Designing Electronic Conferencing that's Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent: Part II
Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Mastering the Medium, the Message, and the Meeting - Part II
Part I of this essay captured one of the ironies of our ever-changing and expanding technical world: when it comes to electronic meetings, phone conferences, webinars and webcasts, the need for traditional "soft or people skills" - emotional-interpersonal intelligence, verbal and nonverbal communication/presentation, group dynamics, and leadership-facilitation - is more critical than ever. Increasingly, an organization's capacity to survive and thrive depends on the adaptation of these skillsets across a range of interactive media. The operational and tactical challenge becomes generating something like a parallel or analogous "live" and engaging experience that is "effective, efficient, and emotionally intelligent" in the virtual realms of individual and group learning, sharing, and decision-making.
Part I also presented the first two skills, structures, and strategies for bridging the electronic meeting/conferencing/training world of "high tech and high touch." The twelve "hands on" tools will be evenly divided among the six segments of this series. These planning-focusing-communicating-connecting tools and techniques will help leaders, presenters, and participants maximize the use of the medium, the message, and the meeting. If you are up for the challenge, here are two-more "low- or medium tech and high touch" recommendations, "The Dynamic Dozen +1 Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Successful Phone/Web Conferencing":
3. Be Aware of the Obvious Challenges of Phone Communication. On a non-Skype conference call, the inability to view your audience means many interpersonal messaging cues and clues are not available. Still, videoconferencing can provide some useful "macro" audience images e.g., are people seemingly attentive, restless, slouching or sitting upright, using large or sweeping hand gestures, "multi-texting" - a compressed version of multitasking & texting - unless their device is hidden under a table, etc. However, most video conferences do not yield "micro" visual nonverbals (e.g., facial expressions, some subtle hand gestures, and overall body language) in adequate detail or resolution. Of course, pacing of speech, volume, inflection, tone, exaggeration, pausing, clearing the throat, etc. are all important auditory markers; however, they can't fully compensate, for the lack of visual data. Again, achieving congruity between message sent and received becomes more challenging. Here are four clear implications for phone conferencing transmission:
a. Be Concrete, if Not Vivid. Use concrete and descriptive images rather than abstract or overly conceptual language, e.g., I recall a manager trainee's phrase describing the effects of major organizational restructuring: "I once had a career path, then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it." Well, you may not want to be overly dramatic but being vivid and visual gets your message across.
b. Design "Bihemispheric" Power Point Slides. Integrate both words and visuals when using slides; the visuals should help your bullets hit home if not explode in the viewer's consciousness.
c. Expand and Modify the KISS Mantra. Consider this on point, no "b.s." variation of the KISS mantra when it comes to phone or web presentations: Be Smart - Keep It Simple and Short!
d. Repetition, Reframe, & Reinforcement. With an absence of visual interpersonal-communicational cues and myriad distractions lurking, it's essential to tackle a realistic number of problem-solving issues or learning concepts. Try providing multiple, "be smart" KISS messages. You don't have to literally repeat word for word, though some repetition rarely hurts, and, in fact, is usually helpful; to get your points across, reframe and reinforce the select, critical themes and concerns (by using related yet varied ideas and images). For example, use a concrete reminder with people who tend to be "all or none" thinkers that, as often as not, the glass isn't "half full or half empty but half full and half empty." And, an obvious observational aid: are there lipstick stains?
4. Find "Small" and Meaningful Areas of Personal and Cultural Connection. A phone conference or webinar, even with the best video technology, cannot fully recreate living, breathing, "in the flesh" (fl-2-fl) intimate connection. All participants, but especially leaders and presenters, need to recognize, seize, and provide "personal touch" opportunities. And stirring up some quick connection is especially necessary when time is limited and there is only a small window for casual chatting. Some personal tips for promoting more "intimate" connection:
a. Arrive Early. Before formally starting the electronic program, while waiting for participants to arrive, there's often a chance for some casual banter.
b. Acknowledge Areas of Broad Interest or Concern. During the informal to formal meeting transition or as part of a brief meeting opener, start with a light-hearted story, or acknowledge a subject with broad appeal, e.g., the doings of a local sports team or the winners of "Dancing with the Stars." (Obviously, tread carefully around sensitive issues like politics or religion.) Sometimes a quick morning huddle (if time zones permit) is a good way to increase the likelihood that all are starting on the same screen, or at least huddling can highlight what may (or may not) be coming down the pike.
Finally, while not an electronic example, consider this attempt at connecting to common dis-ease. I was speaking at a live "Health and Wellness" Conference in Indianapolis, IN in 2011, while the state's populace was awaiting the decision of the Indianapolis Colts' President regarding the football fate and destiny of the renowned, longstanding quarterback, Peyton Manning. Inextricably tied to the Colts and their rejuvenation as a franchise and sports mecca, would Manning, for a variety of reasons ranging from personal health to contractual concerns, be compelled to ply his craft for another team? Before launching into my keynote, I couldn't resist observing that many in the audience, and not just the females, seemed to be struggling with a previously unrecognized and quite edgy form of PMS - Peyton Manning Stress Syndrome! No matter the medium, humor definitely can quickly generate common cause and help jumpstart a meeting.
c. Don't Pass Up that Personal Connection. During brief intros at the start of a business phone conference, a client mentioned her previous employment at Stony Brook University. I immediately recognized a personal "touch" opportunity, declaring: "I'm an alum." We immediately diverted into some personal/school history. My team members recognized the "kindred-credibility-business" value of such a connection. (See vignette below.).
d. Recognize Diversity Along with Universality. For me, acknowledging both common human qualities and concerns along with multicultural diversity and distinction is the Yin & Yang of interpersonal intelligence. Diversity consciousness exposes the limitations of the traditional mantra, "There's no 'I' in team." As mentioned previously, in actuality, a successful team is a collection of "I"s possessing bio-psycho-social-geographical-cultural-historical commonalities and distinctions. The members purposefully choose and passionately work (and play) to transform a conglomeration into a productive and supportive blend of "individual creativity" and "interactive community." That is, through dialogue, trial and error practice, challenge, conflict, leadership, and group coordination the distinctive parts evolve into synergistic partners striving for the greater goal, gain, and good. Or consider this more succinct but no less organic or holistic perspective for capturing the complementary relationship of "universality and diversity" or "group and individual": If universality is the forest, then diversity is the individual trees.
Diversity Case Vignette
Finally, here's a closing "diversity in action" hypothetical: I participated in a recent phone conference meeting of a time-sensitive nature with a Company Principal, two Company Consultants (an IT Design Consultant and a Communications-Team Building Consultant, yours truly), and a Vice Chancellor of a major southern state university. (The two consultants and the university administrator were all meeting for the first time.) The call was related to winning a major division computer system upgrade/team retreat contract. After some brief intros, the Principal instructed the IT Design person to begin his "how we can help you" technological pitch. After about five minutes of his non-stop talking, while using some abstract terminology, I was becoming increasingly antsy and eventually "interjected during the presentation: "A. you're making very important points; I'm wondering how C. is taking all this in?" (From my perspective, mine was a sensitive and tactful intervention; according to some present, my behavior either threatened the perception of team unity and/or was an impatient if not attention-seeking "interruption.") Professionally speaking, the glaring problem was not the quality of my colleague's selling points, but the quantity...and a lack of "message sent/received" connection. Mr. IT Design was not pausing and checking in with any audience members, especially the client being wooed. I feared he was inducing TIO -Technical Information Overload - first cousin to a TIA - Transient Ischemic Attack! (You know, those mini-heart/brain attacks that often are a prelude to a stroke.)
In hindsight, it's possible that regional-cultural diversity supported or, at least, influenced my bold move during the "run-on" presentation. Both my colleagues have southern roots; I'm pretty sure the client, like me, has a northern background. Perhaps placing greater value on the social graces, southerners, in general, may be a bit more accommodating, less impatient, in this situation; "Yankees" tend to be more comfortable with (or at least used to) more abrupt interaction. (And the southerner may feel a greater sense of injury and injustice in the face of such effrontery.) In response to my query about how she was handling the info load, after an awkward silence, the client paraphrased key points of my colleague's presentation. (He took this as a sign that my interruption was unnecessary, I believe a questionable assumption.) She did not, wave off my question and instruct the IT Consultant to soldier on. What do you think of my action and analysis? Perhaps I should mention that while my first twenty-five years took place in New York City and environs, I then lived in N'Awlins for sixteen years; and for the past twenty + years I've resided in the Metro-Washington, DC area. And you know what President Kennedy famously said about Beltway inhabitants: we possess characteristics reflecting the best of both North and South - Northern civility and Southern efficiency!
Stay tuned for Part III and two more of the Dynamic Dozen +1: "Connect to Pain and Passion Using Client's Words and Language" and "Deliver Meaningful Messages in Organized Chunks and Concise & Colorful Stories." Until then…Practice Safe Stress!