Listen to the audio version of this post here.
Maybe you’ve seen this in one of those ubiquitous virtual meetings. You’re watching someone talking on Zoom or Teams or WebEx; they’re getting intense about what they’re saying.
Maybe they care deeply about the topic, or maybe they’re trying to head off disagreement.
Perhaps they’re the ones challenging what somebody else said.
You notice the change in their voice. It gets louder and sharper. You have an impulse to reach for the volume control to take the edge off.
Before long, their face is looming at you through your screen, getting bigger, like they’re closing in on you. It’s a little bit creepy, isn’t it?
What do you do? It’s instinctive to pull back, as you might in a real-life conversation with someone who stands too close and talks too loudly. You almost shut down in the face of that intensity.
Here’s a way to think about the way we use virtual platforms, so people aren’t pulling back from you.
Communication is always an exchange of energy, no matter where it happens.
That’s no less true when you’re speaking through a camera and microphone than it is when you’re in the room with people. You must bring energy to it if you want to be heard and understood, and certainly if you want to have any influence with the people listening.
If your energy is too low your voice might sound weak and thin. Your eyes are wandering, or settling on an image somewhere on your screen, or maybe elsewhere in the room. We have a sense that you’re only partly there. We feel you holding back.
How do we respond? Our own attention is likely to drift to something more engaging. We reach for our phone, check our email or social media. Or we just zone out and miss the message you’re trying to convey.
So yes, when you’re speaking on a virtual platform, you need to bring plenty of energy to the effort.
At the same time, it’s possible to over-do the energy. When that happens, we feel you pushing. There might be a sharpness in your voice, or simply too much volume. We see you leaning into the camera—it feels forced. It’s as if you’re trying too hard to be energetic.
Instead of being drawn in, we instinctively pull back.
How do you hit the right energetic note?
As long as we’ve been meeting virtually now, I still hear from people who find it challenging to make themselves heard. It just doesn’t feel natural, meeting this way, and they know they’re not having the impact they used to have when we all sat down at a conference table or in a big meeting room.
So, here are some practical suggestions. Along with one that you might consider a bit woo-woo—it’s worth playing with it anyway.
Center yourself in front of your camera, sitting up straight, or maybe standing. Many people feel more energized when they stand up. (If you don’t have a standing desk, you might try putting your laptop on an ironing board and adjusting the height so you’re looking straight into the camera.)
Get grounded—both feet flat on the floor, weight evenly balanced, drawing energy up into your body. If you’re seated, settle yourself squarely in the chair, so you’re not leaning on one hip or the other.
Straighten your spine. Drop your shoulders back and down. Align your head so it’s centered over your body and elongate the back of your neck slightly.
Relax your face and jaw. We’re often unaware of the tension we carry in those powerful jaw muscles. It can tighten the voice, so see if you can let that go. Might help to open your mouth wide and close … open and close … open and close.
Stay in touch with the back of you. Sense your back against your chair, or your collar on the back of your neck. That sensation helps us stay centered so we’re not leaning into the screen.
Sense the power center below your navel and let it energize your whole body. Breathe fully and deeply, so you can feel your ribcage expand with your in-breath.
Now, allow your voice to come up and out, with that energy behind it. You’re not shouting at your microphone, and you’re not swallowing your words either. You’re focused on your audience, whether you can see them or not, and you’re speaking directly to them, with just the right energy.
Imagine yourself as a source of warmth for the people listening. You’re not a furnace, though, blasting hot air at them, making them want to pull back. You’re a fireplace … giving off a glow, radiating a comfortable warmth that draws them in. They want to stay there with you and listen.
Try it out next time you’re in a Zoom meeting and let me know how it goes, will you?