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Virtual meetings have been synonymous with the pandemic and given that they are convenient, cost effective and allow unique opportunities to connect, it is likely they will have a role in our post-pandemic world. As professionals, we need to continue to master new skills to successfully facilitate and participate in these virtual environments. On April 8, 2021, CFA Society Chicago’s Professional Development Advisory Group hosted Lauren Sergy, public speaking and communication expert, to provide members with tips and ideas on how to live our best virtual lives. Sergy has helped thousands of people become more effective leaders by developing critical communications skills. Tackling tough communication issues with humor and candor, her audiences span the US, UK, Canada, and Europe.

Sergy started our event by commenting that virtual meetings provide a stressful environment.  This is because the technological mediation doesn’t always work and because there are so many distractions. So, how do we look good, feel good, sound good and more importantly, connect with those on our screens?

Visual experiences are deliberate and now include our cameras and our backgrounds. Our message and branding reflect these surroundings and those who see us on screen use this information to make inferences and formulate opinions. What do people really see and if our backgrounds are messy, will people assume our work is messy? Sergy explained that when people attend a virtual meeting, they are most concerned about people on their screen looking intentional and conveying “polish”. She gave us some “quick hits” focusing on lighting, cameras, and backdrops.

Lighting

To avoid grainy images, we need lots of bright light on our faces and not behind our heads. Position yourself to take advantage of natural lighting but if you can’t move, try installing temporary paper blinds or bringing in extra lamps. An Ikea goose lamp or just a simple desk lamp will help, and daylight spectrum bulbs can make a difference as well.

Camera

Strive for the same angle as if you are sitting across from your audience at a table. Raise and prop up the camera and as needed even if this means putting hefty books underneath your laptop. Next, work with your camera frame so that you are visible from the sternum to the top of your head with a gap at the top of your head. Keep the table conversation analogy in mind. Your audience should be able to see your arms move. Move the camera physically away from you until you achieve this.

Backdrop

Your backdrop represents your visual and personal brand. Keep it neat and tidy and include personal and professional qualities. Create the impression you want to convey and keep in mind the audience you are trying to reach and connect with. Plain walls work in the absence of artwork, sports memorabilia or diplomas. Virtual backgrounds are popular, but they pixelate when you move around and the lighting and focus can be distracting and disingenuous. We need to ensure our clothes are tidy and be sure to wear pants in case there is a need to stand up suddenly.

Moving on to communication, she offered tips for leading and moderating meetings, for participating on panels and for joining as participants. People need to feel that connection, so we need to get used to eye contact. Look directly at the camera lens to appear engaged and confident and after responding to a question, it is OK to look away from the camera and at the screen to check your audience’s response. Below are specific tips for facilitators and panelists.

Facilitators

Facilitators need to strive for a conversational feel showing expressiveness and bringing the audience in with conversational queuing. It is more difficult to gesture to one person virtually, so we need to verbally assign questions for follow-up without long pauses. Try using simple and open-ended questions to draw out panelist perspectives. Watch for visual cues such as someone shifting around which indicates they may want to speak.

Bridges are needed in this virtual environment to create a logical flow. Key words bring people back and recapture their attention. “Listen-up”, “Let’s pivot to the next topic” signal something new is coming and help to regain attendees focus. Facilitators can make their role appear effortless and tie topics together by using phrases such as “It is really interesting you said X, Y, and Z because it relates to A, B, C”.

Panelists

Follow your facilitator’s lead and answer the question asked but refrain from going off on a tangent, no matter how juicy it is. Speak in headlines to make a declarative thesis and then follow it up with two to three explanatory sentences. Be very specific and don’t be afraid to share your expertise or be expressive.

General Virtual Presentation Tips

Gestures are good for amplification but keep them between the sternum and chin. Be careful with talking too fast and boil down or summarize complex data found on charts. When displaying data, take into account that some participants may join via smart phone. Be comfortable with your topic and give yourself space. When responding to a question, it is fine to pause to collect your thoughts but tell your audience that you need a second to think. Then, take a deep breath and speak. This is a lot to digest and Sergy encouraged everyone to practice, experiment, and master one skill before moving to the next. She also stated that picking your battles is important. For example, if you can’t have high lighting for every virtual meeting, make sure you have it for your key presentations.

With these tips, we will have more confidence and be better presenters as we “zoom” through the rest of the pandemic. You can find more of Sergy’s work at https://LaurenSergy.com.

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