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Matt Abrahams: Become a Better Virtual Communicator

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Matt Abrahams: Become a Better Virtual Communicator

An expert on public speaking explains how online technology changes the way we communicate.
City workers make phone calls outside the London Stock Exchange
How do you communicate when you can’t see the other person? | Reuters/Toby Melville

It seems like we’re all spending more and more time communicating virtually with our colleagues, friends, and family. Yet while these conference calls and web presentations allow us more frequent interactions across greater distances than ever before, often they’re missing something. Because we lack visual clues and a sense of connection, we are left feeling frustrated, unsatisfied, and perhaps even unfulfilled with our virtual communication.

So, how can we become better virtual communicators? In the absence of visual cues, the two most important factors we can leverage are what are known as prosodic behaviors and vocal quality, says Joshua Feast, the head of Cogito Corporation, a spinoff of MIT’s Media Lab, which focuses on technology that helps people understand what transpires during virtual interactions as well as how to improve the quality and satisfaction with those interactions.

Prosodic behaviors, he says, include actions such as turn-taking, interaction-pacing, and listening. By intentionally incorporating these behaviors into your interactions, you can create a more balanced two-way conversation in which everyone involved feels more connected, invested, and, ultimately, satisfied with the outcome. Vocal quality refers to the tonal variation in what you say as well as the perceived strain in your voice — that is, does what you say sound forced and rehearsed, or natural, spontaneous, and authentic?

Feast’s cofounder at Cogito, Sandy Pentland, calls these clues “honest signals” because they are largely unconscious and uncontrolled. And Feast adds that we often focus exclusively on the content of what we say and not the manner in which we say it. This explains why an excited entrepreneur nevertheless can come across as flat when he delivers his well-rehearsed WebEx pitch, or the seasoned executive is perceived as disinterested when she presents her earnings conference call. In both situations, they are likely so focused on their content, they aren’t even aware of their delivery.

One-to-many Communication

Often virtual communicators have a goal for how they want to be perceived — you can modify your behaviors to help achieve that goal.
Matt Abrahams

Cogito’s research suggests that presenters communicating in a one-to-many manner (think web meeting) should consider two best practices: First, focus on the variation aspects of vocal quality — variety in tonal dynamics (e.g., controlled vs. excited) and pace (e.g., faster vs. slower). This type of variety is what makes you sound interesting and engaging and helps your audience avoid habituating to your speaking style, which in turn keeps them focused on what you’re saying.

Second, Feast says, it can help even in one-to-many situations to employ prosodic behaviors to connect with you audience. “It’s on you [as the presenter] to take time to check in with your participants,” he says. “It’s going to be one-sided, but the less one-sided, the better. Stop and let people in to ask questions, etc.”

Collaborative Communication Interactions

For collaborations, such as conference call meetings with a virtual team of four to seven members working together, Feast suggests that you strive for equal (balanced) participation over the course of the interaction. This means you need to be disciplined about allowing others to contribute. Additionally, you should value the contribution of others to let them know you care about their experience. He recommends three ways to show your gratitude for contributions:

  • Acknowledgement: verbally recognizing the contribution (e.g., “thank you for your input”)
  • Feedback: commenting on, extending, or replaying a summary of someone’s contribution (e.g., “that reminds me of what we discussed earlier when…” or “so what you are saying is…”)
  • Non-verbal confirmations: sounds like “uh-huh,” “ah, yes,” and “mmmm”

Often virtual communicators have a goal for how they want to be perceived — you can modify your behaviors to help achieve that goal.

For example:

If you wish to be seen as caring and compassionate, try mirroring the tone and speaking rate of those with whom you are communicating. Additionally, listen actively by paraphrasing and confirming what you are hearing. Feast says these behaviors give your audience the feeling that you are “in tune” with them, which breeds connection, liking, and trust.

If you wish to come off as competent and “in command,” speak concisely with even pacing and a steady tone. Specifically, try to say less and avoid rushing to get your points across; this makes you appear more confident and comfortable being in charge. Also, allow others to put forward their ideas, too.

In the end, with a little bit of careful thought about how you use your voice — including demonstrating vocal variety, active listening, and turn-taking, as well as acknowledgement — you can make up for the natural deficiencies of virtual communication. Plus, you will benefit from the added bonus that your communication will be more efficient and more satisfying — both for you and for others.

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