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Mastering Virtual Communication



Anne Ricketts focuses on how to take virtual meetings and presentations to the next level, emphasizing connection, brevity, and participation.


Anne Ricketts is the founder of Lighthouse Communications. She teaches workshops and coaches individuals in the areas of presentation skills, executive presence, communication skills, and English as a Second Language. Anne was a communication coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for several years. She's been a keynote speaker at several women's conferences.

About the conference

QCon Plus is a virtual conference for senior software engineers and architects that covers the trends, best practices, and solutions leveraged by the world's most innovative software organizations.


Ricketts: When COVID first hit, I became obsessed with studying virtual communication. I wanted to know if virtual meetings, virtual presentations could ever be as effective as in-person ones. I have to say at first, I was very skeptical. I had dabbled in a few virtual presentations over the years. By and large, my comfort zone was in the room. When I was teaching virtual workshops, it felt distant. It felt hard to connect. I couldn't tell what people were thinking. Honestly, I was really struggling. I'm happy to report, six months in, after doing this many times, I'm not only more comfortable and confident, but I've learned a few important lessons about virtual communication. Number one, I learned to stop comparing. Different mediums require different techniques, period. Number two, I learned that virtual communication requires more intention, more planning. Just look at all the planning going into QCon. Number three, most importantly, I learned that if you know some techniques, if you proactively use those techniques, your virtual communication can be productive, engaging, and enjoyable. I'm super excited to share some of the techniques that have been the most helpful to me the past six months. I hope that you can pick up a few to help master this new virtual communication space that we're in.

Outline and Background

Three topics we're going to cover. First, we'll talk about how to increase the connection. Then we'll talk about brevity, how to be clear and concise so people stay focused. Finally, we'll talk about ways to increase the participation and engagement. I'm Anne. I'm the owner of Lighthouse Communications. We do lots of speaker communication training.

Increasing the Connection

Let's jump into how to increase the connection. I like to say that connection is the foundation of communication, because if the people communicating feel connected to each other, things tend to flow from there. For example, research shows that when people feel connected to their colleagues, they're more likely to trust them, listen more carefully, speak up more, offer their opinions. You could imagine, for example, in a virtual meeting, that if people feel connected, that's really going to impact how that meeting goes. In-person, it could be spontaneous. You didn't even have to plan for it. People would connect before or after the meeting, but not so in the virtual space. There are a few things I want you to have top of mind in terms of creating connection. The first is to think about, how are you going to create connection early? You don't want to save it for the last 5 minutes of the meeting or presentation. Really start to think about, how do you want people to feel as they enter your meeting or presentation? What's the energy you want people to pick up on?

I want to share a few tips that you can use for a small group versus big group. A couple things you can do to create connection in a small group. One is, encourage everyone to unmute and say hello. Rather than just having the speaker have the capability of speaking, say, "Everyone, let's all unmute. Let's all say hi." Just that small moment can really help build connection. Also, do check-in at the beginning. Instead of doing 2 to 3 minutes, where it's super shallow, "I'm good. How are you?" Go deeper. Maybe even make it 10 minutes. As the meeting host, model vulnerability. Share something that's going on with you, and encourage others to do the same. Rather than having it to be random small talk, you can also assign specific topics. Here are two of my favorites. You can do happy, crappy. The happiest part of your week. The crappiest part of your week. Go around, everyone gets 30 seconds to share. I also like this one, embarrassing item from the room you're in, and significant. For example, I could say, here's this toddler book. I've got so many parenting books and they all stack up and I don't read them. That is a little embarrassing. Despite the fact, I'm not reading these books, the significant item, this is a picture of my son Leo. I could tell a little bit of a story about Leo. What I like about these prompts is they encourage sharing not only the good things, but also the bad things. Again, it promotes vulnerability. Later, when we shift into work topics, people are more likely to share what's really on their mind if they got a chance to do it early on in the meeting.

Let's talk about how you can create connection when you have a big group. One simple thing that's really fun, play music, get the vibe in the room going. People will love it. Also, get them engaged doing something right away. Give them a chat prompt. If you don't want to keep repeating the chat prompt over and over, you can simply hold up a sign.

Online Presence

I pulled in a few of my friends here to help me model this. Please write in the chat, what makes for a great virtual meeting? Great discussions, clear agenda. I agree. The other piece of connection is having an awareness of the energy that you're bringing to the meeting. I want to talk a little bit about online presence. Chances are, six months into the pandemic, you've given some thought about how you're coming across in this virtual world. In my experience doing lots of these trainings, there's a little bit of a disconnect. People tend to think about how they come across in person, but online, it seems not as important. It can really make a difference. For example, I'm going to show you a picture of two different meetings, and I want you to tell me which meeting you would rather be in. Here's meeting A and meeting B. Looking at the difference, meeting A, you see, there's somebody with a virtual background. It looks like they're in a scene of, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," with the blades of grass. We've got some people in the dark looking off to the side. Whereas meeting B, everyone looks present, engaged. The lighting is good. We can read their facial expressions. When you add all of that up, when everyone has an awareness of their virtual presence, it can really make an impact in increasing the energy in the room. It all starts with you.

The question is, how is your online presence? Are you the lurker, joining from their phone? We all have to do this from time to time. Ask yourself, am I doing this habitually? Know that it's really hard to connect, virtually impossible to connect, if we can't see you. Are you the shadow? You've got the camera on, but because of the lighting, we can't clearly read your facial expressions. The floating head, so not framed quite right, so you're at the bottom of the screen or you're looking down on the audience. This can be a little bit awkward, hard to connect, because this is not how we would see you in person. My favorite, the side profile. It's hard to connect because we're getting no eye contact. What we want here is this final picture of the engaged colleague. I know that it's hard to show up like this every day in every meeting, but generally, this is what we're going for.

I'd asked you to think about this, how are you showing up? If you don't know, get feedback from somebody. If you think that other people on your team could benefit from this feedback, and that it would help improve the energy in your virtual meetings, do a breakout room and give and receive some feedback. It can really help.


Now that we talked about establishing connection as the foundation, I want to talk about another element that is essential to master virtual communication. That is brevity. Being clear, being concise. That's always important in communication, whether you're sending an email or Slack, you're communicating in-person. It's truly even more important for virtual communication. For example, if someone's dominating the airspace, they're not getting to the point, we all know that it drains the energy in the meeting. We don't want to be that person. We really need to be aware of making space for others and getting to the point.

Set the Stage for Brevity

First, I'm going to talk about some things you can do before, to set people up for brevity, and then what you can do in the moment. Then this first section here, I'm really talking about virtual meetings. In order to set the stage for brevity in your virtual meetings, a few things to think about. The first is, make sure that your meeting has a clear goal. That may seem obvious. We find that a lot of times people are just meeting because that's what they've done in the past. This is just the time we meet every week, or it's the way it's always been done. Really make sure that there's a reason, there's some topic to sink your teeth into. If not, consider canceling the meeting and giving people back that time. Once you know there's a clear goal, make sure that you have a sharp agenda. I say sharp because in our research, we found a lot of people recycle agendas from week to week, or they're thrown together willy-nilly. You really want to do some critical thinking. Remember that we don't have the same bandwidth we would in person, so three topics or less. A bonus tip is to put those agenda items as questions to discuss, questions to solve, because that's inherently more interesting than a list of topics.

Then, make sure that the meeting is no bigger than it needs to be. The more people you have, the harder it is to end on time. The more people you have, the more it promotes this idea of social loafing, where the meeting is so big, I feel like I can hide and multitask. Make sure that only the people the topic is relevant to, are attending the meeting. Then finally, meeting is short. The number one universal meeting time is 1 hour. I don't know why. It doesn't need to be that way. Twenty-five is the new 30, 50 is the new hour. The best way to make people be concise is to give them a little bit of time pressure. That means, if you're going to book a shorter meeting, you're going to have to be on it. You're going to have to remind people when time is up, time is up. A few times of that, people will get used to it, and they'll really appreciate that short window of rest, chance to get a water, stretch their legs before the next meeting. Those are some things you can do to set the stage for brevity.

Structure for Brevity

Let's talk about what you can do in the moment as the meeting is happening. The big thing here is to speak in a more structured way. Rather than rambling, speaking in a stream of consciousness, and eventually getting to your point. That probably takes too long. Use a structured approach. I equate speaking in this way to driving with the GPS. You plug in the address. It keeps you on track. It gets you to your destination in the fastest possible way.

One structure that you can use for meetings is called PREP. You can use it to answer a question, make a point, start off the meeting. Here's what PREP stands for. Point. Put your point first so everybody knows where you're going. Reason, back it up with the context. Then embed an example. Then in the end, one sentence or less, briefly summarize what that main point is again. I love it, because it tells you where to start. It forces you to start with your point. Once you've made it, you stop talking.

Let's say that I was in a meeting with my Lighthouse Communications team, and we're debating all the different projects that we have going on. What do we prioritize? I want to give my opinion. I could say, I really think that we should focus on our presentation skills class first. The reason is, it's the class that we do most often. For example, we have five presentation skills workshops in the month of November, and only two of the other kind. I think we should focus there first. Again, I know we've got a lot of priorities, a lot of trainings in our minds, but let's finish presentation skills, and then move to the others. PREP, try it out. I like to, even before a meeting, think about some of the points I might want to make. I write PREP out on a piece of paper. I also have a sticky note on my computer. I've found that the more I practice using PREP, the more intuitive it becomes over time. Those are some tips for how to be more brief in your virtual meetings.


We talked about brevity, now I want to move on to our last topic, which is participation. How do you increase it? If people feel connected and comfortable, and if people are generally being brief, then great, your meeting is headed in the right direction, towards having more participation. That might not be enough. One of the biggest challenges of giving a virtual presentation or leading a virtual meeting is getting a virtual audience to participate. This is certainly one of the biggest challenges I had at the beginning of COVID.

Over the past six months, we've taught a lot of different classes, and we've polled our audience on what their biggest challenges are. Top three participation challenges. I'm going to reveal the answers here in a minute. I want to give you a second to think if you can guess what they are. What are the top three participation challenges that people have in virtual meetings and virtual presentations? The audience looks disengaged is number one. Number two, same people always talk. Number three, awkward silences. Let's talk about each of these. I want to share some of my favorite techniques to get around these problems.

Participation Challenges in Virtual Meetings

Audience looks disengaged, this is the worst. Let's say you make a joke that you thought was really funny. You look out, you see this. Everyone's muted, no response, nothing on their face. This is tough. I call this the feedback desert. It can really tank your confidence in the moment. You want to have some techniques ready to go to help you get around this. The first technique is, it's not so much of a technique as is a principle that you want to follow. That is, you want to engage your audience every 5 minutes. You want to avoid a monologue where you're speaking for 10, 15 minutes, and everyone's sitting there. Instead, engage them consistently, so that they know that that's the expectation, so every 5 minutes. One way you can do that is to ask your audience for clear physical signals.

I'm curious how this project is going for you. I'm going to ask you to give me a gauge with your hand. Thumbs up if it's going great. Sideways, if you're having some issues. Thumbs down if there's anything that we need to talk about. Where are we at? Gregory, can you tell us a little bit more what's going on?

The second challenge that came up in the poll was, what do you do if it's the same two to three people in your presentation or your meeting who are always talking? There are lots of things you can do. I want to share my two favorite. The first technique that you can use is to do what's called prepared participation. Rather than throwing out a question, and having the two people who feel comfortable speaking off the cuff, answer, you can say, "I'm going to put you into a breakout room to discuss x. When we come back, I want one person from each group to share." Just that idea of putting them into a room, giving them a chance to work out ideas, you're going to get a variety of people speaking up as opposed to the same people. You can also utilize silence, and say, I'm going to pause for a moment. I'm going to give you a chance to think about x. If it feels too awkward to have silence, you can play a little music.

The other thing that you can do to encourage other people to speak is to do what's called call plus context. Michael, in terms of the discussion we've had about the product launch, is there anything else you want to add?

Michael: Yes, thanks for bringing it up. There's one concern that I have that I don't think anybody's mentioned so far.

Ricketts: This is a kinder way to call on somebody. Instead of cold calling somebody and saying, Michael, what are your thoughts on the product launch?

Michael: I'm not quite sure.

Ricketts: It's a little jarring. He might feel a little embarrassed.

The final challenge that we had in our poll was awkward silences. I know it. I felt them so many times myself. The first tip I want to share here is to reframe your thinking. Rather than viewing the silence as awkward, view it as productive. Remember that a virtual audience needs more time to muster up the courage to speak, to find the unmute button. You do need to pause longer, and that's ok. That is giving people the time that they need. It may feel like an eternity for you but it probably doesn't feel that same way to your audience. If you really do want to avoid these awkward silences, there is one technique that I like, and that's called priming participation. For example, if I'm about to stop for questions, I could say, "In a moment, I'd love to get any questions that you have so far, but first, let me share a common question that I get." I share the question, and then I answer my own question. Then I've given about a minute, and then I can call on people for their questions. They're primed, and they're going to be more likely to jump in faster with that extra time.

These techniques can really help a lot. I have them ready to go. I notice when I remember to do them, and when I don't. It makes a huge difference in how much engagement I get and how smoothly it goes.


In order to master your virtual communication, we talked about three areas. First, we talked about increasing the connection by creating connection early, and being aware of your online presence. We talked about how to set the stage for brevity, as well as using PREP in your meetings. Then finally, we talked about different techniques to overcome these common participation challenges. I hope that you can use a few tips and tricks from today to really take your virtual communication to the next level. We may be here for a while, so let's find ways to master it.


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Recorded at:

Feb 19, 2021