In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Justine Jablonska chats with video communications expert Karin M. Reed about her book, Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work (Wiley, 2021). The Emmy-award-winning broadcast journalist and CEO of Speaker Dynamics compiled her expertise with coauthor Joseph Allen’s data into an engaging and practical guide about how to both lead and participate in virtual meetings. An edited version of the conversation follows.
What problem are you hoping to solve with this book?
Initially, when the pandemic hit, everybody took emergency action in order to move business forward. So they grabbed whatever tools they could to work remote from home, to get business done.
And it might not have necessarily been the thing that worked best; it was just the thing that worked. A year into the pandemic, people are starting to be a bit more strategic in how they’re using those tools and what kind of tools they want to use. Our book is designed to be a practical guide: data-based insights coupled with real-world application; best practices that are based in science.
Efficiency is key
Can you share best practices around video meetings?
A lot of best practices for making meetings really effective seem like common sense, but they’re uncommonly practiced. And a lot of those bad habits are exacerbated in a virtual setting. Video calls don’t need to happen if they are simply a matter of checking a point or a quick information share. But we’re missing out on those conversations when you poke your head into somebody’s office and say, “Hey, a quick follow-up on that.”
There’s also a matter of understanding about the best way to use video and virtual meetings. The most effective ones are shorter and purpose-driven. So rather than an agenda of ten items, think about an agenda of two items, and get into that meeting and get stuff done. Chop things up so that you have a 20-minute meeting, as opposed to a two-hour meeting, because you have to understand the limits of endurance and attention span in this environment.
It’s also important to determine who should be in the meeting. The sweet spot for any productive discussion that needs to lead to a decision is five to seven people. And that is any meeting, whatsoever. If you have more than seven people in a virtual meeting and you’re trying to have a productive dialogue, it’s very unwieldy.
What are some practical tips for video-meeting participants?
One of the mistakes that I see people make is they ignore how they show up whenever they are speaking on webcam. And there are a couple of things that you should definitely be attending to. It’s not a matter of vanity. It’s a matter of being respectful of your conversation partner. If your face is in shadow or your audio is really crackly, it’s the equivalent of forcing somebody to have a phone call with you when the connection is bad.
You want to make sure that you can communicate effectively in full. First of all, ensure that your background is uncluttered and nondistracting. Make sure that you don’t have anything behind you that would reveal something about you that you wouldn’t want revealed, but also that could potentially pull focus. Anything that distracts will detract from your message.
It’s a matter of being respectful of your conversation partner. If your face is in shadow or your audio is really crackly, it’s the equivalent of forcing somebody to have a phone call with you when the connection is bad.
The second thing I would focus on is lighting your face. Facial expressions are so critical in conveying your message, so make sure that people can easily read them.
The third thing I would consider is your audio. Record yourself on a video call so you can hear how your audio sounds, or hop on a call with a trusted colleague or friend who will tell you how you sound. Don’t just rely on the built-in microphone on your laptop. Oftentimes, they don’t have clear audio fidelity.
Consider your camera position: you want your camera at eye level. A lot of times, people are using the webcam that’s embedded in their laptop, and they keep it down on their desk or down on the table, and they appear to be looking down. Whenever you look down, it’s like you’re looking down on the person you’re having the conversation with. We would never do that in a face-to-face conversation. You don’t want to do that in a virtual setting. If you’re using a laptop, elevate it. Put it on a stack of books or on a box. If you have an external webcam, stick it on a tripod, and then you can adjust the height based on what works in your space. And then ensure that you are squarely framed, meaning that you have a little bit of space between the top of your head and on either side of your shoulders.
Why is eye contact important during virtual meetings?
This is always a challenge for people in a virtual setting. If you want to speak with impact, you need to be looking primarily at the camera lens. Now this will go against every natural impulse that you have, because the majority of us want to make eye contact with our conversation partners. And typically, they’re on the screen. But guess what? The camera is not embedded in the screen, so you need to actually look at the camera lens, or else you’ll look like you’re looking down or looking in a place that is not into the eyes of your conversation partner.
As the speaker, you spend less time looking at the listener than the listener does looking at the speaker. You want to interact with the camera as if you are with a person face-to-face. So primarily you’re pouring energy through the camera lens, but you are not staring into it.
Engage with participants
What’s your advice for virtual-meeting leaders?
Proactive facilitation is critical in any virtual meeting because there’s a lot of stilted and stunted conversation. People don’t know when it’s their turn to talk. I advocate cold calling with good intention, meaning call on people by name to let them know, “OK, you have the floor.”
You can look for nonverbal cues that might indicate that somebody has something to say. If somebody leans toward the camera, that’s usually an indication that they have something they want to add. If somebody unmutes themselves, I will say, “Hey, Justine, it looks like you have something to say.” And maybe they say, “No, I don’t have anything to say.” But I’d rather have you err on that side than just have a period where nobody is responding and you don’t engage in dialogue.
The chat feature is a great functionality for many platforms, especially if you have a larger meeting, or if you are dealing with a global team. We have to start rethinking what we consider to be participation. In a large video meeting, it can be really daunting to get the gumption to speak up. Folks might find it much easier to put their participation in the form of text. The challenge is for the leader to take a look at that chat and incorporate that into the verbal conversation.
What surprised you most throughout your research?
The genesis of the book came from a webinar that I did with my coauthor Dr. Joseph Allen, who is a meeting scientist. We were talking about the future of the modern meeting, postulating that three, five, ten years out, virtual meetings were going to become a big part of how we do business, and that video would be at their core.
That was the first week of March of 2020. Think about what happened the second week of March 2020. Everything went haywire. We were suddenly all on these video-collaboration platforms. The exponential adoption of video-collaboration tools was really surprising to me in terms of how quickly people said, “Yes, we need to use these.”
Will virtual meetings stick around?
All trends indicate that we will be in a hybrid situation for the foreseeable future. Some folks are very anxious to come back to the brick-and-mortar office. Other folks are saying, “This remote work is really working for me.”
You have to be able to figure out how to handle a hybrid meeting where you have three people in a co-located conference room here, three people in a co-located conference room there, and then five people joining on an individual webcam. And the challenge for the meeting leader is to figure out how to get everybody to talk to each other.