Did you know that when we speak to another person, more than half of what is heard is taken from body language? How we stand, tilt our head, move our eyes … it matters. On top of that, almost 40% of what the listener is getting is based on tone. Which means the words themselves are conveying less than 10% of the message.

And that’s in-person communication. So, what do we do now that we are communicating virtually?

Today’s Focus: Best Practices for Communicating in a Virtual World

The platforms available to us today – Zoom, Teams, GotoMeeting, Skype – they’re great. They offer a lot of advantages for getting a virtual team together. But successful communication can still be hard. Here are some tricks we’ve learned along the way.

Be Deliberate.

How to Communicate in a Virtual World Graphic

Whether you’re going to be attending a virtual meeting, joining a phone conference, or conversing via chat or email, take a minute ahead of time to shift your focus.

  • Prepare. Review agendas, go over notes, jot down questions.
  • Remove distractions. Put away your grocery list, close your Amazon app and let others in the house know you need to stay focused.
  • Keep the personal touch. While waiting for everyone to arrive, take a minute to ask Bill about his kids or Jen about her bowling league, just like you would in an in-person meeting.
  • Stay engaged. Take notes, ask questions and repeat things to ensure that your interpretation of what was said is the intended meaning.

Tips for Face-to Face Meetings

In addition to making sure your My Little Pony movie poster won’t be seen and that your camera is not set to be looking up your nose, a few other things can help facilitate good communication when “face-to-face”.

  • Practice. Take a few minutes ahead of time to get comfortable with the platform. Know how to mute/unmute yourself, raise your hand, share a document and submit a comment.
  • Know the ground rules. Let your team know how questions will be handled and how information will be shared. If you’re not the host, ask. “Hey, Mary, if I want to share a comment, what’s the best way for me to do that in this meeting?”
  • Be aware of your expressions. Your glare might be intended for your daughter who just painted the kitchen wall with peanut butter, but don’t forget, that glare can be seen by everyone in your meeting, including the boss who just assigned you a task.

Tips for Phone Meetings

In a phone meeting, yes, you can get away with rolling your eyes whenever your annoying coworker speaks, and yes, you can attend in the sweats you’ve been wearing for three days, but staying focused and ensuring comprehension are going to require effort.

  • Need to fidget? If bouncing a Slinky keeps your brain focused, go ahead and bounce. On a webcam, that would be distracting, but with a phone call, just make sure to mute yourself and don’t check out of the conversation to build Mr. Slinky an obstacle course through your pen collection.
  • Be cognizant of tone. Without the ability to see body language, tone becomes more important. Be aware of it, but also be cautious of making assumptions about something based on “tone”.
    • If in doubt, ask. “Julie, it sounds to me like maybe there’s more to your idea. I want to make sure I’m completely understanding you, could you go over it again?” If you feel it’s more appropriate to check in with Julie after the meeting, that’s another option; just remember, then the whole team won’t get the clarification.
    • If your own tone conveyed something more than you meant, stop, acknowledge it, and then move on. “I realized I just sounded angry about Henry completing tasks 1 through 3. Sorry Henry, I actually just stepped on a Lego while pacing my office. A little in pain, but happy those tasks are done! Who wants task 4?”
  • Write it out. If things don’t always come out of your mouth eloquently and you’re nervous about saying the wrong thing, write out your thoughts ahead of time.

Tips for Written CommunicationTips for Written Communications

A lot is communicated via chat channels, emails or document collaboration when working remotely. As humans, we tend to read tone into written words. Especially now, when people are feeling a bit overwhelmed, it seems replies to emails are getting snippier, offense is being taken by the smallest things and hidden meaning is read into everything. What can you do?

  • Be clear and concise. Take the time to map out what needs to be said and be aware of how you are saying it.
  • Anticipate questions. Try to anticipate potential points of confusion and address those in your initial communication.
  • Avoid emotional words. Words perceived as demanding raise ire quickly. Even if “must” must be conveyed, consider other options. “Needs to” can convey the same idea with a little softer tone.
  • Read it out loud. If in doubt, read what you’ve written out loud before sending. This trick engages your mind in a different way, letting you hear what others will hear. Don’t worry, Bruno won’t judge. And while Fluffy might, she cleans herself on the dining room table so are you really worried about what she thinks is socially acceptable?
  • Avoid reactionary responses. If an email elicits an automatic emotional response, don’t immediately attack the keyboard Take a breath, pace the living room and wait until you feel calmer before responding. Nastygrams, no matter how witty, are rarely a good idea.

Practice Patience and Give Grace

Even for those of us used to working from home, communication in a virtual office can pose challenges. Tone and body language are more difficult to interpret. It’s harder to know when to speak without normal visual clues. We often feel a loss of personal connection and it can be harder to remain focused.

And that’s okay. There’s going to be talking over each other, forgetting to unmute, lost trains of thought and the accidental disconnect. Take a breath, re-connect and try again. You’ve got this.