March 16, 2022

Making Virtual Experiences Count: A Q&A with Karin Reed

Jara Rowe

Content Marketing Manager

While speaking through a webcam might be relatively new to much of the world, Karin Reed has taught business professionals how to be effective on-camera communicators for nearly a decade. Karin is an Emmy award-winning journalist and CEO of Speaker Dynamics, a corporate communications training firm, featured in Forbes.

I had the honor to connect with Karin and learn more about her insights on virtual meetings, including on-camera tips, 'Zoom Fatigue,' exec hesitancy for virtual and more. Find the full Q&A below.

Virtual meetings and events aren't new, but they definitely became more prevalent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, there seems to be a bit of burnout. What is the cause of that burnout?

A lot of it was blamed on what was called 'Zoom Fatigue,' but that was 'video call platform fatigue' period. I always say it's not the platform's fault; it is actually operator error because what happened during the pandemic is that there was this meeting explosion. We had more meetings than ever before, and they lasted longer than ever before with no recovery time. People would be in back-to-back-to-back meetings all day, which is exhausting in any situation regardless of the format you're meeting in. That was a big contributor to the burnout that we were all facing, and even though many of us lost our commute, how did we fill in that time that we got back? With more work.

I always say it's not the platform's fault; it is actually operator error.

I've had a chat with someone else about filling in our time with more meetings. One of the tips that I have is not necessarily to do 30-minute meetings but to do 25-minute meetings, so you have that five minutes of rest to let your brain settle from whatever you were doing previously and digest the meeting.

Some organizations have recalibrated due to all of the fatigue that people were experiencing. They have made adjustments in terms of how long their meetings are. So as you mentioned, 25 minutes, as opposed to 30 minutes, is happening in many different organizations. But I still encounter people who will be five minutes late to the meeting that I'm having with them, and they'll say, "I'm sorry our meeting ran over." So best intentions don't always lead to proper execution.

I think it's safe to say that virtual is here to stay. As you mentioned, many people don't need to commute anymore because they can work from home. Some people are even leaving jobs that force them back into the office. However, some people still feel like virtual kind of sucks due to the lack of interaction and engagement one gets in person. Why do you think people are hesitant to host things virtually?

There is this very common perception that holding things virtually doesn't result in them being engaging, but we're finding so many innovative tools that make engagement possible, in some ways even deeper than if you were meeting in person. It's odd in this environment (on a video platform like Zoom or Teams) that while we might be physically separated, it's actually a pretty intimate conversation that we're having. So you can actually create these pretty tight bonds and build relationships this way, but it takes a bit of rethinking of what that means to foster the relationship. One of the things that people miss from in-person work is what we would call 'social lubrication,' where you don't have the opportunity to chit-chat as you walk down the hall and go into the conference room with your colleague. You don't have moments of spontaneity when you bump into each other in the break room, and that does help to build team cohesion. What it requires you to do in a virtual setting is just be more intentional about it, don't forget that you have to have humanity in your meetings. It's beyond just icebreakers. It's just allowing for moments where you can be real with each other and share what's going on in our lives outside of our specific roles.

It's odd in this environment (on a video platform like Zoom or Teams) that while we might be physically separated, it's actually a pretty intimate conversation that we're having.

At Filo.co, we hear that people want to replicate those sort of ad-hoc meetings, the ones where you can bounce ideas off a coworker in the hallway. Do you have any best practices or tips that you may have picked up that help people replicate those instances?

It's easy to replicate if your team works a set hourly schedule. You can actually have the same sort of virtual experience as you would in person because you can see when they will be online. You can just ping them through whatever platform that you're using. Just like in-person situations, they might say, "I'm not available, I'm actually working on something else. Let's meet a little bit later." However, you still have the opportunity to ping people and hop into a quick call.

Another thing that I would say is if you're holding a virtual event, there are some really innovative ways that platforms create those networking opportunities, but the biggest barrier to their usage is people don't know how to use them. You need to think about the audience and skill them up on how to use the tool. Then it's more likely to be used. It would be best if you did a quick primer on using the technology to empower them to actually adopt it.

Adoption is huge when it comes to new tools which leads me into my next question. At Filo.co, we see employees ready to embrace new tools and meaningful virtual collaboration. But their execs are the ones that are over virtual, perse. They don't want to learn about or invest in a new tool. Why do you think people in exec roles are having such a hard time adapting to how we are currently meeting? What are the known troubles of communicating virtually for them?

Consider the managers of today; most of them have probably moved up the corporate ladder by managing by walking around. They've been able to see their people and see what they're doing and kind of keep tabs on things. In a virtual setting, there's not as much direct facetime. It's outcomes and output, and that can be harder to measure as a manager. So it requires them to rethink how they assess an employee's value completely, and it's hard to make that shift in mindset. Understandably, they'd say, "No. I want my people back. This is the way I've always done things; this is where I feel most comfortable." But I think it's a lost opportunity. Let me give you an example. I was working with a client who said he feels that he knows his new employees better than those hired before the pandemic. He said, "Throughout the entire hiring process, we had this personal portal into their worlds." He said, "I know the names of their children. I've met their pets, and I feel a deeper connection to these employees than those who I hired when we were all co-located." There's great value in having this sort of relationship that is built in this intimate yet separated platform.  There's actually a lot that can be gained from this, so what I would say is you just have to learn how to lead through the lens. You need to understand how to best connect through that camera. The camera is the conduit to your conversation partner, so you want to treat it as such. It just requires you to really be thinking about who you're talking to on the other side and trying to reach them by pouring your energy through that camera lens.

I love that take on being able to connect more with people you're meeting virtually because you do get insights; like people's homes and there have been plenty of times where my dog pops up; I'm actually petting him under my desk right this moment.

It's very authentic, right? You probably wouldn't have felt okay about saying, 'I'm petting my dog under my desk,' you know, a couple of years ago, but now we're all in this kind of different space where the lines are blurred a lot more. I mean, there are pros and cons to that, but I think there's definitely a pro in terms of just how we're seeing our employees, our teammates, our colleagues as whole human beings as opposed to just their roles. There's a lot of work being done right now to try to figure out what that does to the dynamic in the workplace, but I think it's a fascinating thing to consider.

I've seen some really personable people lose what makes them special when it comes to talking on camera. What are some things to kind of combat that and give someone a confidence boost? 

I touched on it a little bit that the camera is the conduit to your conversation partner. If people don't have that in mind, that's when you see a person who's normally very animated in-person look like they've had all their personalities sucked out of them because they do not recognize where their audience is. The audience is not on the screen or even the faces that might be on the screen. Your audience is not a piece of glass. Your audience is the human being or all of the human beings, on the other side of the camera lens, watching you. It requires you to really change how you think about that. Your mental mindset is the key to being effective on camera. Whenever I am talking on any webcam, I always look into the camera lens because I know that, for example for you, Jara,  it feels good for me to be looking at the camera lens.  It probably feels like I'm looking right at you. I'm making good eye contact, and we all appreciate that.  But if I go with my natural impulses, I'm going to look at the screen, but when I look at the screen, it creates a disconnect between me and my audience.

Your audience is not a piece of glass. Your audience is the human being or all of the human beings, on the other side of the camera lens, watching you.

In order to speak with impact, you need to look at the camera. Still, it's not just a matter of saying, "Okay, I'm going to look at the camera." If you stare at the camera only, you look like you're being held hostage by the camera lens, and that's not natural. You want to interact with the camera as you would with a person face-to-face, and we constantly break gaze. We don't stare at people because it makes them feel uncomfortable, right? A quick trick that you can try is to take a picture of a family member or a friend and put it beside your webcam just to remind yourself that there is indeed somebody on the other side; you just can't see them that well.

You touched on this a bit before, but some leaders and execs feel like they can't measure who's engaged or if someone is even paying attention. How do you help with that or are there any tips or tricks? Zoom, for instance, you have comments, you can raise your hand—are there instances that you encourage people to use interaction tools?

There are a couple of different things that I would advocate to encourage participation and keep tabs on who is staying engaged and who is not. First of all, set the standard at the beginning that you want the meeting to be interactive and you want people to be participatory and then let them know all the different ways they can do that. If you are encouraging people to use chat, it is incumbent upon the leader to check out that chat and attend to it. Another thing I would recommend is whenever you are speaking on camera; you should primarily be looking at the camera lens; that does not mean staring at it. You can glance down at the screen, and in less than half a second, you can pick up on the fact that someone is nodding their head—those nonverbal cues help me as a presenter. It doesn't take you staring at the gallery view of the faces on the screen to ascertain whether people are nodding along or nodding off.

Participation is critical because the challenge with these platforms is that people have been conditioned to be passive observers of screens. We want people to be active participants through a screen, so you have to always think about getting people to do stuff, whether it's putting something in chat, raising their hand or answering a poll. You always want to have these kinds of tools of engagement that you use throughout any sort of session.

We want people to be active participants through a screen, so you have to always think about getting people to do stuff, whether it's putting something in chat, raising their hand or answering a poll.

At Filo.co, we are big fans of meaningful engagement. Our tool is built to help people interact and work better together. We are big advocates of intentional engagement during virtual events and meetings.

The one thing that I forgot to mention, which is key to all of this, is everybody has to have their camera on. If it's a small enough meeting that you can all fit on one screen, you need to have your camera on because it helps the person who's leading the meeting see how their message is resonating but also helps you as the attendee to hold yourself accountable. If you have your video off, it would be too enticing for you to start multitasking by opening another tab or checking email. That leads to a less effective meeting overall, and research has found that you have three more meetings for every one bad meeting and we don't need more meetings.

Karin, it's been great to get your insights. So to wrap this up. What are some general on-camera tips to ensure that we all look our best when it comes to being on camera during a virtual meeting or event?

This is kind of what I would call your 'personal production value' and how you show up whenever you're on a webcam. The first thing you want to think about is what your background is. You want your background to be professional, neutral and not distracting. A lot of people like the [custom] virtual backgrounds; I say that's great, except just make sure that it layers appropriately. You don't want to have those really watery edges where the background eats parts of your hair because the artificial intelligence is good, but it's not perfect. If you're using a regular background, just make sure that there's nothing behind you that could pull focus from you. You want the focus to be on you, the messenger, and not on your bobblehead collection behind you. You can have one conversation starter, but you don't want to have 10. 

The next thing I would say is to think about how you're framing yourself. You want to make sure that you take up as much screen space as possible. I suggest following the three-finger rule; if you take three fingers, you stack them on top of your head, and that's the amount of space you want to have between the top of the head and the top of the frame. This is important because when you're talking to somebody face to face, you're not looking at them from head to toe as you're talking to them now. You're taking in their body language from about this much space. You want to give the same sort of canvas that they can read in a virtual setting.

Last, I would be mindful of where you have your camera positioned. It should be at eye level. If you're using your webcam on your laptop, you might be tempted to keep it down on your desk, but then that often looks like you're looking down on your conversation partner. If you have an external webcam, you might put it on top of your monitor, but then maybe you're looking up, and you're like a little kid asking a parent for permission. You want to make sure that your webcam is at eye level.

To get more insights from Karin, you can watch the full Q&A below.