As remote work practices have come to define the “new normal” for most organizations, the question arises: How can my colleagues and I be more effective communicators through online meeting and conference call platforms?
While many resources help users become adept at remote technologies, we’ve found few that address the role that communications techniques play in supporting our virtual presence. So we turned to a voice and speech specialist, Lisa Anne Porter, who provides coaching for Springboards clients. “Trying to find the optimal arrangement for remote and virtual communications is a challenge,” she says. “And when you add in issues related to cultural, language, and geographic differences among a company’s workforce, there is even greater need for enhanced techniques that aid vocal projection and comprehension.”
Below, Lisa responds to some common questions and provides useful tips for remote workers. Many of these suggestions can be applied in person as well to help you be more comfortable, effective, and productive. We’d also like to hear your questions and any ideas you have found helpful for maximizing remote communications.
Sitting alone at a home desk for extended periods of time can be tiring and stressful. What tips do you have for destressing?
First, breathe! Make sure that you are breathing as you type and read. Let your lower jaw become heavy so you are not unconsciously clenching your jaw. Get up and stretch/walk/dance every hour. Make sure that your computer screen is at eye level, your chair is comfortable, and your desk or table is not too low. Keep asking yourself what is the easiest way to do this task in order to exert the least amount of tension necessary.
How does a breathing and stretching routine help support the quality of a person’s verbal communications?
Breath is the blueprint for sound. Simply put, without breath there is no voice. If you are holding your breath (and you’d be surprised how often people are unaware of doing this) or if physical tensions are restricting your breath, your voice becomes tight and limited in range. Those listening to you will feel/hear the tightness and limitation in your voice and it will consciously or subconsciously affect how they experience you and respond to what you are saying. If you continue to speak without breath support, you will actually damage your voice. It is like trying to drive a car without oil in the engine.
What vocal exercises are most vital in relieving stress and settling nerves?
I recommend many exercises but they all begin with an awareness of physical tension. So we typically start with exercises to find relaxation and free the breath—and therefore the voice.
How important is maintaining posture?
It’s easy to get so focused on the screen that you forget about posture – but doing so can make you feel bad and look bad. Sit with your feet on the floor so that your thigh bones and calf bones make a right angle (put your feet up on a book if need be). Sit up on your sitz bones, let your belly muscles relax. Drop the triangles of your shoulder blades down and back. And remember to get up and stretch at least every hour. Especially over a long video call, and when others are talking, it can be easy to slip into body language that communicates low energy or inattentiveness.
Additional posture tips:
For conference calls (non-video)
It can help to stand, rather than sit, to keep your energy level up and to keep you focused. Use a headset and move around — this will keep your voice from “slouching.” If it is quiet and you can walk outside, walk around your backyard, or in front of your house. The change of scenery may allow you to problem solve more creatively as you are changing your visual field/location.
For video calls
Your relationship to the camera can affect perception of status. The best position is to have the camera at eye level so that you are looking at the speaker/listener head on. If you are looking up into the camera, you are placing them above you; if you are looking down into the camera, you are placing the speaker/listener below you.
If extended screen time is contributing to eye strain, try switching the video off and just listening, which may be a better option than appearing distracted or bored. In my current meetings, it has become perfectly acceptable to do so—and we just use the “chat” feature to note that we are doing it to prevent eye strain. Finally, don’t forget to have an appropriate background. You know what the culture of your office is and what is appropriate. You can use a photograph of an ideal background or select a virtual background screen if the home situation is distracting (pets, children, laundry, etc.). My favorite so far: the deck of the Starship Enterprise, used by our office coordinator as her virtual screen.
What types of clients do you help through your coaching?
I have worked with everyone from executive coaching to students, helping CEOs, professional consultants, technology specialists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, performing artists, members of the clergy, etc.—in other words, a pretty wide range. Our desire to improve how we come across to others, especially in a professional setting, is universal.
What about the stress most of us experience when we have to “take the mic” and lead the conversation or call, often with a client or senior colleague? Can you tell us about a client who was dealing with high stress and who saw positive outcomes from breathing, vocal, and/or physical exercises?
Truthfully, every client I have worked with has commented on how the recommended exercises allow them to feel calmer, more present, more confident and clearer in their thinking and expression. The exercises have been especially helpful for people going into high-stress meetings because these exercises help people to better control the adrenaline rush and to lower their fight/flight response. They find that they can then listen more accurately and respond more thoughtfully and completely.
Many of Springboards clients are multicultural professionals who may face issues around language, accent, and projection, all of which can be magnified in remote communications. Do you have any tips that would be helpful to them?
The first step is to slow down your speech, and speak directly into the camera so the listener can see your mouth. Visually seeing the movements of the speaker’s mouth makes a huge difference. Also, pause often to get confirmation that you are being understood. If you have a lot to share, consider making a very brief summary now and then, so if listeners missed what you said the first time, they have another chance. You might even begin by saying that because of technology you will be checking in to make sure that the audio is clear.
Also, let listeners know that they should feel free to use the chat feature to ask you to repeat or clarify anything and that you will be checking it as you go along. It is very important that people feel free to let you know early on in the conversation if they are having trouble understanding — some may feel uncomfortable acknowledging that they are not getting what you are saying or asking you to repeat yourself. The idea is to bring them along and all find clarity together. Otherwise, if you wait too long, they may miss an important point, lose track of your argument, become frustrated and “check out.”