Connecting in a Virtual World - PRESENCE IS A SKILL NOT A GIFT - Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett

Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)


Chapter 10. Connecting in a Virtual World

“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.”


Increasingly, at large national and global companies, meetings happen virtually. A group of people gather in a video-enabled meeting room to discuss projects and challenges, give updates, and work together. The technology is constantly evolving, and new approaches to this phenomenon appear daily. One attempt to improve engagement is a technology that creates an avatar for each participant, making virtual encounters more gamelike. No doubt, more inventions will emerge and grow in popularity. Telephone conferences, where participants can only be heard but not seen, are increasingly common. The constant complaint I hear from my clients is that these technologies, while created to enable people to work together, are themselves obstacles to effectively connecting. One frequent syndrome: people, when asked to attend long, meandering teleconferences, push the mute button and, until called upon, ignore what’s going on, thereby missing the whole point of being on the phone.

The challenge, as I and many others see it, is that we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to read each other’s microsignals in real time, moment by changing moment. A briefly raised eyebrow, the flash of a smile, a quick frown, a head nod, these are all very important signals. They can either move a discussion forward or cause it to pause. Imagine someone nodding to indicate “I understand” verses “I agree.” It’s the same gesture, with totally different meanings, each communicated via highly nuanced motions in mere fractions of a second. Add to this the impact on our mirror neurons, as discussed previously, when we are not together in space and time. As a result, its almost impossible to assess how much is missed by disabling our neural WiFi. All this is to say, navigating virtual meetings is a serious challenge. (I have no doubt that in some lab, engineers and scientists are working to invent a system the will allow for micro-autonomic responses to be recorded and exchanged virtually!)

With increased globalization and tight travel budgets, the use of technologies that create the illusion of being together will only increase. As of now, virtual meeting rooms simply cannot provide the cohesion and visual clarity that happens when people gather together. What to do?

First, for those meetings that simply cannot happen any other way, whoever calls the meeting needs to set crystal-clear expectations and boundaries ahead of time. The topics to be covered should be put in an agenda and time frames for each topic clearly delineated. At the launch of a virtual or phone meeting, a structure should be clearly articulated. For example, the meeting leader might open with the following remarks: “Welcome, everyone. Thanks for joining. We’ll be on this call for 25 minutes. The first 5 minutes will be an update by John Smith. That will be followed by 5 minutes for questions. Then we will have 10 minutes to discuss and answer any questions you may have about the deck that was sent out to all of you last week from Sue Jones. Please have your questions ready, and queue up on the left of your screen. Following Sue, we will have an open-ended 5-minute discussion on the proposal I sent out to all of you. I want to know what the risks and benefits are from your perspective. Please keep your comments brief and targeted. If you have other thoughts about the proposal outside the framework for today, feel free to send those to all of us, and we will put them on the agenda for our next meeting. Thank you, and now, John, over to you.”

By clearly articulating the goals and time frames, the participants’ brains are primed and focused. People will know why they are there and what is expected of them. Once such a structure is in place, it must be adhered to. If 5 minutes is allotted to John Smith and that part of the conversation goes on for 10, people will know it, feel it, and resent it. Stick to the structure, and in time, it will train everyone to step into it with greater ease.

Reasons for meetings vary. Some are casual or just for updates and brainstorming, but even those can be structured in a way that helps mitigate the challenges of not being all together in space and time.


What is the purpose of the meeting? What is the most critical what to discuss? How much time will be allotted to it? Will there be Q&A? If so, how much time will be provided for that? Who will speak, when, and on what subject? How much time for each? Will there be free-form discussion or not? Who will facilitate that discussion? Create an agenda but, beyond that, design the format and structure, and e-mail both ahead of time to all participants. After the meeting, find out what worked and where the structure could have been improved. Seek the opinions of those on the call. This may feel constrained. Ironically, structure creates freedom; when there are no clear boundaries and everything is up for grabs, that’s when people get impatient, when they feel that their time is being wasted, or when one person feels entitled to hog the meeting.

For virtual meetings it’s critical to be conscious of your movements and facial expressions. Depending on the technology, transmission of speech and gestures can sometimes be delayed. Be aware of where the camera and microphones are so that you don’t turn your face away from the very thing that is transmitting your voice. Lean toward the microphone to make sure what you say is captured, and be aware that off-the-record comments can be heard as well. Different systems show people in different configurations: some capture each person in his or her own little box; others capture an entire conference table. No matter how the information is delivered, once you are live, you are indeed “on” and often on permanent record.

In a face-to-face meeting, you know instantly when someone is looking at you. That’s not so obvious in a virtual meeting. Where you put your focus needs to be practiced, since eyes looking at a screen and not a person can feel oddly disembodied. And for such things as meetings over a computer, not a video system, there is the added challenge that the camera eye on a computer is usually above the screen. Do you look at the camera, which will appear to the recipients as though you are looking at them? Or do you look at the screen, so you can see who the other participants are and what their faces and bodies are showing? It’s good to develop a practice of switching back and forth so that you will appear to be making occasional eye contact with your viewers. Learning how to be “present” in a virtual meeting demands increased levels of focus.

When participating in lengthy telephone conferences, additional things need to be kept top of mind. When a call drags on and on, people tend to become disengaged, and vocal energy flags. Voices become monotone, fillers creep in, and listeners tune out. When on a teleconference, make sure that when you do speak, your voice has energy, vitality, melody, and very distinct pitch variation. Your voice is all that you will have to deliver your content. Make sure your vocal delivery is aligned with your purpose. Know ahead of time what your purpose is. Is it to convince, influence, educate, question, or debate? Tone and energy are aligned with intention, so make sure yours is clear.

I’ve been asked many times, “How do I know when to speak?” There are often two- to three-second delays when people speak, and it is hard to know if they are thinking or finished talking. People tell me they don’t want to interrupt, but then wind up doing so due to the time delay.

If the technology causes delays, it is good at the start of the meeting to suggest ways to work with that challenge. Acknowledge that due to transmission time it may appear that someone is finished when in fact he or she is not. Suggest that people use either a hand gesture or head nod to indicate they are finished speaking if video is being used. If there is only voice transmission, conclude with a brief phrase, such as, “That’s all” or “I’m finished.” Another technique is to establish the practice that everyone internally count to two seconds after someone has spoken to prevent overtalk or interruption. These will feel awkward at first but will become routine. I’ve gotten multiple reports from my clients who’ve employed these techniques that they work very well.


We are living in a world where increasingly we are visible wherever we go. Ubiquitous phone cameras, not to mention surveillance technologies, can and do capture off-the-cuff sound and video clips and project private moments onto the World Wide Web. This is not to say we must succumb to an “on-all-the-time” persona. It is to say that we must at all times be genuinely who we are and be acutely aware that our behavior matters. These days almost all business conferences are videotaped, not just the keynote speakers but the leadership team, sales force, people on panel discussions—you name it. Google a professional and chances are you’ll find images and/or video of him or her online. Even informal meetings, because of videoconferencing, are often permanently on record as well. Awareness of this cultural shift is as crucial as is practicing.

Actors rehearse; athletes run drills; teachers write lesson plans; surgeons do mental run-throughs. What do you do on a regular basis to keep your messaging clear, concise, and credible? Do you practice? Do you imagine who your audience members will be and what they’ll need to know?


Virtual meetings create additional layers of distance that are best overcome by clarity. As previously discussed, clarity is almost impossible to achieve without practice. Practice out loud an upcoming virtual deliverable. These meetings are often around a conference table. If possible, arrive at the space ahead of time to see where the camera is. Make sure you place your notes, computer, or any other materials in a position that will not require you to turn your face away from the camera or microphone when referencing them. Imagine a question and answer it. Practice embedding places for questions or two-second holds for transmission delay. Practice a slower pace and crisp enunciation as ways to manage the time delay.

Most of our conversations and interactions cannot be rehearsed because they happen in the now. Managing the ever-shifting realities of that now, being able to form and articulate rapid responses without any prior thought, is a key indicator of how you think and who you are. Listening, humor, kindness, creativity, originality, service, intention, point of view, word choice, focusing out— all these aspects of your style—are made manifest in your moment-to-moment behaviors and responses. All these actions are expressed through your body. But video lives beyond the moment. And while it cannot capture all aspects of subtext and atmosphere, it is best not to be caught off-guard. Your presence, how you manage the moment, now lives on virtually. Awareness that everything done electronically has the potential to live on indefinitely must always be top of mind.


There is simply no substitute for a good night’s sleep to help calm down the impulse to “react.” The accusatory e-mail arrives, and now fully engaged, you jump to respond, usually defensively or by blaming someone else. Go ahead: Write that e-mail! (Make sure you leave the address bar blank.) Type that text. Get it out of your system. Then, don’t send it. Put it in Drafts and take a break. As technology demands faster and faster turnaround times, it pushes us to react without thought. Print out the e-mail and imagine yourself receiving it. Chances are, you’ll wind up tossing it.

When writing e-mails, make sure your language is clear. Something as simple as defining an acronym, which seems unnecessary and time consuming, can be vitally important. A client of mine was once engaged in a two-week e-mail exchange— read “battle”—because her understanding of a widely used company acronym had a completely different meaning to her recipient who worked at the same company but in a different business unit. Two weeks of increasingly hostile back-and-forth e-mails could have been averted if she’d been clear from the very start.

Much has been written about tone in e-mails and how such things as sarcasm and irony can be wildly misinterpreted. Given the fact that many business professionals can receive hundreds of e-mails a day, do everything possible to make yours clear, short, and polite while appreciating that different cultures have different expectations. In the United States we are expected to get right to the point, but in many other cultures that is considered rude. In Europe an e-mail that doesn’t open with a warm salutation, or with a question about how the recipient is doing, may be off-putting. Some cultures feel that opening with just the word I, as in “I wonder if you agree with the e-mail that went out earlier?,” is unacceptable. Similar to becoming familiar with a culture before meeting a new colleague from another country, it is a good practice to learn the appropriate e-mail etiquette for an unfamiliar business recipient.

There is, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, an ongoing challenge between those who grew up before the web and digital natives. One might imagine this would be resolved as those “elders” leave the workforce, but judging by how quickly technology changes, I think this will be an ongoing situation. Teachers will always be around 20 to 25 years older than their students. That’s a generation. No matter what those teachers grew up with, you can be certain that the children they will be teaching will have grown up with something entirely different. This will not be exclusive to education, but to work in general. The technological revolution is indeed a revolution. It never stops revolving, evolving, and completely changing our experience of time. Now dial-up seems painfully slow. (For those who don’t even know what dial-up is, Google it!) Expectations are created by prior experiences, and given that there will always be at minimum two decades between those established in the workplace and the new generation entering it, this will be a constant challenge.

Life, however, moves at its own pace. Bodies do, too. We evolved to comprehend the world at the pace that life moves. Visual information—light, color, motion—enters through the cornea, and then the cells in the retina convert that information into electrical impulses that are sent, via the optic nerve, to the brain, where an image of that visual input is produced. Repeated information traveling that route actually creates the formation of the nerve. Infant eyesight evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to track a person as he or she moved across space in human time, not video game time.

Human behaviors have adjusted and changed as technology has increased our travel, information, and communication systems, but human beings still run on biological time. We still require food, sleep, movement, rest. We live in bodies that, no matter how they’ve adjusted to cars that drive 80 miles per hour or tweets that can instantaneously be read by thousands around the world, still run on human time.

I am a body person. I believe that the human body is our source of knowledge, joy, connection, experience, thought, memory, imagination, fear, love, and spirit. It houses us and gives us existence. Smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound—the five senses—are our connection to this life, the lives around us, and the world we inhabit. The cognitive scientist Guy Claxton puts it beautifully, and I will quote him here:

Through the body I am deeply ecological, profoundly and ceaselessly in conversation with the physical and the social milieu in which I am embedded (and from which I am continually emerging). Like the wave, I am made up—concocted—by the world around me. Like a mobile phone, I may look like a lump of stuff, but I am actually aquiver with information—whether I am currently checking myself for messages or not. So says the science of embodiment. (From the RSA presentation “On Being Touched and Moved,” November 26, 2013,

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy technology. I love that the world’s libraries are now at my fingertips, that I can Skype with a friend on the other side of the planet, and that I can go on YouTube to discover how to fix just about anything! But I also know that it is my body in real time—listening, engaging, be-ing, and connecting with others—that creates this life.

Your communication expertise and your presence are composed of the quality of time, attention, and focus you give to others, the quality of your ideas and suggestions, the quality of your listening. We are all the outcomes of decades, resting upon centuries, of observing, learning, thinking, breathing, experiencing. We compose our lives, adding layer upon layer of experience, memory, intuition, knowledge. The tapestry that evolves is profoundly complex.

However you choose to communicate via technology, remember that chances are it will be a permanent record that will never fully capture the complex layers of knowledge, experience, intuition, and relationships you have built over a lifetime. Virtual connection can and does add wonderful new layers of communication, relationships, and knowledge. Just remember to keep a balanced approach. Leave your computer; put down your phone; take a walk; talk to colleagues face-to-face; leave your desk to eat your lunch. These are such simple things to do, but hard to maintain.

When there is no choice but to connect through virtual meetings, pay greater attention to the signals sent as bodies and subtext will be harder to read, and vocal tone will be harder to distinguish. If the meeting consists of people from different cultures with different languages, make sure that you are clear on the points being made. Never assume a nod means yes, unless you get clarification. If a gesture is hard to interpret, don’t assume. Ask.

Chapter 10: Connecting in a Virtual World

Review Exercises

Virtual or Real: Key-Message a Meeting—prime to keep participant focus and attention when not together physically

Speak the Speech for Virtual Communication—prep for delivery, speech, panel discussion that may be recorded

Write; Don’t Send—discharge reaction, give yourself time to think