law schools.

One of the best acronyms I’ve come across is TBU—true but useless. As you develop responses to tough questions, put them to the TBU test. If your response sounds like a TBU, keep working until you’ve landed on an answer that more directly addresses your company’s purpose, process, and commitment.

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of this article, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.

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