“All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”
– Gloria Swanson (as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard)
At the risk of stating the obvious, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do business, including how we conduct meetings with employees, business, partners, and clients. Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and other virtual meeting platforms have moved from the side status of being another tool in the box to establishing themselves as the new norm when it comes to reaching out. With this new norm comes new challenges.
As part of our ongoing commitment to providing the best support for our advisors and clients, we’ve put together some tips about how make the most of a virtual setting when it comes to meeting with people. The personal connection with others isn’t the same through video chat as a face-to-face encounter but it’s still there. If you look for a new perspective, put in some practice, and get more comfortable with this new way of holding meetings, the connections will feel authentic and real.
Whether you’re okay with your virtual presence, completely at ease with making connections in the virtual space, or a reluctant adopter of virtual tools, we want to offer you some practical advice on how to make the most of your virtual meeting time. You’re about to go on stage (so to speak) and all eyes will be on you.
Think of your virtual meeting as a movie or stage production — set the scene for your virtual meeting production. Hold your meeting in a quiet space, with a background that isn’t distracting and doesn’t reveal anything overly personal. A cluttered bedroom or kitchen, complete with dirty dishes, a pile of laundry, or an unmade bed just doesn’t project that ideal image you want.
Being in a professional home office is the best scenario. It promotes a sense of being fully present in your meetings, free from distraction and able to give your undivided attention to the people you’re meeting with. Improve your set with plants or flowers, artwork, or bookcases — and try to avoid having open doors in your camera’s line of sight.
Many meeting platforms let you customize your background. This can be a good second choice if you don’t have a professional office. When choosing a virtual background, use something that isn’t distracting. Some of the better choices are actually the boring and bland offices or designs, or pictures of the buildings or grounds from your company’s headquarters. Whatever background you choose, the focus should be on you and not on what’s happening behind you.
Wardrobe and make-up
Put the same preparation into your virtual meetings as you would typically put into an appointment in an office — showering and shaving, applying make-up (if appropriate and desired), and styling your hair in a way that compliments how you show up on camera. It can be helpful to experiment with different hairstyles, make-up, and accessories to see how they play on camera. Don’t wear anything that’s too dangly or distracting, particularly large earrings that can be off-putting on camera or bracelets that make noise when you move your hand or arm.
If you would normally wear a suit for an in-person meeting, it may feel really out-of-sync or dislocating to dress in a full suit for a virtual meeting. After all, the person you’re interacting with knows you’re in a home office. Dress in a smart casual way — for example, a collared shirt or blouse, with either a jacket or dressy cardigan or sweater. For less formal meetings, you might go with just a collared shirt, blouse, or sweater. Avoid anything sleeveless or shirts with a low V-neck.
Most subtle patterns show up well on camera, but stripes or especially bright or busy patterns can be distracting. Wearing all white or all black can also make the brightness adjustment difficult and could make it harder to see your face. You may want to try different colors and patterns and judge what works for you.
And fully dress — top to bottom — for virtual meetings. You never know when something unexpected may happen and you need to stand up quickly. If you’re wearing something on your bottom half that isn’t appropriate for a professional meeting (like your favourite lounging pajamas covered in cartoon characters … or, Heaven forbid, just your underwear!), you may regret that decision.
Something to keep in mind … The effort you put into your appearance isn’t just about how you look or the image you create. It’s also about how you feel, and the energy and self-confidence you bring to a virtual meeting. If you feel confident, you’ll project a real sense of professionalism. That authenticity is what matters most when it comes to creating connections with others.
When considering audio quality, think about the acoustics in the room where you’re having meetings. Hardwood floors and bare walls can create echoes and feedback, which can make your voice sound tinny or sharp. Adding a rug to the room can help reduce any echo and add warmth to your voice quality.
Many of us may have rolling chairs in our office. This can be a problem if you have hard floors — the sound of a rolling chair can be absolutely thunderous in a virtual meeting. Either keep your chair still during a call, or make sure you have a rug under your chair to mute the sound.
When it comes to lighting, make sure bright light isn’t coming from directly behind you. Lighting from behind hides your face in shadows — no one can see your expressions or eyes. If you do have a window behind you, avoid venetian blinds or plantation shutters, as they will disrupt your camera’s automatic light adjustments. A shade or curtain works best.
A general rule of thumb is to not mix light sources. Using natural light from a window in front of you or just off to your side may work well, but you won’t want to add artificial light sources to that. The best source of light would be artificial LED light coming from behind or just next to your camera and be angled directly towards your face.
Your camera lens is a bridge between you and your audience, so make sure you keep it clean and well-positioned. For an ideal shot, you’ll want to keep your video slightly above eye level and on an even plain, so that you are looking straight at the lens. If the camera is pointed up, it feels like you’re looming over the other meeting participants, and if it’s pointing down, you may look small or childlike. You should also position your camera just slightly more than arm’s length away. That’s the typical distance we keep between ourselves when talking to each other in person, and it’s comfortable for virtual interaction as well. It also helps you avoid having your head look oversized and out of context.
Make sure your audio and video are off before you join a meeting. Just like you might take a minute to collect and compose yourself before walking into a meeting, wait until you can project your most professional self before turning on your mic and camera. You may even want to do a quick virtual practice run before so you can make sure everything is set up the way you want it. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it a strong and composed one.
Establishing good quality eye contact in a virtual meeting is so powerful. Through eye contact, we let other people know that we’re in the moment with them, and that they have our undivided attention. In a virtual meeting, that means focusing your gaze into the camera between 40 and 60% of the time, which is the recommendation for making eye contact in person as well. You need to resist the urge to look down to your computer screen — it may take some practice.
Try putting a pair of eyes (drawn on paper, not real ones!) just above your camera lens, or maybe try attaching a picture someone’s face, someone you love or respect, just behind your camera. It can make you feel like you’re talking to someone when you look into the camera. Minimize your video window when in a virtual meeting and arrange it in the top center of your screen so that when you do break eye contact and look down at the other meeting participants your gaze will stay in the realm of the camera and your focus will feel closer to them when you aren’t looking directly into the camera.
Non-verbal cues are equally important in virtual meetings as they are for in-person meetings. Great seated posture comes through in a virtual meeting the same way it does in person --- it should be as if you have a string tied to the top of your head, pulling you up. For virtual meetings, keep your shoulders down, relaxed and squared directly toward the camera. If you are facing even slightly away, it suggests you’re distracted by something else. Keep your elbows off your desk, and don’t slump over or slouch, even though it can be tiring when you have multiple virtual meetings over the course of a day. Try not to cross your arms in front of you — it can make you seem closed off and resistant to the conversation.
Using occasional gestures can make your presence feel more multi-dimensional. Just make sure they’re intentional, a little slower than usual (too much quick movement can look jerky), and appropriate. Keep your movements relaxed and open. Consider showing the palms of your hands — this can signal credibility and openness. Don’t clasp your hands too tightly in front of you or wring your hands; both can be interpreted as nervousness.
It can be incredibly distracting to have both video of other people and yourself on display in front of you. So, truly being engaged is an important point. Using verbal affirmations (things like “Umm hmm,” “Sure,” “Yes” can be tricky because your audio may cut the other speaker off, or you may be muted). Nodding your head to give affirmation, smiling when in agreement, and tilting you head slightly to show that you are listening can be great non-verbal cues that show you are engaged and focused, but won’t interrupt other participants.
One last thing to remember is your voice. Your overall speech patterns become much more noticeable when some of the other physical cues of face-to-face interaction are missing. Pay attention to the volume of your speech — you’re projecting alone in a room. Keep your volume to normal conversational levels. Also, your inflection, the rise and fall of your voice, can reveal confidence or uncertainty, depending on your pitch and tone. If you use falling inflection at the end of a sentence, your statement comes across with greater power and confidence. Rising inflection, a speech pattern of rising tone, sounds like a series of questions and makes you seem uncertain about what you’re saying.
Be sure to speak slowly, maybe even more slowly than you would for face-to-face interaction. When virtual meetings are littered with filler words (known as discourse markers — such as “Um,” or “Uh,” or “like”), the … uh … message can … like … lose its … um … effectiveness. The only sure-fire way to cut down on filler words is by slowing down, taking deep breaths, and being prepared.
That’s a wrap
These are just a few ways you can improve your professional presence when holding video conferences and virtual meetings. Using these tips can help increase your confidence, and create more authentic connections with clients, colleagues, and people of influence. Virtual interaction is a way to connect when physical presence isn’t possible, a way to expand the reach and scope of building and maintaining relationships. Our capacity for connection in the world today truly is amazing.
If you’re an advisor, you can receive continuing education credit by logging into our CE Centre on Repsource and watching a series of short videos that give an in-depth look at how to develop your professional presence and brand in a virtual world: Repsource > Training > CE Centre > Learning Series > Manulife Presents.
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