Seven Keys to Mastering the Message,
the Medium, and the Meeting:
Designing Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent Phone/Web Conferences
By Mark Gorkin
One of the ironies of our ever-changing and expanding “TNT” – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted world: when it comes to electronic meetings, phone conferences, webinars, and webcasts, the need for traditional so-called “soft people skills” is more critical than ever. To build an “effective, efficient, and emotionally intelligent” audio and/or video bridge to virtual meeting participants requires both “high tech and high touch skills. Hey, if you’re like my girlfriend, I know you are a wizard with your SmartPhone and IPad (cause you’re always touting a new app, bragging another Apple class or personal consultation, or talking about your latest time-saving discovery, etc.). Hey, my standard reply, “I’m impressed…but I have an IMind!
Apparently, many who are becoming so dependent on their gadgets appear in jeopardy of losing theirs, especially when it comes to interpersonal communication. Our attention spans and “impatience thresholds” are shrinking while that “need-to-know-right-now-the-fate-of-‘it’s-all-about-me’-world-is-on-the-line” (ntkrntfo“iaam”wiotl) attitude skyrockets out of the virtual ether, while simple common sense problem-solving appears on the verge of extinction. (For example, an otherwise bright, young out-of-town businesswoman on the DC Metro Red Line was trying so hard to figure out with her SmartPhone which train station to exit, the thought of calling the commercial establishment of her destination for directions escaped her. She was startled by my suggestion.)
The Assumptions-Anonymity-Aggression Axis
We also tend to forget that when involved in sensory-deprived communication media such as a phone or even video conference, some noteworthy effects emerge. Loss of sensory data, even on a high quality video conference, deprives us of nonverbal nuances, subtle facial gestures, and the “eyes as windows to the soul” effect. Not only do participants jump quickly to questionable conclusions; they also often fall into “all or none” or “black or white” perspective if not posturing. When combined with stress and time pressures or personal "hot buttons," deficits in sensory data often mean premature inferences and rigidified assumptions come into play, especially when making judgments about other people’s motives or actions. For example, while from a different medium, think political campaign TV ads. Let’s call it the Karl Rove, political pit-bull effect. (Hmmm…I wonder if the PETA folks are going to accuse me of defamation of character.)
Sensory deficit and a sense of anonymity reduce a capacity for empathy; it makes it harder to walk in another’s shoes (and especially to feel their bunions). It also hardens the assumptive arteries, slows down blood flow to the brain, and makes it easier to aggress against an invisible, virtual, hardly flesh and blood target. (In fact, the Skypeian Age means the expression “f-2-f” no longer works as shorthand for live, face-to-face, being in the same room dialogue. Now we need an “fl-2-fl” acronym – flesh-to-flesh – for capturing the interactive potential to literally “reach out and crush…I mean touch someone.”
The electronic age allows for all kind of aggressive interaction; when hiding behind a keyboard or IPad screen or “Not so Smart” phone, it’s easy to take on a Dirty Harry, “Make My Day” avatar. (And this is not just a male issue; there are plenty of Rambettes prowling the Internet.) Remember, your primitive brain is hardwired not only to a flashing and fiery tongue but also to those dart- and flame-throwing thumbs and fingers. I think we need a new mantra: Anonymity is the father of aggression!
Boneheads and Bonapartes
Alas, I warned about the effects of Internet anonymity and acting out aggression through electronic counterstriking with the ‘90s essay, “Is It an Email or E-missile?” The essay was inspired by a DC think tank consultant who wasn’t thinking. Engaged in a long distance electronic debate that was becoming increasingly personal, our hero mistakenly hits the “Send All” button. Now a scathingly “hot” email becomes a “heat seeking” missile, but not for the intended target-antagonist across the country. This screaming missile-missive explodes in about a thousand inboxes around the globe. Big surprise: the next day, the director of the think tank has him in my office for “Anger Management” sessions.
There’s an inverse relationship between anonymity and aggression (perceiver aggression goes up ↑) and anonymity and empathy (perceiver empathy goes down ↓). Hmm…maybe some use of the “mute” button not just for distraction but for detachment – to short-circuit morphing into a mutant monster – is not such a bad idea.
When it comes to running a meeting, especially the phone conference variety, personality transformations are not uncommon. An IT Officer of a bank shared how when the CEO holds electronic phone conferences he becomes a pushy, “little Napoleon.” When running a live, fl-2-fl, in-the-same-room meeting he’s still a no-nonsense, “let’s get it done” leader; however, the bodies and eyes in the room evoke a degree of executive concern for how the living, breathing, emotionally sentient social group is appraising him. Some form of social approval-social control helps tamp down Mr. B.s excess testosterone and lurking, aggressive shadow side.
The Strategic Seven
Clearly, it takes a level of emotional insight-communicational intelligence to navigate these technologically turbulent channels. To build that “High Tech and High Touch Phone & Web Conferencing Bridge,” you can’t do better than The Superior, Scintillating, and Strategic Seven – Rule Your Virtual Universe. (However, there is a caveat. These strategies may be dangerous for the ironically-impaired.):
1. Plan the Nike Way. Don’t waste time with a preconference or webinar dry run, just because someone in IT is a “Nervous Nerdie.” You go with the flow. (Of course, the tech support person’s tears may be flowing.) In addition, when preparing for a conference, don’t get bogged down with planned or structured agendas; in fact, why have an agenda of any kind. And forget about time limits for presenters. Bring your spontaneity; you believe in “Chaos Theory”; and you once had an improv class. This is the age of hyper-speed and hypertext. Just do it…Don’t direct it!”
2. Darwin Not Robert’s Rules. Without a structured agenda, the fastest, loudest, brashest, and BOLDEST talkers or typers insure the survival of the fittest ideas and plans. Of course, there’s a simple way to transform Darwinian discourse into meaningful dialog...but open, “Helmet’s off,” “No rank in the room” discussion is just a fantasy; besides, it takes way too much energy and effort. So just put everyone on “mute” for the meeting; then leave two minutes for questions at the end. (People will likely rush off for a coffee or bathroom break; you shouldn’t have any need to fill those closing minutes.)
Perhaps, some people will multi-task during your presentation. At least people won’t be bored; there won’t be all that distracting input, insight and interaction, or that petty nitpicking of your ideas, nor any challenge to your egoal-driven, on-track (or is it one-track?) strategic mind and plan. While some claim, “Repetition and competition may be the law of nature but variation and cooperation appear to be the rule of life!”…bah humbug. You’re a “natural law” leader. (For example, see Adam Gopnik’s, Angels and Ages: Darwin, Lincoln and a Short Book about Modern Life.)
3. Take Command. Of course, sometimes there’s not time for any of this feel good, democratic participation. Hey, if you’re the program leader or presenter, once you get on a roll, maintain that role. You’ve earned your stripes and that “Monarchical Monologue.” You have a compelling vision; others must see its unassailable wisdom. (And don’t let some smart mouth tell you that sometimes there’s a fine line between vision and hallucination!)
4. Stay on Point after Point. And just because you sense people are not totally following your message, don’t distract yourself or cloud the dispatch by checking in with the audience. Continue to reiterate your ideas or, better yet, tell another mentally meandering, yet so obviously illuminating story…and another. Specifically defined end points are for obsessive control freaks; life’s a journey.
Remember, you’re not running a focus group. When you want others’ opinions, you’ll ask. Ask any marketing maven: many times you must keep repeating a message before it sinks in. And if someone accuses you of being an egotist or an elitist, simply declare, “Au contraire.” You are a kindred spirit of the Energizer Bunny…You just keep talking…and talking…and talking!
5. It’s Not Power Point for Nothing. If people object to your spontaneous and repetitious storytelling, show them. Bombard your audience with power point slides, and follow the text to the letter. If you want to throw in some gratuitous graphics, go ahead. But never lose sight of the power of a tightly scripted idea. You can distill complex issues into non-deviating bullets and sound bites. The best pols do it all the time, speaking of power and the survival of the fittest.
6. If You Must, Take a Poll. If participants view electronic meetings as “Big Brother in the Virtual Ether” and are reluctant to disclose, then subtly worded poll Qs just may have a polygraphic effect. At minimum, for poll questions not to be a time waster, cram several issues into each poll question. Complex questions with multiple parts to the question, the more abstract the better, make you seem erudite. They may generate some confusion but people will hang onto your every word, especially if there’s an evaluative quiz at the end; just as if you were a distinguished academic professor. Which leads us to…
7. Develop an Academic Presentational Style. Commanding presentation demands a serious, authoritative, all-knowing, and lofty if not a tad haughty oratorical presence. Consistent tone or monotone – as in monologue – suggests gravitas and not a “hobgoblin of little minds.” Polish and precision trumps personal sharing and earthly passion every time, despite that Frenchman, La Rouchefoucald’s warning: Passions are the only orators which always persuade. They are like an act of nature, the rules of which are infallible; and the simplest man who has some passion persuades better than the most eloquent who has none. Come on…what can some 17th century man of letters tell us about a TNT world where the medium is the message???
Many people are not sold on these new electronic learning, sharing, and decision-making arenas. And even fewer seem to have mastered a capacity for imparting information and generating interactive discussion and decision-making. Yet, of course, companies and organizations are flocking to all variety of virtual venues. It’s a perfect storm for an early adaptor wanting to impart his or her own mind-print on “Effective, Efficient and Emotionally Intelligent Electronic Conferencing.” So try the “Stress Doc’s Seven Superior and Scintillating Strategies.” You too can rise above if not master the message, the medium, and the meeting (and even the masses) and rule your virtual world!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and webinar speaker and "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. A training and Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Consultant for the National EAP/Wellness Company, Business Health Services in Baltimore, MD, the Doc is also leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for various branches of the Armed Services. Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.