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Zoom up the career ladder: how to dial up your digital presence

Virtual meetingz

The challenges of the pandemic have brought new ways for connecting to the fore — and none more so than video conferencing. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Zoom saw massive growth over lockdown. Ofcom found the proportion of people making video calls doubled during lockdown, with more than seven in 10 doing so at least weekly — and it is now a mainstream business tool for those working from home. But meeting online brings its own challenges — how do you ensure you remain visible and make impact in this digital space, and what are the rules of engagement? We look at how to supercharge your online meetings and dial up your digital to mean business in the ‘new normal’.  

 

SETTING THE STAGE 

Get a good background… ‘You don't invite everyone into your home at an event, but now we're inviting multiple people we don’t know into our environment and showing more of ourselves than we actually ever would before,’ says founder of digital consultancy Transmute, Tiffany St James. ‘As a result, there’s an element of stage management that we're all learning now.’ The wrong background can have an adverse effect on your personal brand – so find or create a dedicated video conferencing area in your home that is neutral and clean, perhaps with an interesting piece of art or plants and books in it. Take a picture before you use it and check that there is nothing in the frame you wouldn’t wish your colleagues to see. Or put a virtual background behind you to obscure the room – most platforms offer options, or choose a suitable one from sites such as canva.com or shutterstock.com. 

Light up your life… Light is the most powerful way to change the way you look for the better…or worse. To maximise positive impact, position yourself facing a gentle light source — the light falling on you from behind your monitor. This can be natural light from a window - or else invest in a light ring, which gives you more options as to where you can sit to take your meetings.  

Get in the frame… Looking down into a screen is deeply unflattering. Prop your monitor up on a few books or alternatively invest in a laptop stand or monitor riser. Position yourself in the top third of your screen and pull back slightly so you aren’t just a talking head. Leaving space between you and the screen will also allow people to see your gestures, helping your audience understand you more easily. 

Dress for success… What you wear is also part of your stage management and the rule stands – act on screen as you would in person. To stand out, wear a bright, block colour top and avoid busy patterns which don’t show up well onscreen. It isn’t necessary to be formal on your bottom half – just remember not to stand up. But sadly, pyjamas really should be avoided if you want to maintain both your sartorial and psychological edge. 

Shut the door… While leeway was given for children interrupting meetings or washing machines going onto spin at crucial moments as we all struggled to adapt during lockdown, the grace period is officially over. The expectation now is that our virtual meeting spaces will be as professional as our physical ones – which means finding a quiet place to work where you won’t be interrupted, letting those you live with know you’re not to be disturbed, and putting phones on mute.  

 

STARTING THE MEETING 

Show yourself… If you want to stand out in a virtual meeting, you need to be on camera. Hiding off-screen behind a name slide or still photo might be tempting, but you have to be present to have presence. ‘New normal’ etiquette is a rolling question and it’s polite to ask the other person how they want to connect — but for most people, visual contact is vital at the beginning of a video call to build trust and engagement. How you greet someone in lieu of a handshake — with a wave, or not — is still up for debate, and of course varies considerably by cultures. And if you are in an online meeting with people you haven’t interacted with before, don’t forget to have a short, memorable introduction to hand when you enter the virtual room. 

Look at the camera… It might feel counterintuitive, but looking at the camera when you’re talking into the screen, instead of staring into people’s faces, mimics the physical feeling of eye contact for the person on the other end. Put a sticker on your computer to remind yourself until it becomes second nature — and alternate with glancing at the screen occasionally to gauge reactions from your audience. 

Watch your body language… Posture communicates instant nonverbal messages about you. Don’t slump over your desk; sit tall with uncrossed arms to evoke energy and confidence. If possible, use a standing desk for even more of a dynamic visual presence. And a smile should be the first facial expression people see, conveying instant warmth, openness and empathy. 

 

KEEPING THE VIRTUAL ROOM ENGAGED 

Start with the end… You may have a ‘captive audience’ online but it is equally easy to lose people’s attention without the physical presence, body language and energy needed to engage a room. Hold attention from the outset by getting to the point quickly — stating your conclusion first, and then working backward, letting people ask for more information as and when they need it.  

Speak up… The 2019 McKinsey and LeanIn.org Women in Workplace report1 found that half of the 68,000 women surveyed had experienced being interrupted, talked over or shut out of the conversation by louder male voices in meetings. And researchers have found the impersonal nature of video conferencing as well as the intimidating nature of being stared at by people on screen has only amplified these issues online.  

Stay engaged and visible in virtual meetings by speaking up regularly. Make a comment or add to a point made early on in the meeting to get your voice heard and you’ll make it easier to be heard later on when you present your ideas. Also ensure you contribute thought-provoking questions to any Q&A sessions to raise your profile and highlight your ability to think differently. And if you are leading the meeting, then consider employing tools such as virtual break out rooms to split the group up and allow more voices to be heard. 

Break up the content… If you are leading a meeting, then don’t just talk your way through it. Make it easier to get your points across as well as keep your team’s attention by making full use of your platform’s inbuilt features – both Zoom and Teams, for example, offer polls, screen sharing, annotating shared content and a chat function for soliciting feedback. 

 

AFTER THE MEETING 

Get some feedback… Record your meeting and watch it with a critical eye to see where you can improve — or send to a trusted friend or mentor for notes. Common things to work on include talking too quickly, punctuating speech with ‘errs’ and ‘ums’ rather than leaving a small confident pause, talking in a high-pitch voice and making nervous gestures.   

Personalise your follow-up… ‘The underlying dynamic of human beings hasn't changed and the trust and generosity that is the bedrock of networking hasn't gone away. You need to use these new digital tools as part of creating that bedrock,’ says Kelly Hoey author of Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships In A Hyper-Connected World. After a meeting, follow up on your connections — thank the host, ask a meeting participant a question or comment on something that interested you in the meeting.