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8 Strategies to Create Meaningful Connections in Your On-line Meetings (or Wearing a Mask)

Nov 06, 2020

Are you wondering how on-line meetings and masks are effecting your relationships? My clients have expressed concerns about diminished clarity and connections with others. 

I am also concerned about the ability of my favourite people - hard-working, advanced English-speaking engineers and technical professionals - to build relationships amid this new reality. Recently, while at the grocery store, I asked a staff member a question. After she repeated her answer twice, I realized that, although she was doing her best, I was not going to be able to understand her. She had a foreign accent; however, I am positive that if she had not been wearing a mask, I would have understood her. This is a consideration for my clients, as well.

In a recent Zoom training session, while discussing the issue of masks with a client, he suggested that native English speakers also need to step-up their game. I agree! Even if English is your first language, if you have a low voice, speak quickly, or tend to be a mumbler, this is a huge impediment to creating meaningful connections with others, as well as ensuring that others understand you in on-line meetings or while wearing a mask. 

My client and I conducted a little experiment in that meeting. I put on a mask and said happy things with a frown and a low voice; then I said the same happy things with a smile. Could he tell that I was smiling? Yes, he could.  He could see the difference in my eyes and hear the difference in my voice. Although we don’t need to wear masks in on-line meetings, people can only see us from the chest up, our faces are smaller than in real life, and they may be looking at several tiny faces on their screen.  Therefore, there are some similar issues whether you are wearing a mask or meeting on-line.

Having said all that, I love zoom. I have found that I can replicate much of what I do in live training on Zoom, including the energy of a live training session.  Here are some suggestions based on what I’ve learned and the mistakes that I’ve observed.

  1. Use a computer, not a phone or tablet, for on-line meetings. Both the human and the internet connection are better.
  2. Be sure that the top of your screen is at the top of your head, maximizing the view of your chest and allowing for the opportunity to use hand gestures. Even if you don’t use hand gestures, it feels very unnatural and distracting to only be able to see someone from the chin up. Maximize the view of your body.
  3. I’m aging myself here, but remember when we used to make long-distance calls and we could really sense that the other person was far away. We spoke louder and we enunciated our words a little more - and we were slightly more expressive with our voices. This improved the clarity of the conversation, as well as the human connection. This is also helpful in 2020 when wearing a mask or in an on-line meeting. Be more expressive!!
  4. Smile! Smiling creates a higher tone of voice. A higher tone of voice is perceived as friendlier and typically exudes more confidence.  In addition, the speaker who is smiling feels more confident. I have had many clients who have attempted to express anger with a smile… and they never can. You must align your facial expression with your intended emotion, or you will not be believable. And yes, people can tell that you are smiling with a mask on. If you are a person who doesn’t smile much and you have a low voice, use a mirror to practice talking with a smile - notice how your vocal tone goes up immediately when you smile! A low tone of voice without a smile can be interpreted as being unengaged in the conversation, unmotivated, or moody.
  5. We are working from home; and therefore, we are meeting with others IN OUR HOMES. It is like having a guest in our homes. This may sound picky, but take a look at what the other meeting participants are going to see behind you. I would be reluctant to mention some of the things I’ve seen behind people. It’s often as simple as closing the closet doors before your meeting. I once had a business coach who asked me to think about the condition of the interior of my car. Then she told me that the state of my car reflects the state of my mind. I was a little embarrassed because my car was not very clean and tidy that day. Be sure that your on-line meeting environment represents you well as a professional.
  6. There seems to be a trend to delivering a webinar/meeting with slides while the speaker remains unseen - the meeting participants don’t see the speaker talking.  Even worse, many of these speakers are merely reading their slides. The speaker should be the star of the show, not the slides. If the slides contain more than 50% of the presentation content, then we likely don’t really need the speaker - just send the slides. More importantly, this approach offers ZERO opportunity to build a meaningful connection with your listeners. I absolutely understand the challenges of delivering a presentation live, and I use PowerPoint in my presentations and training sessions. In my presentations, I have found that the best way to balance a large volume of content with the relationships that I want to create and nurture is to toggle back and forth between the slides and my live image.  In my training sessions, Zoom allows me to have both the speaker and the slides on the desktop at the same time. When I use Loom, I can have both my slides and a small live image of myself at the same time. However, your slides should never have all of the information that you wish to convey - why would they need you in that case?!
  7. If you are leading the meeting, you have an opportunity to be part of the solution to the on-line relationship deficit. Ask others to lead specific segments of the meeting, and make them the host when they are leading that segment so that they are not just the leader but be are perceived as the leader. Be sure that everyone is heard. Use the breakout rooms in Zoom to brainstorm solutions to problems. Have an item on your agenda called “kudos” and allocate that time for people to share positive feedback about one another. The positive energy in these on-line relationships will be the grease that improves productivity and job satisfaction, just as it does in the office.
  8. When on-line faces are looking dark, shadowy, undefined, and smaller than real life, it is difficult to “connect” with the people belonging to the faces, and the opportunity to build relationships is dramatically reduced. Therefore, it is important to have proper lighting in the room. I have an overhead light in my home-office (a small bedroom), as well as a small O-light purchased at a local camera store (inexpensive) and a desk light. In addition, I have placed my desk in front of the window. Being in a properly lit room adds to your perception as a professional, and allows for the other meeting participants to see and interpret the fine nuances of your facial expressions. I realize that some people don’t have a home-office, and are meeting in their basements, even their bedrooms; however, the other participants need not know this, and proper lighting adds to a positive energy in the “ meeting room.” This need not be expensive, and will definitely help you to replicate in-person connections.

These are different times that we are living in, and they require us to develop new communication strategies. On-line meetings and masks are here to stay to one extent or another. However, feeling connected to others remains important, not just to advance our business goals, but also to maintain our mental health. 

May each of you express yourself clearly, confidently, and authentically - creating connections that are meaningful, fulfilling, and productive. Let’s stay safe - wear our masks or meet on-line - while continuing to create and maintain relationships that are so important for our career satisfaction and growth. Take care everyone!