Professional & Continuing Education (PCE)

You're On Mute! - Mastering Virtual Communication


This year has taught us many lessons, perhaps none more than to value our connections. Many working professionals have increased the amount of time spent working from home, with estimates ranging between 30 and 60 percent of all working professionals spending at least one workday at the home office. Additionally, stay-at-home orders and careful attention to social distancing guidelines has meant that our ability to connect personally with friends and loved ones is dramatically diminished. Luckily for us (and Zoom shareholders), the internet age has brought with it many tools to help us maintain similarly enriching connections with our friends, family, and colleagues.

More and more business and social activity is being conducted virtually and the pandemic continues in many parts of the world, and even after the crisis is over there will remain a high demand for meaningful connection through an internet connection. However, communicating through a video screen is a relatively new practice, and we have yet to fully adapt our brains, hard-wired for many aspects of face-to-face communication, to the new normal.

To learn some new tools for conducting enriching and productive virtual communication, we can borrow concepts and practices from other areas of life and scholarship. For me, this has meant borrowing from three fields: sign language, theater, and public speaking. Each of these practices and activities bring with them expertise in areas critical to virtual communication, and with them we can learn some of the tools necessary to maximizing our ability to meaningfully connect online.

American Sign Language (ASL) is built around unreliable access to audio information and focuses on physical position and facial expression. Coupled with the common etiquette of muting your microphone when not speaking, ASL can help us continue to communicate with our colleagues without interrupting the flow. Learning a few basic signs as a group can open up the nonverbal conversation dramatically, allowing the meeting to involve every participant while maintaining peaceful audio. Some simple and useful signs to learn are “yes,” “no,” “please,” “thank you,” “slow,” “break,” or “please mute yourself, no one wants to hear you slurp coffee.”

From the world of theater, we can better understand the difficulties of facial expression. Most of communication is nonverbal, but small screens and spotty Wi-Fi can make it tough to read someone’s face in a meeting or social call. Actors are familiar with this problem, as they routinely perform emotionally powerful scenes hundreds of feet away from their audience. By embracing the awkward of the situation and exaggerating your facial expressions a bit, you can more effectively transmit your sentiments to your coworkers or loved ones.

Public speaking is all about commanding attention and connecting individually with many listeners. Eye contact is a critical component of this, and video meetings have made it difficult to maintain that practice. One tip for making your colleagues feel more connected is to use the camera as a point of focus, not the faces on the screen. A face sticker or pair of googly eyes can make this easier and bring a touch of levity to the office. Another popular practice among public speaking experts is the ‘power pose,’ a confidence-raising position such as the Superman pose that can be held for a few minutes before a presentation to boost self-efficacy. This is equally helpful for virtual meetings as well and can distinguish the time in a meeting from the blur of the rest of the workday.

Working from home has transformed many aspects of the workplace experience, and it is essential to recognize the losses that have occurred. No one is experiencing this new situation the same as anyone else, and so it is important to invest time in talking as a team about what we have lost and how we can maximize the benefits of virtual communication. More important than any of the tools we have seen here, maintaining honest dialogue about what’s going on and how people are struggling is the best way to improve communication in a virtual platform. Sign language, theater, and public speaking all have tips for navigating the virtual world, and I encourage you to take a look at your own experiences to find opportunities for growth and development as you continue to work, play, and connect through the screen.

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Published: Monday, November 30, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, November 19, 2020

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