Communicating with people who are not in the same location as you for a meeting is complicated. As more meetings occur with people working from home and in remote offices, ensuring that online meetings and conference calls remain effective takes on new importance.

These challenges came up after I spoke to a group about how a speaker can take charge of the room, how to establish and keep focus, methods for assessing your audience’s understanding and interest, and other keys to effective communication. Afterward, an attendees asked if I had any tips for when attendees aren’t in the room where the meeting is taking place.

The issue is that so many of the cues we use to guide whether our thoughts and ideas are reaching the audience disappear when we cannot easily or interact closely with others in the audience.

Altering the Feedback Loop

(In the case of this meeting, two people listened to my presentation online. And in retrospect, I didn’t engage them at all, nor did the team-building activity we did in the conference room work well for them because they could not participate. Had I known in advance of the remote participants, I would have changed the activity up. Now I know to ask in advance.)

The big question is how do you overcome the fact that you cannot use eye contact or body language as clues for someone’s interest or engagement?

You have to shift your approach. Rather than using your eyes, you have to use your mouth and ears more. Instead of seeing if your words are landing as you hoped, you have to solicit from the remote attendees whether they are landing. Moreover, you have to listen to what they say in response to inquiries, as well as what they may not say.

Tips for Remote Attendee Feedback

Here are some hints for getting the same information as eye contact and body language offer when one or more people is outside the room:

1.    Ask along the way if the people online are following and if they hear. Invite them to speak up if they get lost or if people are talking over one another.

2.    Have someone coordinate with remote attendees. The group I spoke to assigned a member to monitor written messages from remote attendees.

3.    Specifically and strategically invite feedback from out-of-the-room attendees.“John, do you have any thoughts on the topic?” or even “Anything to add, John?” Not only will this ensure they can contribute, but it will keep them on notice that they could be called at any time.

4.    Go slower. People who are not in the room are not going to get the hand movements and other gestures and facial expressions you use so their ability to process the information you are sharing may be slower. Slow down to give them time to process.

5.    Tailor presentations to the realities. People who are out of the room cannot be in small groups so those types of activities are best left out. Nor can they easily see slides that are presented so provide them with the slide deck in advance.

6.    Ask for takeaways. One way to ensure that everyone is engaged is to tell them at the beginning that near the end, you plan to ask everyone for one takeaway from the presentation.

This old teacher’s trick works to keep everyone engaged because they now realize they have to say something intelligent about the presentation. They will listen more intently because they know they have to share. No one wants to fail at this test or say something wrong or silly.

Dealing with an audience that’s in more than one location is an acquired skills. But as more people work remotely, the demand on being an effective communicator in spite of this challenge will only increase.

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