I found myself communicating remotely a lot more this year, and quite probably so have you – think meetings, feedback rounds, ideation sessions…
Remote communication is here to stay, and that is a fact.
What I noticed in the last few months though is how much my own way of working and communicating remotely has changed: it changed in my livestreams, during one-to-one coaching sessions, in my leadership videos…
And it’s changed for the better – let me show you:
Here’s the before…
and here the after…
It wasn’t easy or quick, and (as I’m sure it was for you) it was frustrating and borderline exhausting.
So to make your life easier and help you become a better communicator, I thought I’d collect a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Follow these tips and you’ll see how much you’ll be able to improve your remote communication in just a short amount of time.
The major difference that I like to make explicit when I talk about remote communication is this: you have less to rely on.
In remote communication you have less to rely on
In a one-to-one, in-person setting you can work with your voice levels, context, body language and you can consider a lot more elements to shape how you communicate.
In a remote communication setting though, you only have a partial view of the person and a partial view of the context and vice versa.
Bascally you are going from THIS…
See the difference?
In the top photo you can focus on the whole figure of this person, read body language as a whole and the background loses importance.
In the bottom one, though, you have a lot less to rely on and whatever is visible in that square becomes a lot more obvious. Take the plant branch, it’s really visible in the bottom photo and it attracts a lot more attention than in the top one!
It’s the case for you and it’s the case for the person on the other side: you BOTH have less information and data to rely on and whatever you have going wrong is a lot more evident.
If that’s the case, then the only thing you can do is double down on what you have and make sure you give away and read as much information as you can.
To do that there are three basics you need to start with:
Get a camera (and headphones and a mic and lights later on).
Getting a proper camera and positioning it right will solve about 50% of your remote communication problems. Simple as that.
Why, you ask?
Because the clearer and the better the image you send the other person, the easier to understand you will be, the more enjoyable the call with you will be, the more information you will be able to exchange.
In other words: the clearer and better the other person sees you, the more attention that person will want to pay you – i.e. exactly what you are looking for.
The clearer and better the other person sees you, the more attention that person will want to pay you
If you want to go for another one, by all means please do but get something that has been geared to streamers or professionals. Basically something that will improve how clearly the other person sees you.
Sure, it’s an investment – but it doesn’t need to be a major one (give or take 80 to 100 €) and most importantly it’s worth it.
Once you have it, this is the basic setup:
Set the camera and make sure it’s at eye-level, i.e. you can look straight into it and you don’t need to look up or down – that alone makes a major difference
Set up your mic (or use the camera-integrated one) as your sound source
Plug in headphones and make sure you can hear yourself speaking. Do NOT make the mistake of relying on your computer speakers. Why? First of all because they will echo in your mic and create a mess, and second because that’s the only way you can guarantee you have the right quality of sound.
(wait: what about mic, lights, the lot?)
Sure, once you have that camera you can also go crazy with building a whole home studio: microphones, lights, audio interface…
If you want to do that, go ahead, I’m sharing my own setup with you below if you need guidance.
If you’re not sure yet, I suggest you start with the camera, then move to a mic+audio interface and then get some studio lights.
If you feel like you need more light and don’t want to buy an expensive studio one, just use whatever lightbulb you’ve got kicking around, it will do the job.
Here is my studio setup if you want to take a look.
Again if you are just getting started just stick to a camera and leave the rest be for now.
Learn remote body language basics
If in remote communication you have less to rely on, you need to take the little you have and use it best you can.
What I mean is that whenever you are in conversation with someone else in person, you can look at that person’s posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, microexpressions and position in the environment.
Body language, basically.
And as I’m sure you know you can gather an insane amount of information just by keeping an eye on it.
You can gather an insane amount of information just by keeping an eye on body language – even remotely
In remote communication your view of the other person is limited though, by about 75%.
That said, you can still read quite a lot from it, but you need to:
pay a lot more attention to it
be proficient in reading it
understand a few more signals that are specific to remote communication
To get you started, here is a quick breakdown
Remote body language signals
A good remote communication tip is to look at 3 areas to read someone’s body language:
Posture, expressions and movements
are the person’s eyes fixed on the screen or do you see them moving around? If they are moving around, chances are that they are doing something else and not paying attention to you (e.g. reading an email, scrolling Facebook…)
is the other person looking elsewhere? This can have different meanings:
looking up right or up left means they are thinking or imagining something
looking away (bottom right or left) means they are embarassed or sorry about something
is the other person squinting? This may mean they are trying to focus (on you or on something else, look at their eye movement pattern to find out)
Apart from having their shoulders open or closed (which means openness to the conversation or defensiveness), check if you can see them moving.
If the other person’s shoulders are moving, it may mean they are moving their mouse or typing, or in any case not paying attention – check their eye movement pattern to be sure of it.
There is however one thing that is different in remote communication: how people move.
Simply put, think about what you do when you are nervous or impatient in a call: you fiddle, move your legs, start bouncing up and down – and that’s exactly what you need to look out for!
Basically, if you see the other person fiddling nervously, or even more subtly if you see their camera shaking, you can reasonably expect that they are somewhat nervous or annoyed during the call, despite their best efforts in saying otherwise.
Remote communication is about doing more of everything
Now, if it’s true that you have less channels to “read” the other person, the opposite is also true, and you need to keep that into account as well.
A key aspect of communication is establishing an emotional connection. We do it almost by default in every interaction we have (different levels in different contexts of course).
In a zoom call though, how easy is it to establish an emotional link?
It’s possible, but by no means easy.
A first step is getting the right equipment, but if you really want to make sure that whatever emotion you want to convey actually gets to the other person you need to go a little more above your normal level of emotional display.
20% more, give or take.
Thing is: because you have a more limited availability of communication channels whatever you give away must be more charged.
I’m not talking about being a clown of course, just go about 20% above your normal emotional level, that should do the trick.
Grabbing and maintaining attention
Now, provided you have the basics, we need to talk about attention.
You are always competing for someone’s attention, but while in any in-person interaction you only compete with other people, in remote communication you are fighting a series of algorithms specifically designed and refined to grab other people’s attention.
You are fighting for attention against algorithms: prepare for war
It’s not a competition. It’s a war and you better be prepared.
Luckily, there are also a few tricks you can keep up your sleeve, a few things that you incorporate in every online interaction to make sure you can grab and keep that person’s attention.
Interesting point: none of them will actually get noticed, but their lack will – or at least you’ll notice the effect of not having them in place.
Truth be told: there is actually a lot more to grabbing and maintaining attention in remote communication, but even with just these three points you will be able to communicate better, improve team communication as a whole and notice a major change. That’s also valid if you are just looking for ways to reconnect with your team, even if you’re just doing some remote teambuilding games this will play a role…
1 – turn off YOUR notifications
There is no way around it: if you want to show the other person that you care about that interaction you HAVE to turn off your notifications.
Remember those algorithms I talked about?
Well, you are also their target, and they work.
Basically, if you’re speaking to someone and the whole time you have notifications popping up trying to grab your attention, at some point they will!
Once that happens you will get distracted and the other person will notice: you’ll look away or you will lose track of what you were saying.
And that, seen from the other side of the screen means one thing alone: “this person doesn’t care about me”.
(which, if you are trying to build a relationship of sorts is also a horrible way to start)
Long story short: notifications are built to distract you, and unless you turn them off they will, and they will also kill your efforts to improve your remote communication.
2 – keep your eyes pointed at the camera
This might sound weird but look at it this way: how strongly do you feel connected to someone else, when you make eye contact with them?
It would be great to do it remotely, but unfortunately it’s not possible (if you look at the screen, you are not looking at the camera and the other person will see you not looking straight at them), so the only way to do it is to to force yourself to learn to look straight into the camera.
Might be artificial and difficult at first but the net result for the other person will be that they will see someone looking straight at them – and if that happens, they will feel compelled to reciprocate, to stare back, to focus on you and to keep their focus, even if just out of politeness.
3 – make an emotional connection
Keep your eyes pointed into the camera and add that 20% extra of emotion I talked about before.
Basically: emotions connect people, and being able to pass them via a digital medium while making eye contact (or making it look like it) can do wonders.
Key point here: it’s a lot more difficult than it looks, but once you work your way to doing it naturally, you’ll see what a difference it makes.
4 – look at yourself
If you can, record yourself in call, or in video an rewatch the whole thing.
Would you listen to yourself?
It’s cringy, let’s be clear about it, but it’s hard evidence. If you find yourself boring, other people also will, so what can you change?
Look at yourself, find what you need to change, change it, record yourself again and repeat the cycle. Simple as that.
If there’s anything you should take away from all of this, let it be the simplest one:
Remote communication works in a very, very different way than in-person, you can’t adapt one-to-one and expect to do it well.
It’s a different skill and like any other one it needs practice.
Can’t figure our where to get started? Do two things:
buy a new camera
learn to speak while looking straight into the camera
All the rest matters as well, but those two will give you the highest ROI as you get started.