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Communication Skills in a Virtual World with Mary Jo Romeo

Today we will be speaking with Mary Jo Romeo. She is an executive coach with MJR Coaching + Consulting. She’s got some fascinating insight for us on how we communicate in this new virtual world because it is not going away. 

Thought for the day: consider how you are currently communicating. Mary Jo is going to lay out some really good tips and tricks, things that we really only had to consider in the past twelve to 18 months. But I do think there are some really good insights out there for how to become a more effective communicator and the action takes some of those Nuggets that she lays out and applies them.

They can make an immediate difference. I learned some things that I’m going to do almost instantaneously and I look to get more effective results on all the virtual communication that I’m doing as a result. Take a listen. Mary Jo, take me through your company and what you are currently doing.


Mary Jo’s Story 

My pivot in life, former national sales manager to enter the learning and development space. Most of my work is one on one coaching, which is transformative for people because coaching is a very outcome-based practice. I tell my clients all the time, you want to talk about your childhood, go find a therapist. But my practice is very outcome-based. I’m doing group coaching for a global company for new managers and loving that work and then a lot of one-on-one coaching in a lot of different areas. One of the areas that I find resonates with almost all of my clients is communication in a virtual world.


Communication in a Virtual World

In the last 18 months, however, the long covet has been around 20 months. We want to talk about how and especially from management or an employee standpoint, how do you effectively communicate in a virtual world?

I think it’s different for different people. There are definitely best practices for virtual, but as a sidebar, if you’re a manager and you have a remote employee, the number one thing that has to happen is you have to have empathy for the fact that that person is working remotely. That’s really hard for people, for other people, it’s sunshine and roses. They’re so happy to be working at home. So the first thing is in what role that you’re in as manager, a lot of empathy for your employee, as a salesperson, really owning your value as a salesperson when you have clients that aren’t on camera, right.

And I was speaking with a client yesterday, and she said she doesn’t want to push her clients to go on camera. And I said to her if you met with them in person, would they hide under the table? She said, no, of course, they would meet with me. And I said, So why are we giving people permission when we have an agreed-upon meeting to not be on camera? I find that fascinating, because if they’re not on camera, what do you think they’re doing?

What do you think they’re doing? Anything but watching. They’re multitasking. Multitasking is really a myth. It’s not effective. And there’s a lot of research around the amount of energy you burn going from test to test to test. You’re not concentrating. You’re not actively listening. You’re not connecting with the presenter.


Five Tips on being Virtual 

I have five tips that I give everybody on virtual. Virtual is here to stay after the pandemic because we’ve gotten so used to it. It’s super convenient. So there are five things I always talk to people about. 

  1. Make sure your lighting is good and you want to be front-lit, not backlit. It is amazing how many people I have seen on Zoom with bad lighting. So lighting is number one.
  2. Know where the lens of your camera is and look at the lens. People say you want me to look at the blue light. Well, that’s how you make eye contact, right? That’s how you release Oxytocin. That’s all about social bonding. If you’re making a pitch to somebody or you’re making an important point, look right at the lens. It matters.
  3. The third thing is your backdrop. It matters. You want to show yourself in the best possible light. I recommend that clients on Zoom use those faded backgrounds because it’s better than looking at somebody’s kitchen. You want to be really conscious of your background. 
  4. The other thing is you want to see where you fit on the screen. You want to be two-thirds of the screen not shrinking down in your chair. Conscious of your postures.
  5. And then the last is, what are you wearing? Just like you don’t want the background to be too distracting. You don’t want what you’re wearing to be distracting. You want to show up as your best possible self.


Virtual Backgrounds

The background you’re talking about, you pay for so they kind of wash out the background. No, I don’t like the virtual backgrounds. The washed-out background we are talking about you can do on Zoom. There’s a feature. It’s called Fade. 

I don’t like virtual backgrounds for the same reasons. “Who are you using?” “What bridge is that?” I don’t like people’s homes, because I’m always wondering, what is that? This is beautiful. This is staged. It’s designed. But when somebody sits at their kitchen table or their dining room table or has a bookshelf behind them, it just doesn’t look good. I have a couple of clients that actually have staged it, and it looks phenomenal. But of the hundreds and hundreds of Zoom meetings that I’ve had, I think maybe three actually look good.


Manager Empathy 

You were talking about having empathy earlier like a manager needs to have empathy with the employees. And I know the question that I typically get is, how do I know someone’s actually working when I’m letting them work at home? What type of flexibility should you ask for? Because typically, people would be working in nine to five and they’d be in the office. And candidly, people aren’t working nine to five. They goof off at the office the same way they probably goof off at home. So how do you know when someone’s plugged in and you have the empathy there to let them do that? How do you do that in the virtual world?

Well, I think you have a relationship with your team member, your employee, and the foundation of the relationship is trust. I have a colleague who’s very senior, and she has said to her team members since you’re all remote, you don’t need to work nine to five. You work whenever you want. You want to take the dog for an hour-long walk in the middle of the day, knock yourself out. Just get your work done. A big part of it is trust, and a big part of it is frequent check-ins.

What are you doing? What’s with this project? It’s more about, “how are you?” What’s happening in your day? What have you got on your plate? How can I support you? What are you working on? That’s a roadblock for you. How do you accomplish this? I think in two ways. One is listening, truly listening. Many of us are terrible listeners. That is just the truth. Our minds are going, what do I have to think about? When is she going to stop talking?

I can ask her a question or ask myself what am I going to have for lunch? Oh, I have to send that email out. Our brains are always working. One of the biggest gifts you can give somebody is to truly listen to them. As a manager, you need to truly listen to your team member, and then you ask them short questions out of curiosity, not a place of, “…did you do this?” But what are you working on? These are very different messages you’re sending with those two questions.


Millennials in the Workplace

Here is a scenario that someone presented to me and it revolves around millennials. And I mean, I don’t want to go by age, but just ain’t people new to the workforce 28 and below, only because this person was 28.

They don’t have the same communication in terms of what they’re doing to your point. But then the managers don’t necessarily communicate effectively. So they had a person that was working remotely who kept popping up in different time zones. They could tell because it was like different shades of dark. And they were like, hey, it’s dark outside. Where are you right now? I’m in Hawaii. Hey, it’s a little brighter. Where are you? I’m in the UK. 

And they’re kind of bouncing all over the Earth thinking this remote job is fantastic, and it made the employer frustrated because they’re thinking, I gave you the ability to work remotely, but there was an obvious correlation with the quality of work which was diminishing. So how do you lay out clear expectations in order to stop remote work from being abused? How do you have that conversation in a polite way? Where do you go with that? Maybe you need to say early on, this is what I expect.


2 Steps for Successful Remote Work

  1. You need that contract with an employee and have frequent check-ins. Do not be afraid to call things out when you see something wrong because, at the end of the day, the goal is to do the work at or above expectations. And if you have an employee that’s not working at or above expectations, then you have to address that immediately, not wait for the annual review.
  2. You need to be on the same page as your employees. Be super clear with your employee about what matters to them and what they expect from you.

So being really clear, all this is about communication. And it’s amazing how many people are lousy communicators.


How to Make Sure a Message is Received by the Other Party in a Virtual World

There are so many things going back and forth. There’s timelines, there’s different projects. If you’re a manager, there’s different people with different timelines and different projects. It goes all over the place. So the question is, how can they make sure that the messages and the communication is being heard in that virtual world?

Good question.

Think about it. It’s hard to know when a connection is being made virtually. The most important thing to do in terms of effective communication is to make sure you have engagement techniques. Meaning? Ask a question. Wait for an answer. Accept the fact that they’re silenced. Call people out in a way that’s acceptable. For example, before I start a meeting I ask everybody on the call, “What do you want to learn today?”

I want to know what you want to learn. What do you want to get out of this meeting? We’re going to start with Eric, and then we’re going to move down to sue and maybe go over to Sam. And then Eric, what did you learn? Just a couple of words. Tell me what you want to learn today. You want to engage with and pull that person in and talk about what matters to them. 

How many times have you been presented to where they don’t even ask you a question? They say, “Let me tell you my story,” and they go through 20 slides or they talk for 20 minutes. Are you engaged? Probably not.

It’s 95%. I think of presentations that are out there like that.

It’s not useful. So to engage, you have to be asking questions. It’s okay with silence. I love silence. It makes people lean in and wonder, what is she thinking? What is she going to say next?  I love that back and forth. Effective communication to me is an active sport. Take volleyball, for example, you hit the ball and it either lands in the sand or it comes back to you. No, you’re a volleyball.

The player engaged all of a sudden, not everyone knows that, but that’s fine.

When your ball lands in the sand, is that effective? No, it’s not but you spike it anyway. You’ve got to try to make that connection so the ball can come back.

We have had virtual conversations over the past year and a half, which is just human connection. It is possible to have connection in that virtual sense, whether it’s through engaging people in an actual conversation or by asking simple questions. Having these meetings this way takes me through how human connection looks in this virtual world, outside of some of the things we have already talked about.


Ways to Effectively Generate Connectivity Virtually 

There are some things we can do to really effectively generate connectivity, which I think in turn, generates better productivity and trust. 

I ask people to go on camera on Zoom. I ask them to stay in the Gallery view so everybody can see each other. I like when people present and ask people to interrupt them when they’re presenting. I like when people go off their slides or shared screen and back to the Gallery view so they can talk to each other. I watched one presenter who did this and I thought he was very skilled. Somebody asked a question and he said, “Can you come on camera so I can see your face?” And I thought it was just a lovely way to engage a client. 

Another great way to engage people is to use polls while presenting. The poll feature allows you to ask a question and everybody responds so you understand a little bit more about who’s on the screen and what they care about. Even using the chat feature or raising your hand is a good idea. All of these tactics will get people to be present. For example, tf you are doing a hand raise, you say, “Everybody raise your hand.” And this forces people to Zoom back in.

You do a poll feature and say, “I have 50% of people voted. Come on, guys. What are you doing out there? I want to get to 80%, 90%, 95%. Yeah, we’re at 95%!” It makes it more fun. It makes it more engaging. There’s research that if you’re presenting live in person, you should do an engagement technique once every 15 to 20 minutes. And if you are presenting virtually you should do this every 10 to 15 minutes. 

In my life, before this, I was a technology trainer and a salesperson, and we would get up and do big meetings. They told me to have a seven-minute meeting and tell them what you’re going to do and what you want to talk about. Talk about this for seven minutes and then say, “Any questions you have, feel free to interrupt me.” And then when I was done, I would start asking the audience questions because I wanted to know what route they wanted to go. 

I want to note that 95% of those presentations were just me talking, no engagement. Which is not good because I want to engage. And I find that people would retain a lot more when I would engage. And I knew because I was a technology trainer. And these were people that didn’t have computers when they started their jobs, so they needed to have some type of muscle memory or repetition that told them, “Here’s what I’m supposed to do.” 

And I feel like you can do that in Zoom. And if you have to engage every three minutes to really get the point across in this new world, then you should do it. We’re at a point now where virtual is here to stay. Zoom or whatever medium you are using  is here to stay. So we need these tips and tricks to make ourselves the most effective possible, no matter what your location is. 

It’s time to own the fact that it’s not going away and figuring out how to be more authentic. How can I be more human? How can I be more myself even though I’m not? How can we connect with each other over zoom? People often miss that connection.

Early in the pandemic, it almost felt forced to have someone come on camera. People were like, I don’t want to have to do that. Now, I think people almost crave it because they’re sitting at home and they want to see people. And I love the idea of making that a standard, but not because it’s like a punitive thing, because it’s a connection thing.


What Happens When One Person Drops Out of Communication?

I think a lot about rubber bands. So if you think about the tension, when you stretch a rubber band, there’s energy there. If one person drops out of the communication, what happens to the tension?

It’s limp, It goes away. 

And I’d like for people to maybe think about that visual. If you want to have that connection, you want to keep that tension, whether you’re on the phone with somebody, whether you’re in person with somebody or whether you’re virtual. Because that’s really when you’re actively there, right there. There’s energy again. Communication is an active sport like volleyball. You won’t sweat as much when you communicate as when you play volleyball, but it is active. It is not this passive thing that allows you to be off-camera and multitask, because then you’re doing a disservice to your work.

You’re doing a disservice to whoever is speaking on the Zoom or on the phone. And it’s just really not good all the way around in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.



 If I take anything away from this, I want you to understand that there is human interaction, and there’s human connectivity that you can still have virtually while also being your authentic self. And it doesn’t have to be with a roller coaster behind you. I’m assuming you can be your authentic self, just how you are. Just turn your camera on, be who you are.  If you use these tips you have the potential to be extremely effective in this virtual world.


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