In the 17 or so months that workers went from yawning in live conference-room meetings to yawning during too-long remote meetings, there have been a number of epic fails that have overwhelmed social media and embarrassed the participants.

Perhaps the most infamous is the case of Jennifer, who carried her laptop into the bathroom and took a seat with the camera still on.

There have also been a number of stories of inadvertent nudity, TV talking heads talking over dogs barking and babies crying, or parents who woke for Monday-morning Zooms, unaware their children had played with the computer over the weekend and added a mommy-mustache filter.

But with millions of remote meetings taking place daily, the real problems aren’t the disastrous ones that get their own hashtags, they’re the run-of the-mill ones that are not accomplishing what they were meant to — due to poor presentations, poor engagement or poor listening.

The communications and marketing agency Peppercomm has put a lot of thought into the subject and worked out a remote-meeting strategy during the pandemic. It ran workshops for companies — and its own team — called “Making Yourself Heard in a Virtual World,” which focuses on Zoom prep, content, design and delivery.

Remote Report spoke with Ann Barlow in the Peppercomm San Francisco office and Courtney Ellul in London to get some tips. Both executives are employee-engagement specialists.

Make attendees laugh

First of all, Barlow acknowledged that people are exhausted after so much remote work. The “new normal” of remote work came upon us so quickly, she says, that companies and communications experts spent most of the year just figuring out how to get their meetings done. Only recently have they started working on how to make those meetings more effective.

Ellul says one of the key problems for presenters on video calls is they think they can wing it, and don’t put in the same prep time that they would when having to face a live audience. Other problems include not understanding the audience (it’s much harder to connect with an audience remotely than in person); not controlling the images, charts and graphs onscreen; and not having a backup plan should technical difficulties arise.

Barlow says an important tool in dealing with any of these problems, and in keeping everyone’s attention even should everything go smoothly, is humor. One of the training sessions at Peppercomm involves learning to do stand-up comedy.

“The first time I did stand-up in front of my peers [during Peppercomm’s inaugural training session] was the hardest five minutes of my life,” Ellul said. “The problem, though, was that I was funny and I had to do it all over again for NBC News a few months later — I even watched my routine being played out on Taxi TV on my way into work. That is a full 10 minutes of my life that I will never get back, but I wouldn’t trade the training and experience for anything.”

“You don’t have to be a trained comedian to connect with people,” Ellul added. “Sometimes turning the spotlight on yourself and your own gaffes can go a long way to help you bond. By way of an example, I wrote a blog piece for a senior executive. My contact emailed me to say the exec wasn’t happy with it and it would need to be rewritten. When I spoke with the exec to get her views on how to change the article, I started with ‘I heard you absolutely [pause for effect] loved my writing.’ It wasn’t super funny, but it made her laugh, we connected and then got on with the task at hand.”

‘Let humans be human’

Considering that only a few generations ago, most working people did physical labor, we haven’t fully evolved to sit in one place and stare at a screen all day, so Barlow stresses that it’s essential to “let humans be human” and understand that colleagues get tired.

One way the company helps workers focus is to require them to disconnect, according to Ellul.

The company’s “Gone Fishing” endeavor asks workers to leave their desks for 90 minutes. They may even have the chance to win vouchers to spend on lunch if they leave the house and go to lunch.

But once everyone’s back at their desk and attending a meeting, presenters should think about how they relay their information. It’s all about stage presence.

“One of the things that Ann does great in video meetings is she leans into the camera when she wants you to pay attention,” Ellul said of Barlow.

Barlow adds that when you’re speaking for an extended period to people faced with possible distractions at home while they’re supposed to be listening, “it’s important to change up your cadence — alternate slow versus fast and loud versus soft.”

When employees’ cameras are off, the company urges people to “walk around their rooms or fold clothes,” Barlow says. “Physical multi-tasking is OK — at least you’re listening. When you’re sitting at your computer, you can be checking email and not listening.”

Still, when listeners have their cameras on, it’s important to keep them engaged, she says.

“Team leaders often do 80 percent of the talking in these remote meetings,” Barlow said, “and it’s important to give other people a chance to talk.”

“And get diverse viewpoints,” Ellul added.

Zoom training

A few final Peppercomm tips to make your remote meetings more effective include “Less is more” and, to help speakers learn to make their points quickly and cleverly and not drone listeners into submission or a nap, the company emphasizes that Zoom training is essential.

As part of Zoom training, Peppercomm stresses these points:

  • Keep meetings short to leave time for bathroom breaks and a little decompression in between. “Half-hour” meetings run 25 minutes, “hour” meetings run 50 minutes.
  • Cameras need not be on for the entire meeting. “We like people to start by being present,” Barlow said. “It’s a sign of respect to the speaker.”
  • Friday afternoon meetings don’t require cameras to be on, in case workers have started their happy hours early or are heading to the beach or an afternoon tee time.
  • When you’re on camera, look engaged. It’s hard enough staying energized speaking only to a computer camera — no one wants to face boxes of expressionless zombies.

And one final tip may be most important of all — and it brings us back to the epic fails at the start of this post. The reason those fails became known is because colleagues and co-workers allowed them to become known. When you’re on remote meetings with your colleagues, you need to know that they have your back.

“The No. 1 factor for success for hybrid work is trust,” Barlow said.

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