April 29, 2020

At work, would you prefer to be Bugs Bunny or Steve Jobs? Prep and mindset give you the choice

Writing from the heart of the 2020 pandemic, the work world has shifted massively to virtual interactions. In most cases that means audio and video and sometimes only audio. In any case, all the standard dynamics are disrupted and dangerous new pitfalls are created. Read on to see how you can adapt and win when you must be virtual.

Virtual is Different and Dangerous

Dealing powerfully with virtual gatherings requires a strategy rethink for the rising executive. Beware! Walking blithely into a video gathering with no prep and no mindset is like walking up to a downed powerline. Don’t get shocked.

Let’s start with key observations about the changes and then develop a few policies and strategies. Many professionals neglect their perceived communication and presence. This is an article for those who seeking incremental advantages. And the disruption of going online is a great opportunity to show superior potential.

Presence. Virtual players can easily present as cartoons with no more gravitas or authority than Bugs Bunny or Wile E Coyote! The higher your position relative to others in the gathering the more you risk appearing ridiculous on line. Prep and plan to avoid this.

  • Your aim should be to appear and sound better or equal to anyone else on the call. This generally means dressing for the office and maybe adding a jacket to your look (same benefits for men and women).
  • Notice your relative size in the frame. Ideally we’ll see from head to elbows. Too close and even the smallest detail of your face will invite attention. Talking heads are off-putting and creepy. Too small and you’ll look alone and isolated. It should be possible to get your hands into the frame.
  • It’s important to be MORE EXPRESSIVE than live. Think of how you modulate your voice when talking to a child (or even the dog). Now get ready to apply some of the same flexibility in people meetings. But for people instead of silly talk it will be savvy talk. Instead of cute it will be occasionally dramatic when you need to mention a risk, a deadline, or an urgent topic. Try to remember that you have eyebrows and you can control them. Involve your hands but don’t move them toward the lens.
  • Hand-offs and meeting management. Learn to narrate the transitions explicitly and frequently re-orient to the agenda and process of the meeting. This is needed because of all the distraction and "noise" in the medium.

Interface. Interface meaning all the windows, gadgets and buttons involved in presenting a virtual gathering. Meeting, presentation, pitch, status updates, etc. all feel differently in virtual.

  • Get familiar with your virtual meeting tool. Learn the key features and how you might deploy them to advantage. Only those who look ahead and beyond are actually in the leadership game! At the very least, knowing the platform let's you complain intelligently when it glitches, and it will. Ideally, you'll be able to specify or request usage of the tool features that boost your effectiveness and reflects favorably on the meeting as a whole.
  • Try a separate plug-in webcam. Many laptop built-in cameras and microphones are bad quality. Plus with a discrete hardware camera you’ll have flexibility with it’s position and probably more settings control over the video processor for color, contrast, brightness, etc.
  • Arrange superior lighting. Badly lit video can get very grainy or pixelated; Makes you look like a pretender.
  • The shot: avoid leaning back and forward! The camera will greatly exaggerate your motion when you lean closer or further. Don’t be a cartoon!
  • Practice rapid mute/unmute so you won’t be caught looking clumsy. Gaffes kill your power. Hint: Space-bar in Zoom unmutes like a push-to-talk mic.
  • Controlling others virtually is much more difficult. Don’t rely on perfect execution and do expect errors. Be ready with humor, encouragement, and even a (small) tease if needed.

What are the Stakes? Aim High if You Can

Please reflect on the importance of the gathering. Casual news can be presented in more relaxed fashion, but still aim to always appear with superior “production values” if possible. If the topic is critical or urgent, also consider your inherent authority level, the audience count, and number of downward levels to be attending. CEO addressing an all-hands is maximum stakes. You checking in with your team is lower unless you’re in the C-suite which is volatile. Don’t give any ammunition to rivals or enemies.

It's not the size of the bird it's the size of the chirp

When stakes are high, choreography comes into play. Ideally you will build an agenda around your message and your meeting priorities. You’ll have someone planned to introduce your segment of the gathering, perhaps under the guise of monitoring feedback and questions. It wouldn’t hurt to consider pre-recording any part of the message that needs precise delivery and flair. If you’re going live consider using 2-3 “props” or visual tools to capture your key points or dramatize your issue. Practice and get feed back. Some common mistakes are to go too long, to make illegible props, and to botch presenting the legible props. Hold a prop like a cherished family air loom in a frozen position at the level of your head and a bit closer to the camera than your face. Keep it frozen for about seven seconds.

Run the Meeting Like a High-Level Moderator

Remember, for others, you’ll essentially be on television. That means distractions and temptations supersede your presence. They might have a cat, a child, coffee, emails and internet. This means you’ll allocate more time and energy to keeping the group focused. Check out Ryan Seacrest on American Idol. Notice how we doesn’t just announce the coming and going of contestants. Instead he facilitates the excitement, suspense, and drama. He does that by re-stating where we are in the event, what’s at stake and what we remember and like or fear about what might come next. Be Ryan! The best way to be boring is to stick strictly to the minimum remarks, to stay flat and calm in your voice and face. Boring kills energy and effectiveness. Look at what network news presenters do with voice, intonation, pacing and facial expression. Eyebrows! Welcome to the media age.

You need not always script the words but you should story-board the sequence of the gathering at least in your own mind. Then recruit a colleague or assistant to help guide the sequence. The helper can assist with muting, transitions, and honoring the agenda.

What They Don’t know is Good for You

Once in a tense negotiation back in pre-video days, I sat with lawyers and began negotiating a complex deal. Tensions were high when suddenly, about 15 minutes in, an assistant in our meeting room tripped over cables and broke the connection. Some of the conferencing hardware hit the floor. We quickly pulled ourselves together, re-arranged the hardware and reconnected. I was glad I wouldn’t need to explain or patch the meeting back together! That was the attorney’s job. And as soon as the remote group came on line he almost shouted, “Hey, what the hell happened? You guys just disappeared!” Result, the other side is on the defensive and we finish strongly.

Don’t let happenstance, bad luck, or fickle networks throw you on the defensive and don’t apologize. Carry on with purpose. Notice also that nobody can see your notes. Tape them to the side of the screen if it helps.

Things will Break and Your Reaction is Critical

In any gathering the leader is responsible for audience value, safety, and productivity. It follows that any big virtual glitch, delay, mis-step, etc. needs to be accepted and acknowledge by the leader. When somebody drops off the meeting, when the beach background goes wacky, when dogs bark and all the rest you’ll smoothly comment and redirect attention to the meeting priorities. Humor is usually good, but critical remarks are toxic. Always comment in language that assumes positive intention and sincere effort no matter how goofy the distraction. If you show irritation at any point, all the participants will immediately increase their defenses as they fear that irritation might be directed at them.

Go Virtual Bravely

After some practice, you’ll find virtual discipline can be easier than live. The secret is to leverage the narrow “bandwidth” in your favor. Also you leverage the novelty of virtual by being among the smooth operators who confidently take charge and assist others in feeling productive, safe, and recognized. Praise is hard to over-do in novel situations.

There’s an old saying in Silicon Valley: “Chaos equals opportunity.” Going 100% virtual is a lot of chaos and it's stressing everyone. Rise above and you'll be more like Steve Jobs and less like Bugs Bunny. Let the advent of virtual gatherings be your opportunity to continue rising and become the goto executive for new challenges.

This article is adapted from the upcoming book "Take 1: Power Moves for Rising Executives," scheduled for release in June of 2020 by Roy Terry

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About the author 

Roy Terry

Roy Terry is the founder and principal consultant for Words & Presence, a leadership training and coaching practice in Silicon Valley, California.

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