Moving from face-to-face meetings to online has been a challenge for many small businesses. From choosing what platform to use to deciphering platforms’ jargon, online meetings have presented more worries that are more than just the typical nervousness you might feel before giving an important business presentation.
To help you make better connections virtually, we asked communication expert Kellie McCord of Toastmasters International to share her tips on how to really connect with people in online meetings.
The biggest challenge
The singlr biggest obstacle, that is far greater than the above challenges for business owners, has been: ‘How to connect with an online audience?’
With technological advancements, people have been concerned with how much gadgets have taken over all aspects of our social and personal lives. With online subscriptions and a variety of apps we no longer have to leave the comfort of our homes to watch a film, to shop, to bank and to speak to our friends.
Our workplaces were where everyone in the team interacted, in person, on a day-to-day basis, but because of the pandemic, many of us are working from home, and with that, many have felt somewhat isolated and people’s need for connection has been amplified.
Of course, many people have been enjoying working from the comforts of their home, as it offers them many freedoms – no work clothes, no rush-hour commute and no pre-packed lunches – because of the lack of human contact, people are craving connection, and so are now yearning to be back at the work space.
Perhaps one group that has been particularly overlooked are young people, who have taken up their first job. Part of their ‘unspoken training’ is learning from those in the office. If they have a question, they can turn to the person next to them and ask.
If they are unsure of how to communicate with clients on the phone, they can listen in on their colleagues, and adapt it for themselves. And, more crucially, if they are having problems – personal or professional – they can reach out and talk to someone, who is more often than not, removed from the situation.
Achieving meaningful communication with employees and customers
All of this puts an even bigger pressure on small businesses to make every opportunity to communicate a meaningful one, for both employees and customers/clients.
How can businesses achieve this?
By creating connection with their online audience.
Immediately, many begin to sweat, as the thought of connecting online seems impossible. Surely, as long as the internet connection is good and you have a decent camera and mic, then that is enough?
Getting the technical set-up is helpful in ensuring a high-quality online meeting or presentation, but it does not mean that the online audience will feel connected. Without this connection, businesses may lose their customers/clients and alienate their colleagues.
To avoid this, it is essential that the idea of speaking online is positioned differently. Rather than seeing it as a barrier; or as inferior to face-to-face, remember the old adage that our eyes are windows to our souls. In this situation a screen becomes a window into someone’s world. We can now take a peek into the home lives of the people we are talking to. This is actually a great way to connect on a deeper personal and professional level – if you allow it.
7 Tips to better connect with an online audience
Tip 1 – Be real
Be real! One of the reasons that video games and online streaming of TV shows and films has become big business is because of how real it looks. The challenge then is to make an online meeting, presentation or talk, as authentic as possible, and not fake.
What does that look like for the online business meeting?
Despite the temptation to use your chosen platform’s plethora of virtual backgrounds, do not do it. Even if they have some sophisticated backgrounds, such as: an office, a library, a study or coffee shop, it is far better to use your own background to create connection. This does not mean you air your dirty washing to the online public!
It’s imperative that your background is presentable by ensuring you have a clean, tidy backdrop. Equally, it is not a social occasion, so you do not want to showcase all your box-sets and gaming library. If possible, position yourself so that your living-room wall or study wall is in the background.
If you are sitting at a kitchen table, make sure that what’s behind you is clean and clear. Why? It helps your audience to connect with you, since they will focus on you and listen to you more attentively; whereas, if you have a beautiful handmade cake in the background, they will probably be fixated on that.
Similarly, if you have a pile of dirty dishes, they may start wondering whether you typically have dishes left in the sink; or, it may remind them of their own dirty dishes, and so their minds will wonder to all their own domestic chores.
Now, although a neutral, plain background is the best, if you have photos up, do not feel the need to remove them (unless they are inappropriate), or turn them around. Photos can make people feel relaxed because it makes it humanises the situation.
In fact, it gives potential clients a slice of your life, and so can create connections that you could not achieve if you had held the meeting in an office or coffee shop. The same is true for other types of business meetings. It might show that you share similar interests or values, thus creating a stronger sense of unity, which will positively impact working relations.
Tip 2 – Be hospitable
With the above in mind, do not ignore your audience’s genuine, fundamental, in-the-moment needs.
What do I mean by this? Well, picture this: if you were running a workshop or seminar, what would you offer your audience?
Or, better still, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. If you attended a presentation, or meeting, what would you expect? Beverages. You would be hospitable to your guests, so they feel welcome and comfortable. Yet, people seem to feel uncomfortable sipping water over online meetings.
If you are chairing the meeting, start five minutes beforehand and ask your audience to make a quick cuppa’ or/and remind them to grab some water before the meeting commences, so they feel comfortable. This will create connection with your online audience, as they will feel that you care about their needs.
Speaking of basic human, universal pain-points, it lends itself to a more delicate matter. Comfort breaks. We have all attended meetings that seem to go on and on, with people losing focus because they desperately want to use the bathroom. The same is true for online business meetings.
If you do not want people getting up during a discussion, meeting or presentation, then make it clear that after 45 minutes to an hour, there will be a small comfort break. Even if you plan on having a short meeting, for instance 45 minutes long, make it clear when you are going to end the session, so that people are not left wondering when they will be able to relieve themselves. In turn, they are more likely to be willing to hold it until the end of the meeting, as they know when it will end.
Tip 3 – Respect people’s time
Whilst on the subject of time, make sure you respect your client’s, employees, colleagues and your own time. Just because the audience is online and sitting in the comfort of their own homes, it does not mean that running over is less of a problem. It is.
Running over is a sure way to break connection, as your audience will be left wondering when the session will end; if they will have enough time before the next call; if they will be able to complete all their tasks for the day.
Therefore, manage your time. If you begin to run over, acknowledge it and try to wrap up. That way your audience will feel respected and valued.
Tip 4 – Make the discussion relevant
Another key issue that many business owners have with online presentations and meetings, is knowing what to discuss. In person, it seems a little easier, as you can gauge the room; people are more likely to speak up.
Online, however, often seems to stop people from jumping in and interacting. This might be because of the formalities of being online. It makes sense when you consider that most people use a screen to listen and watch presenters.
It would be a bit odd to talk to your TV. Therefore, you can help create connection by preparing a little beforehand by setting up a poll to ascertain what people would like to discuss. By doing this, you can plan your meeting to cover most, if not all, of the points raised. It will also help you to plan your time and avoid running over.
More crucially, getting feedback will allow you to craft a meeting, or presentation, to make it relevant to your audience. This will help establish a rapport as your audience will feel understood and listened to.
What is more, if you are leading a meeting, or presentation, and it is not up for negotiation, then you could email an agenda to those attending. This primes people and manages their expectations, so they know what to expect and when. By doing this, you will allow your audience to concentrate better, since they will have an opportunity to mentally prepare.
Tip 5 – Use body language
Body language. We all know that non-verbal cues are important in conveying ideas and emotion. Yet, many feel uncomfortable and awkward moving and gesticulating online.
One of the reasons is that people feel an online business meeting or presentation requires you to be still because it looks professional and serious. However, this is not the case.
If you consider reporters, how much of their bodies do you see? It varies slightly, but it is typically a mid-shot, so that viewers can see their arms. This is so they can make gestures and move. This creates an intimate experience for their audience, even though they are talking to thousands, if not millions.
Don’t be afraid to move, it will make you come across as authentic, and make it easier for your audience to engage.
Tip 6 – Keep attention on your audience
Notes. We have all had that experience in a meeting when the presenter or speaker is constantly reading from their notes (or slides). How did it make you feel? It probably felt dull and frustrating, if you are being honest. This is because it beaks connection, as you are paying more attention to your notes than to your audience.
For an online meeting, it is even more important, since there is a close-up on the presenter, and so it is more apparent when they are not giving their attention to the online audience. So, to avoid reading from pages, make cue cards that remind you of what to say, but which do not take away your attention from your audience.
With that in mind, and I know it will seem counter-intuitive, do not look at the screen. This is because when you are looking at your screen, you may get to see all of the faces of your employees and clients, but you are not giving them eye-contact.
Instead, look into the camera, so that it appears as if you are making eye-contact. Instead of thinking of the camera as a camera, think of it as ‘the eyes of the audience’. By doing this, you are sure to create connection with your audience.
Tip 7 – Be interactive
One of the best ways for business owners to create connection with their audiences, is by being interactive. To make your business meetings engaging and interactive, you can do some of the following:
- Ask rhetorical questions to get your audience thinking;
- Ask for feedback;
- Ask for audience participation by encouraging them to demonstrate an idea, or to define a term;
- Ask the audience to imagine something;
- Create break-out rooms (if the software permits), so that members of the audience can discuss key aspects of the meeting.
Online business meetings, client calls and presentations can be a way for you to create greater connection with the audience(s) you currently have.
Perhaps even more interesting is that online business talks, seminars and summits, can be a way to connect to a larger audience, since you can, potentially, connect with more people, and network with a wider clientèle base.
Do not waste the opportunity to connect in a deeper and more meaningful – online may not be ‘in-person’, but it can still be personal.
About the author
This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Kellie McCord, a member of Toastmasters International, the not-for-profit educational organisation where Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. With 400+ clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland, find your local club at Toastmasters.org
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