Sunday, 10 February 2013

Hanging on the telephone: learning about communicating virtually

This week I listened in on a webinar session, entitled "Who are you talking to?"

It was billed as a chance to learn about communication in a virtual environment. I was excited: it's something I do a lot of, working for a company with headquarters in California and with remote members of team based both in the UK and abroad.

I have to say, on the whole I was fairly disappointed. It's expected that if I sign up for something free, or hosted by a sponsor, that I'll have to hear a little bit about that sponsor. But really, to set up a training session where 50% (20 min of a 45 min session) is a sales pitch is taking the proverbial.

There really wasn't much consideration of how to use communication techniques in a virtual environment. What I was hoping for was something that would consider how to compensate for the absence of body language cues, how to help establish common ground, or how to tackle flow when there are several people all trying to speak at once. It's really easy to be in a bad conference call, where people can't hear what is being said, or where everyone is trying to speak and good communication gets lost as a result. 

Ironically a good quarter of that 45 minutes was spent sharing feedback on what visual cues to look for in communication: so if the person you're talking to is looking up they're a big picture/visual thinker, looking to the side an auditory thinker (they apparently look at their ears), and looking down a kinaesthetic thinker. In a webinar environment there is no verbal cue: that would have been an interesting discussion to get into. Even on video conference this can be almost impossible, since screen resolutions or camera/screen size make it difficult to see more than a rough outline of the people in the room. I would love to come across more relevant advice/reading/training on how to do virtual meetings really well.

What it did do was reinforce some general good communications practice, such as thinking about your sphere of influence (Covey's seven habits) and how to use that sphere of control available to you to build a wider circle of influence. I also liked the trainer (Lynne Copp, founder of the Worklife Company): she consistently used a clear and varied tone that made the 45 minutes go quickly. She had some interesting ideas on using "words, music and dance", or in other words ensuring that body language and physical self have such a large impact on our ability to influence. I believe she said just 7% of our ability to influence is the words we use, the rest is all wrapped up in that frame of reference created by the "music and dance". 

It also reinforced some known truths about effective communication, which is never a bad thing: 

  1. Email is the worst form of communication. Ambiguity is so easy on email. Have a conversation face to face, or by phone. It's almost impossible to influence if you can't be in dialogue with that person. Email doesn't cut it.
  2. Unplanned attempts to influence will almost certainly fail. This was a point that really got drilled home to me on an excellent training course last month, where we spent two days considering personalities and how to influence these different types of people. You need to consider who it is you are talking to, how they think and what method of influence they are most likely to respond to.
  3. This in turn feeds the last important truth: two-way dialogue is key. They say that the majority of your time in influence should be spent listening, not talking. Get feedback, involve with open questions, and summarise the responses you hear. That all adds up to showing understanding, which in turn makes influence more likely.
Learning more about webinars is a focus for me this year, and I've already lined up some more reading to do on the subject. Two key takeaways for me from this particular webinar were:

  • Don't talk over each other. The webinar established this by only allowing input via Twitter or an online popup box - all attendees were muted. In a live meeting, another way to do this would be just to establish ground rules at the top of the meeting, and encourage people to be considerate to others on the call.
  • Use a varied tone of voice. I already mentioned how well Lynne did this on this particular webinar. It's important if you're the only person talking to do so with authority and keep the listening audience engaged.
I'm starting to compile more thoughts on running good webinars, and more on this to come.