Looking down the camera: how to effectively communicate in an online world

Communicating online requires something of a performance. I’m not suggesting you need to pretend to be someone different. It’s more that you need to turn yourself up. In my case apparently, I morph from really nice in person to extremely nice on Zoom.

The reality is that making an impact and genuinely connecting online, requires some effort and focus on your part. Putting your best face forward when you’re contending with patchy bandwidth, audio lags and people awkwardly talking over each other, is much harder than navigating the easy ebb and flow of conversation when you’re in the same physical space.

So how do you stand out from the crowd, online? Keep reading, you’ll nail it with a few simple steps.

Let’s start with the technical aspects. I’m constantly surprised by how many public figures and spokespeople detract from their delivery by overlooking these bits, so take the time to get them right.

1. Your eyeline.

It’s important to have good eyeline so your audience feels you’re looking into their eyes. Eye contact is the single most effective way for you to form a connection with the people you are speaking to. Improvise if you need to and perch your laptop or device onto a pile of books to elevate it, so the tiny camera lens is at your eye level. If you’re in a question and answer forum, avoid the temptation to look down your screen to respond to the face of the questioner. That will only make you lose your eye contact with the rest of your audience.

Top tip: Keep looking into your camera lens at all times.

2. Your backdrop

Attached as you may be to your favourite books, sitting in front of a bookcase can distract from your message. Confession time – when I’m in sessions with someone who’s got a bookcase behind them, I find my eyes wandering to their book collection to spot any books I have and to note which ones look interesting. All of which takes me away from what I should be doing – listening to the speaker.

Top tip: Go for a neutral backdrop which doesn’t distract.

3. Your lighting

Mobile lighting kits are useful, but you don’t need to spend lots of money to improve your light conditions. The simplest way to cast yourself in flattering light is to sit near a window and let the natural light work its magic. Avoid sitting with your back to the window or you’ll look shadowy and gloomy.

Top tip: Have the light source in front of you, not behind you.

4. Your audio

A standard set of earphones or a headset will lift the quality of your audio no end and will help to cut out some of the ambient noise in your environment. Top tip: Get comfortable using your earphones, they will lend volume, clarity and definition to your comments.

For very little effort, these technical tips will go a long way to improving your online presence. It’s the next step however which sets the best communicators apart.

How you listen is as important as how you speak.

In the family tree of communications, listening tends to be the poor cousin. We hear lots about the skills we need to inform, to persuade, to influence. But there’s less said about the art of listening and even less about how to listen online.

Listening well is one of the hallmarks of great communication. If you’ve had the pleasure of being in a conversation with a sophisticated communicator, I’m betting you felt energised in their company. And chances are that’s because they were doing what skilled communicators do – listening attentively and validating your presence (even if disagreeing with you) by responding and playing back some of your ideas, words or phrases (“Really? Interesting you say that because …”). They were possibly also acknowledging your emotional mood, either through verbal cues or non-verbal ones, such as their facial expression or their body language. These are all the signs of someone who can skilfully turn a back and forth exchange into a seamless conversation.

So when you’re online, here are a few simple do’s and don’ts to elevate your listening skills. Once again, a little effort will pay off big time.

Do – make eye contact, make sure your body language reflects that you are engaged in the conversation, make it clear through your verbal and non-verbal cues that you understand/agree/disagree with what you are hearing.

Don’t – I introduce the don’ts with a caveat. In a remote working world, it’s invariable that “life” will spill over into “work” – kids needing your time, deliveries being dropped to your door, dogs barking (or in my case, crying) because you haven’t paid them attention for the past two-and-a- half seconds, family members walking into the room mid-meeting. That’s all ok. In fact one of the great joys of remote working has been the window it has offered into the lives of my colleagues, which I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. There are plenty of things you can control however, to be a great listener. So don’t check your phone or emails constantly, don’t eat your lunch online and don’t turn your video off if you can help it.

Finally, look back at some of your online communications. Record a few sessions and when you’re watching them, ask yourself whether your presence was impactful and whether you seemed to be listening with intent. If, after that you’re still not certain, I’m sure Raj would be happy to give you his critique.

By Michele Fonseca, head of training and capability at strategic communications agency Bastion Reputation Management and a former ABC journalist and senior executive

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