Effective and illuminating advice for bringing out your best self on the computer screen and engaging the attention of your audience. A must-read for today’s digital professionals.
A good speaker vs. a great speaker
When asked what differentiates a good speaker from a great speaker, the answer is often the same: charisma or presence. Indeed, if what you say can make you a good speaker, the way you say it can make you a great speaker. For once, popular intuition and scientific findings point to the same conclusion.
When asked what makes a speaker charismatic, the answers are more contrasting. While many believe that some people are born charismatic, seductive and captivating, numerous studies have challenged this idea and shown that charisma can be learned and developed as a skill. Thus, we can increase our charisma to speak in front of large audiences, transmit our passion and enthusiasm, and create strong emotional bonds with our interlocutors.
As we were just beginning to master these new communication tools, the COVID-19 crisis has significantly modified the situations and environments in which we communicate. In the field of teaching, face-to-face has been replaced by remote communication, in business meetings as well as in large events, the same change is underfoot. It took us years to master the podium, now we have to master online communication. One thing is clear: not all traditional tools fit in with this new communication medium.
Here are a few simple tips that will allow you to enhance your existing speaking skills and facilitate the transition to these new forms of communication.
1. Take care of the background
This is a point that was getting minimal attention only a few months ago, but one that has become essential to assert our credibility and charisma in a virtual speaking situation. I remember once, not long ago, this eminent professor presenting his results in front of his ugly off-white wall, under dim lighting. Then they were those all those work sessions with speakers who chose - at best - the "New York office" background offered by their application, or - more lighthearted - the "beach and coconut trees" background.
In a virtual session, the image that your audience will have of you depends on all the elements they see and hear. You have probably already understood that your pajamas and messy hair are not suitable for professional communication, it is time to learn that this also applies to your background. Since your audience's attention is focused on a small computer window, be cautious of what this window shows them. Take the time to choose backgrounds that are appropriate for you, and that can be adapted to your audience and communication objectives. This will help define the identity of your presentations as well as your personal brand. You can, of course, arrange a personal space if you communicate from home or organize your office if you have the opportunity to do so. Why do people all choose to stand in front of their meticulous bookshelf when they turn on Zoom? Intuitively, many of us have guessed that our immediate environment contributes to the way we are perceived. So the goal is clear: control that environment!
Today you have the opportunity to create your own background, take the time to consider how it is perceived by your audience. It's not a question of improvising yourself as a freelance interior designer, a background representing a décor and flattering lighting is enough. I'm sure you all know the motto: You don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Control the environment in which your interlocutors will see you communicate and you will control a good part of this first impression.
2. Play with your voice
As you have probably noticed, it is more difficult to convey emotions and enthusiasm online. Have you also noticed that those hilarious anecdotes and witty quips that used to be your bread and butter don't have the same impact in front of your computer anymore? Of course, there is no feedback from your audience, but there is more to it.
Indeed, being in front of your computer screen can make you feel like you’re talking to yourself. However, this is not always the case, and while we tend to speak more softly and calmly to be more understandable, our audience is probably struggling to stay interested. Therefore, it is essential to continue to use one of the most effective levers to increase our charisma: our voice. There is a lot you can do with it: give an impression of urgency by subtly increase the pace of your speech, softly whisper to deliver important information or a secret, raise your tone of voice to emphasize a key point in your speech. Most good speakers are already familiar with these and other tools. The problem is that online communication tends to reduce their impact. Therefore, it is essential to reinforce these tools to overcome the difficulty of online communication. In fact, as with a larger group, in online communication, you need to take even more advantage of your voice's myriad of possibilities. Imagine that you are facing a large audience, everyone has to hear your message, everyone has to understand you, everyone has to get on board and adhere to the ideas you are promoting. Unlike what we tend to do, we should not consider this type of communication as one-to-one communication, but as a new presentation space in which your non-verbal communication must support ideas, including variations in the pitch, volume and pace of your voice in order to clearly communicate your intentions. Don't hesitate: accentuate your voice effects online to overcome the limits raised by the situation and try to vehicle your message through the screen.
3. Take some distance
Have you ever wondered why the medium close up shot (MCU) is so popular in movies? It's because it allows you to refocus on the characters while enabling them to express their emotions through their movements. Indeed, a large part of emotions and ideas that we want to convey use the non-verbal channel. Among all these non-verbal behaviors, illustrators are probably the most natural and effective at improving non-verbal communication. Illustrators are all the movements that allow us to convey our ideas, such as pointing to indicate a direction or counting on your fingers. These illustrators are crucial to gain charisma in oral communication situations, why wouldn’t they apply online?
In the last few months, we have had the privilege of seeing many close-ups of our interlocutors' faces, which has probably allowed us to discover previously unknown physical details. But has the ubiquitous close-up improved the quality of these presentations? Maybe not. Indeed, by presenting only our face to the camera, we deprive our audience of crucial non-verbal communication elements, especially illustrators.
How can you use illustrators to bolster your presentation? Take a step back and aim for the MCU shot: face and upper body. This will allow you to use your hands to support your speech while occupying the space more efficiently.
This will also help you avoid the unflattering hunched over position on the computer screen, usually accompanied by a cringing face, allowing everyone to understand that you're not sure if you can hear or be heard. Do you really want to show that you fear being onscreen when your objective should be to reassure your audience about the situation? Remember that—even when the medium changes—the clues that will allow your audience to assess your charisma and credibility remain the same. So your posture always says a lot about you. Project confidence by maintaining a straight, relaxed pose with a straight back and broad shoulders. Push your chair back and you will automatically increase the number of tools that will allow you to communicate effectively.
4. Maintain eye contact
When you are in a conference room, the audience follows your eyes; it is a fact, you can try to escape it, but it will always be the main element of your environment. In front of your computer screen, it’s not the same story. Your focus may wander to a particular detail on your desktop, an icon that flashes for no reason, or even the toys that your children have left on the table despite your warnings. In any case, remote sessions are much more likely to make you forget to use one of your primary communication tools: your eyes.
Indeed, it is through your eyes, and more generally, through your facial expressions that you transmit your emotions, your intentions, your reactions. This tool, which is already incredibly important in normal communication, becomes essential in remote sessions where body movements are limited. Indeed, the camera is focused on your face and - if you have followed the third piece of advice - your upper body. In a virtual communication context, your gaze and facial expressions become even more critical because it is primarily on them that your listeners will focus and evaluate your performance. Therefore, it is important to control your facial expressions even more and stare into your computer's camera as if you were speaking to it and to it alone.
Indeed, while using eye contact is quite obvious in a face-to-face situation, it becomes more complicated in front of your computer. More precisely, when you watch your interlocutor's video, your gaze is no longer directed towards the camera but towards your screen, which can paradoxically lead you to lose virtual eye contact. Similarly, if the computer is lower than you are, it will force you to look down, which is not the optimal look and can distract your audience. Hence this last practical tip: place your computer slightly higher, by stacking a pile of books under it for instance, so that looking at the camera corresponds to the natural direction of your gaze. The camera on your laptop becomes your goal, and you should focus on it as much as possible. Staring into your webcam will make you look confident and your listeners will feel comfortable... and you won't be looking at, and thus worried about, all those eyes staring at you!