Business

How to sharpen your Zoom communication skills

Zoom, video conferencing app. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Zoom, video conferencing app. (Dreamstime/TNS)

At this stage, it goes without saying that COVID-19 has changed everything. Especially the way we communicate with one another at work.

Since the onset of the global pandemic, there’s been a sharp uptick in remote work, which means nearly all our meetings now happen over Zoom. This makes the hard task of communication even harder.

And here’s the kicker: We were never that good at it to begin with.

While study after study shows us that employers rank communication skills ahead of managerial and technical skills, most struggle.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, nearly 80 percent of students entering the workforce consider themselves proficient communicators.

However, when their employers were polled only 42 percent rated them as such.

As management guru Tom Peters notes of these so-called soft skills, “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.”

Now we find ourselves in a predominantly virtual world of work struggling to communicate with our co-workers.

When it comes to communicating via Zoom, you have to make sure your tech tools are working for you, that you’re optimizing your voice accordingly, and that your non-verbal communication is adapted for the virtual setting.

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Here’s a simple set of reminders to help you stand out on your next Zoom meeting or virtual presentation.

Tech steps you can’t skip

Murphy’s Law tells us that, “Anything that can go wrong will.” Everyone’s had a Zoom meeting — or two or three or 10 — that’s proven this law. Avoid negative outcomes by following this quick tech checklist before you start your next meeting.

• Check your tech — Take the time to test everything — your microphone, headset, software, etc.

• Cameras on — If you’re connecting with others and communicating complex ideas, rich media — a combination of audio, video, visuals — is best. For more on this, lookup the Media Richness Theory.

Plus, showing your face helps communicate competence and warmth.

• Frame yourself — Your camera should be at eye level. You don’t want to be looking up or down.

Your shoulders and upper body should be on-screen. Prop your laptop up with a few books and scoot your camera back. In the end, you should be framed on-screen like a TV news anchor.

• Mic up — Always use a microphone and headphones. A simple set of earbuds goes a long way toward enhancing sound quality.

Remember to keep your mic on mute when you’re not speaking.

• Reduce A/V noise — Diminish audio noise by closing doors and shutting off noisy equipment. Get rid of visual noise by tidying your desk and removing distracting background items.

Optimize your virtual vocal delivery

When communicating virtually, your voice becomes one of your biggest assets. Make sure you’re optimizing it for the unique speech and processing challenges that come with online meetings.

• Project confidence vocally — You want to sound authoritative and full, not throaty — like you’ve swallowed your voice.

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Project confidence by finding a point across the room and sending your sound there with deep breaths supported from your stomach and diaphragm, not your throat.

• Engage with vocal variety — Variety in the pitch and tone of your voice helps keep your audience engaged in what you’re saying.

When your voice is flat and monotone, your audience gets bored, especially when they have online distractions such as email and social media at their fingertips.

Practice vocal variety by reading children’s books or news headlines.

Tip: Record yourself while doing this. Do you sound engaging or monotone?

• Articulate and enunciate — You want your audience to follow what you’re saying. This can be tricky online.

Articulate and enunciate every word.

Tip: Watch your mouth on-screen as you speak. If you’re enunciating properly, you should be able to see your lips moving.

• Pause frequently — Your audience needs time to process what you’re saying, especially in virtual communication.

Adapt non-verbal communication for online

It’s a mistake to think that non-verbal communication doesn’t matter when you’re seated at your computer on a virtual meeting.

Instead, you have to adapt these communication tools for this very different format.

• Maintain eye contact — This can be challenging in virtual communication. Remember to look at your laptop’s camera — usually above the screen — or your webcam, not down at your notes. This gives the appearance of eye contact.

Tip: Position your Zoom selfie window at the top of the screen below your camera.

• Use hand gestures — Get your hands up and in-frame to use gestures to reinforce key points. This may make your hand placement feel a little higher than usual to you, but your gestures will read on-screen for your audience.

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• Sit up straight or stand — Your posture helps you project confidence physically and vocally as the muscles associated with both breathing and speaking are engaged.

If you can, try standing. If sitting, make sure your feet are flat on the floor and that your legs are not crossed. Cross your ankles if needed.

• Smile — Last but not least, smile. Your audience will both see and hear your enthusiasm and warmth.

In reviewing all of this, you might find yourself saying, “That’s a lot of work for one meeting!”

You’re right. It is.

However, as we know, communication is the most valuable skill in the workplace.

When our vocal and non-verbal tools are limited in the virtual setting, we need to optimize everything we can control to ensure that our co-workers understand what we’re saying.

As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

When you communicate effectively, you save time on the “corrective communication” needed to explain what you really meant.

Employ these virtual communication tips to make sure you’re understood during your next Zoom meeting.

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It’s also easy to label these best practices as necessary measures in a COVID-19-driven world.

However, things already were headed in this direction. Before this year’s coronavirus outbreak, 80 percent of presentations were delivered online while remote work has grown 91 percent over the past 10 years.

These aren’t just COVID-success strategies. Being a more effective virtual communicator sets you up for success in the new world of work that’s sure to follow today’s unique challenges.

Nick Westergaard is a marketing strategist, keynote speaker and author of “Brand Now” and “Get Scrappy”; nick@branddrivendigital.com; @NickWestergaard.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.