6 Ways to Blow Your Executive Presence in an Online Meeting

executive presence onlineVideo conference calls have become the norm these days and will probably stay that way as organizations reevaluate the need for people to report to an office five days a week. Just as Business Casual dress arrived on the scene decades ago before the “rules” were written, online video meetings have become commonplace and we’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly as people try to figure out the best executive presence practices for the medium.

I, like you, have witnessed some strange and downright shocking choices onscreen and thought, “I can’t believe they did (or said) that.” Eating, drinking, nail filing, bed making, bathroom trips, yelling at spouses/kids/pets are just a few of the things I’ve seen. I’m sure you have a few you could add to that list.

The problem is we can let ourselves become overly relaxed on these calls. I mean, we’re at home on our couch or at the dining room table wearing fuzzy slippers, right? And we can’t help it if the kids interrupt with a math question or the dog barks. I think those disruptions can be fine from time-to-time, it’s more about how we react to them. But when we’re at home, comfy in our happy place, we often reveal a side of ourselves others have never seen before, and yes, I mean the part with no pants. Or the part that screams (unmuted) at the cat.

Our brand, our executive presence, that we’ve worked so hard to build can be damaged, or knocked down a few pegs, in a single online meeting. Here’s a short list of some things to avoid. Have you seen any of these?

1. Dress for the audience. An employment lawyer told me about being part of an online hearing with a judge (in judicial robe) and watching a young attorney argue his case wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. A memo about appropriate wardrobe was blasted out to the attendees the next day. Think about who will be on your call and how they will likely be dressed. An internal meeting full of people who know your closet contents better than you may not need to be impressed. But meeting with anyone outside of the regular crew means you need to be thoughtful—and respectful—with your attire.

2. Don’t log on with a funny onscreen name left over from last night’s online cocktail party. I was guilty of this one and found myself languishing for a long time in the “waiting room” for an important meeting the next day because the host had no idea who I was. Learn from my mistake—change it back to your real name before you leave the party.

3. Conferencing in from your bedroom is just TMI. No one needs to see that particular room in your home, it’s just too personal. I’m not a fan of virtual backgrounds, but better to use one in this case. Another good option is to buy a foldable screen or something portable to throw up quickly behind you.

4. Many regrettable words have been spoken over a live mic. The best advice I can give is always to keep yourself on mute and only unmute when you want to speak. With Zoom, you can select an option in Settings-Audio to “press and hold Space key to temporarily unmute yourself.” That way, you’ll automatically be muted in meetings and can hold down the space bar when you want to speak and lift your hand up when you’re done. It’s a great insurance policy for filtering yourself and whatever is going on in your surroundings.

5. A banker I know shared that on a group call she had with an association, she watched as the incoming President got up from his chair, walk to the frig, pull out two beers, and walk back to his seat with one in each hand. Better options—turn the camera off any time you leave your seat and pour all beverages into a mug before logging on. Why a mug and not a glass? No one can ever see what’s inside a mug.

6. The best engagement tool we have in online meetings is eye contactAs in live interactions, observing other’s body language and facial expressions can reveal much about how they feel about things. But, most speakers make the mistake of looking at their own image and the other attendees as they speak, when they should be looking directly at the camera lens. I know, it feels awkward to stare at that little light when everyone else’s face is off to the side. But if you’d like to capture everyone’s attention and be considered a dynamic, persuasive speaker, look at the camera! Shoot for 99% camera time, 1% glancing at the others.

Your executive presence can take months, sometimes years, to develop. Don’t ruin it by forgetting you’re still “on” when you’re online!

What’s the WORST way to start writing a presentation?

Presentation Skills - Don't start with PowerpointYou’ve just been told you’ll need to do a presentation next week. You know the topic for it, who’s coming and why. The first step to writing a presentation is to sit down at a your computer and open up Powerpoint, right?

Nope. In fact, that’s probably the worst thing you could do. Why?

When you start writing a presentation in PowerPoint, you often end up with enormous slide decks and no clear compelling message. You begin with a mindset of “what all can I show them” rather than “what do they need to understand” or “why should they care?” The result is too many slides that have no connective tissue between them, no story to tell.

What’s the better approach?

Opening up Word. Create the content first; the visuals can be designed at the end. As someone once said, “You can’t decorate a cake that hasn’t been baked.”

Start thinking about the profile of the audience. Define some of their basic demographics – titles, experience level, generation, how much they already know, how do they already feel about this, and what “language” do they speak.

What do I mean by language? You can look at it two ways:
1. Do they “speak” quality, speed, efficiency, profitability, low risk, etc. If you can define what motivates them, you should develop content that promotes those features.
2. Is English their first language? If not, be very careful of words and phrases that are confusing to non-native speakers, such as “ballpark figure”, “low-hanging fruit”, “pick your brain”, “jump on the bandwagon,” and so on.

Next, decide what you’ll need them to understand by the time you’re done speaking.

Remember, good presentations boil down to “it’s not what you want to say, it’s what they need to hear.” So when you’re all finished, what will they know now, how will they feel about it now, and what will they need to do now?

Then, define the key points that will get them to your finish line. Remember, less is more. A good presentation will be memorable, and it’s a lot easier for audiences to remember (and share) 3 dynamic takeaways than the 11-point process. Make sure these key points are strong with compelling takeaways that have a natural build or clear beginning-middle-end.

As you start to flesh out the verbiage, throw in some examples, for-instances, and anecdotes to liven up the data. Remember – facts fade, data gets dumped, stories stick! Also add thoughtful transitions that connect slide to slide and section to section. Ask yourself: Am I connecting the dots for everyone?

The very last step in your development process is to design your visual aids.

Try storyboarding them first—on paper or as a skeleton deck with some rudimentary ideas or sketches. Practice restraint, always asking: What is the least number of visuals or minimum amount of data I need to make my points? Is that bullet, spreadsheet, or chart really necessary? For the slides you do use, enlarge your font size, include only high-level text, and make your data more “glanceable” than “referenceable”.

Try this approach the next time you need to develop a presentation. And remember—content should drive the Powerpoint. Powerpoint shouldn’t drive the content!

© 2019 Jill Bremer

5 Times You Should be Saying “Thank You” (and may not be)

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.” – Cicero

Are you saying “thank you” enough these days? Expressing appreciation to others can have a wonderful ripple effect. As others feel acknowledged and respected, it’s often paid forward to the next person they encounter, and so on. Saying “thanks” reveals we see ourselves as part of a larger community, where we recognize we’re all interconnected—and strengthening that web can make us all better for it.

What follows are five instances in our everyday lives we should be saying “thank you” and may not be. Give yourself a point for each one you do.

When you walk through a door being held open for you

Many people fail to even notice that they’re walking through an open door. They’re engaged in a conversation or their own thoughts or I-don’t-know-what. The door-holder, though, is making a real effort to be helpful to others and deserves a “thank you” each and every time.  Keep in mind they may have become trapped by a sudden swarm of people behind the mom with a stroller, but they didn’t let the door slam shut in front of you. They probably deserve an award.

When the car next to you lets you merge in front

We’ve all witnessed one specific gesture being used on the roadways, but there’s a better one we need to employ. It’s the universal handwave in front of the rearview mirror letting the driver behind you know that you appreciate them slowing down and giving you space. Don’t wave too soon, though. Make sure you’re exactly in front of them so your wiggling fingers are seen. I think we’d have less road-rage if we used more of the five-finger wave and less of the single-finger.

When the busboy refills water/clears plates/brings you anything

This holds true for anyone assisting your primary server (who also deserves a periodic “thank you”). These unsung heroes usually make less than the main servers, so saying “thank you” is especially appreciated. No one expects you to interrupt your conversation each and every time they appear. Just an occasional acknowledgement is called for.

When the grocery bagger is finished

The cashier deserves a “thank you”, of course, but the hardworking bagger has earned one, too. Be sure you make eye contact and thank them for taking good care of your eggs/cupcakes/bananas. For some, this is their first foray into the workforce. For others, this will be the only job they ever have. A little encouragement will mean a lot.

When the flight attendant hands you a drink

Here’s another stressful yet often thankless job. Yes, the engines are loud, your ears are plugged, your seatmate is hugging your armrest, and the person in front of you is fully-reclined, but make sure you at least mouth “thank you” to the attendant after they’ve served you. Placing our order for ginger ale comes easily; our thank you afterward doesn’t always.

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” – Voltaire

© Jill Bremer 2019

Handling Q & A Like a Pro

Skilled presenters understand the importance of Q & A. If they handle it well, they’ll be able to use this time to convey their confidence and expertise, to reinforce some of the ideas they shared, even add in material they may have left out or glossed over. If a speaker stays positive and in control of their content and delivery, they’ll be able to continue to build credibility with those who agree with them, as well as win over the nonbelievers or those on the fence.

Q & A can also be a vulnerable time for speakers, as they could get tripped up, challenged, or attacked. Time spent brainstorming questions that could be asked, then preparing and practicing effective responses can help speaking pros minimize those fears. They’ve also mastered the four types of Q & A.

At the End of the Presentation

This is the typical point questions are entertained, certainly in more formal settings with larger audiences. The problem with ending with Q & A is that the longer it goes, the fewer and farther between the questions become. The back rows have already started to slip out the door and you end with a smattering of applause from the remnant that remains. And remember—there’s always a chance the questions may turn negative. What’s the last thing you want your audience to hear—your final takeaway? Or that audience member’s hostile take-down of you and your ideas? Pros are able to handle questions positively and concisely, sideline the off-topic questions, and navigate the challenging ones with tact and grace.

Before the Conclusion

This is my personal favorite. Why? If you insert your Q & A before the conclusion, a couple of nice things happen. The audience tends to regulate themselves because they know they still haven’t heard your conclusion. And you get to have the last word. You finish to thundering applause and everyone knows it’s done-done. So try, “Before I wrap-up, I have time for a few questions.” Take 3-4 of them, then move right into your final remarks and action step. Everyone will walk out of the room with your thrilling conclusion ringing in their ears.

Interruptive

Most internal work presentations are met with frequent interruptions from the audience, as they usually see this, not as a true presentation, but as more of a discussion. The executives in the room certainly do. So the trick here is to manage the incoming questions, remember where you were when they stopped you, then find a way to bridge back to your prepared content. Try not to let your answers last longer than the presentation itself. Be as concise as you can, then ask if that answered their question. Better to do that than to assume everyone suddenly wants an intense deep-dive into everything you know on the topic.

No Questions

It’s happened to you, hasn’t it? You ask the crowd if they have questions and they all stare back at you. You literally hear crickets. What should you do? First, don’t panic and, second, give them time! What seems like deafening silence to you isn’t to them. Their brains are processing everything they heard and they’re formulating their questions if you would just give them some time.  So wait, then gently ask again for their questions and, if you still don’t hear any, ask and answer the first one yourself. “You might be wondering…,” or “I’m often asked…,” or “Many people ask me…”  You could also ask a question of the audience – “Of the 3 plans I’ve talked about today, which would be most cost-effective for you?”

Are you a master of all these Q & A situations? Prepare for all four types and you’ll be able to call yourself a Pro!

© Jill Bremer 2018

Restrain Yourself!

Incivility is all around us. Shrill debates, finger-pointing, and bullying have filled our workplaces, social media streams, schools, and families.

What we all need is a big dose of RESTRAINT.  P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct has written beautifully about this very idea:

“I would say insufficient training in restraint is identified as a cause of rising incivility.  As a society, we have been very good in instilling self-respect in our children but not as good in instilling self-restraint. When we teach self-esteem but forget to train our children in self-restraint, we create children who are self-centered, who believe the world revolves around them, who are so self-invested that they have little moral energy left for their fellow human beings.  They are trapped in a cage of narcissism that we have built for them. Restraint is an essential component of civility. We are civil when we are aware of others and we weave restraint, respect and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness.”

How can we show restraint in the workplace? Here are 6 ideas to consider:

  • Use a filter when speaking. Every thought in your head doesn’t need to be shared. Words leave a “wake”, much like a boat gliding across a lake. What is the “wake” you want to leave when you leave the room? Before you speak, try asking yourself: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
  • Develop the ability to adapt your communication style. Everyone needs a toolbox of styles so they can flex in the moment and communicate in ways that will be understood on the receiving end. Your communication style shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, because it doesn’t.
  • Ask for input before responding. As Simon Sinek teaches: Be the last to speak. Screen out distractions. Ask clarifying and expanding questions to verify your understanding and draw out further information. The discussion will be better because of it.
  • Respect boundaries. Don’t assume you’re on a first-name-basis with everyone you meet. Don’t interrupt. Don’t help yourself to other people’s stuff, food, ideas. Without boundaries, we have chaos.
  • Recognize that people have feelings. Demonstrating empathy and compassion is not a show of weakness; it’s a sign of strong leadership. Put yourself in others’ shoes and think about what could be going on their lives outside of work. As the saying goes, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
  • Handle conflict and critiques in private. These events are not for public consumption, nor should they be handled via email. Step out of the hallway and get to a place with a door you can close. If someone is upset, let them vent before jumping in. Restrain yourself. Instead, be passive and respectful.

It’s not easy to show restraint. We’re human beings, after all. And we love to be heard and tell others what they need to do. Developing the ability to hold back, listen, and carefully choose our words can build better relationships, workplaces, and communities. Restraint – a value we need more of.

© 2018 Jill Bremer