A decade ago, executives and their teams worked in the same location. Meetings took place in person. There were no smart phones, so no one took a phone call during a meeting unless it was practically a matter of life and death. The result was that people actually had to pay attention during meetings (or at least pretend to). For today’s turbo-paced executives, those days seem as antiquated as the horse and buggy.
Globalization and a rise in virtual workplaces have given companies and their workers more flexibility, but they’ve also created new challenges, particularly when it comes to communication. Executives must figure out how to successfully lead initiatives when their teams are physically located in different cities, states, and countries.
Conference calls and video conferences can help bridge the distance. But although these electronic connections are great for sharing information, they’re not so effective at helping people actually comprehend it. Participants “listen” while typing, checking email, surfing the web, or texting friends and colleagues. The audio quality may be poor and transmission delays can disrupt the normal flow of conversation. It’s a frenetic and fractured environment, full of constant distractions and devoid of the non-verbal cues humans depend on to interpret others’ meaning.
Under such circumstances, how can leaders possibly be effective at aligning, motivating, and inspiring their teams around a common purpose?
Here are 10 proven strategies to ensure your key initiatives don’t get lost in transmission:
1. Start with face-to-face communication and work backward. Even in an age of constant communication, we save our most important messages for in-person, one-on-one conversations. This is the gold standard—an environment that allows for focus, nuance, and a rich source of verbal and non-verbal cues. The more critical the message to a particular audience, the closer you should keep to the gold standard. One step down is one-to-group communication: consider a road show or a town meeting where you can gather most employees in a room live and connect other locations via video feed. Next best is one-to-group via broadcast—a live interactive webcast for example. Further back from the gold standard is the conference call, and further still, the broadcast email.
2. Focus on your audience’s agenda, not your own. In any type of communication, your message should always start with what your audience cares about most. If what you’re saying doesn’t resonate with your audience within the first few minutes, you’ve lost them—especially if they can be doing five other things while you’re talking. A key exercise we do with our clients is to have them put themselves in their audience’s shoes and ask themselves, “So what?” If you’re not answering that question, start again from the perspective of your audience and talk about what’s in it for them.
3. Get to the point. Articulate your “So what” message in crisp, jargon-free language that grabs the audience’s attention and makes them sit up and want to know more. We call this “The Big Idea.” It’s that one key nugget or central idea that instantly makes clear why what you’re saying matters and how it’s relevant to your audience. Keep your Big Idea short—25 words or less. This will force you keep you message clear and clutter free.
4. Establish a consistent, personalized communication plan. As one executive we’ve worked with put it, “Calls and video conferences are great for sound bites, but they don’t let you delve into an issue or build the personal relationships that help you get things done.” Set up a regular schedule for group communication so everyone knows there’s a forum where they can share information with you directly. Don’t cancel or reschedule a session unless absolutely necessary, because consistency builds trust. Back up your group communications with individual calls, face-to-face meetings whenever possible, and personalized touches, such as handwritten notes.
5. Use your voice as an instrument. When we’re engaged in conversation, we naturally use our voices to communicate meaning. Our inflection changes, our volume goes up and down, we pause and speed up depending on what we’re saying and feeling. These variations in voice help keep a listener’s interest. Listening to someone speak in a monotone is bad enough when you’re in the same room; it’s deadly when you’re listening remotely. If your vocal delivery is lifeless, halting, or hard to understand, you can bet that people on the other end of the phone aren’t paying attention. For an interesting, lively delivery, avoid reading from notes or slides and stand up to keep your energy high.
6. Give yourself the gift of feedback. The higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get honest, direct feedback, so give it to yourself. Use a digital recorder or video camera to record yourself delivering a presentation or kicking off a meeting. You’ll see and hear yourself as others do. Note what you like about your delivery, then note what you want to work on. Do you speak clearly, with energy and conviction? Do you look down at your papers or make eye contact with the camera? Do you have distracting mannerisms or vocal tics, like nervous coughing, licking your lips, or repeating filler words like “like,” “you know,” “kind of.” Practice and re-record until you’re happy with your delivery.
7. Pay attention to how you look. As companies increasingly rely on videoconferencing, executives need to think about how they look on camera, much as news anchors do. Some tips: good posture is key, whether sitting or standing. A buttoned jacket looks better than an unbuttoned jacket. Solids are easier on the eye than busy patterns, which “pixilate” or seem to be moving on camera. Keep accessories simple and nondistracting. A little lipstick goes a long way, as does a relaxed and friendly expression. And a word to the wise: just because you’re not speaking doesn’t mean others can’t see you! So watch the fidgeting, sliding down in your chair, whispering to the person next to you, or checking your phone.
8. Establish rules of the road. No matter how clear the connection, distance dilutes meaning. Send out an agenda in advance. Make sure someone is responsible for taking notes during the call, capturing details about who has responsibility for what, expected outcomes, and timelines. Post the notes in a centralized online file so everyone has access to it. Keep background noise to a minimum by asking people to keep their phones on mute unless they’re speaking. Agree to keep the meeting going when people dial in late, rather than stopping to greet them or to recap the discussion.
9. Select a moderator. If it’s not you, note on the agenda who will facilitate the conversation, and what their responsibilities as facilitator will be. The moderator should introduce topics and encourage discussion by soliciting opinions and using people’s names. They should also “direct traffic” by letting everyone know who has the floor (i.e., “Mary, can you handle that question from Jeff?”). Having a moderator will help to manage the chaos, while also ensuring that everyone participates.
10. Make sure the room is speaker- and audience-friendly. Video conference rooms are often set up so the audiences can see each other. The problem is, if someone is delivering a presentation, he has to turn his back on the live audience to see the video monitors. Think of video conference monitors as another member of the live audience; they should be positioned where the main speaker or the person leading the meeting can easily see and talk to them. Avoid a podium if possible…it adds yet another barrier between the speaker and the audience. Finally, test the sound on the main speaker phone. Like a boring vocal delivery, a muffled or static-filled connection will cause listeners to tune out.
Finally, if you’re in a high-visibility, high-stakes position where you must engage and galvanize others to drive results (and what business leader isn’t?) consider hiring a coach. As top athletes know, coaching can help you refine your technique so you can lead more effectively, no matter how far flung your team. The process will help you acquire the self awareness and expertise you need to become a confident, powerful communicator who is able to engage any audience, whether in the same room or half a world away.
Understanding how to properly deliver messages to your virtual team is essential in a global economy. Use AMA's resources to further develop your communication skills as a leader.