Digitally Speaking: Virtual Meetings Require Strong Public Speaking Skills

One thing that the new normal has laid bare is how bad some people are at public speaking. Yes, it was always obvious in a business meeting when a participant (or leader) was lacking in the communications department, but there were distractions (note-taking, reading on the phone, getting coffee). Now, with eyes trained on the screen, there is no escaping a painful reality: people should better prepare for meetings by practicing public speaking.

Have you ever given a speech to the mirror? Perhaps you should start. People trained in public speaking often train themselves by practicing in the mirror. It’s not just the words of the speech, but how those words are enunciated and punctuated with facial expression.

When giving a speech in person, an experienced communicator will seek to take command of the space with proper posture and walking in the stage space. They might firmly plant their feet and use their diaphragm like a singer to modulate their voice. By contrast, a zoom speaker might slouch over the computer while looking down at a spreadsheet and, wait for it, drone on.

Stunningly, a software company promoting its meetings platform is running a TV ad that can politely be termed as from Hell. The spot is meant to be inspirational, I suppose, depicting teams in live-action problem solving, but golly, it’s as wonderful as listening to nails on a chalkboard. Why? Because it depicts poor communications. The speakers halt, hem and haw to get their sentences flowing. The viewer is groaning. Feel familiar? Don’t be that speaker.

Here’s How to Improve Your Computer Speaking Skills

  1. Look at the camera while you are speaking as if you are looking into the eyes of your audience. This requires extemporaneous speech (more on this in a moment).
  2. Sit up straight and breathe out your words so they actually flow and you feel/appear poised and gracious. This will calm your audience so they can focus on what you’re actually saying. Hemming and hawing creates restlessness in the audience because they get annoyed wondering what you are trying to say.
  3. Prepare. Even if you are not giving a formal presentation, write out your main points and then bring your notes to a mirror. Standing or sitting up straight, breathe in and make your points so you are confidently speaking to the mirror without looking down at your notes.
  4. Smile. In the olden days, salespeople were told to smile as they worked the phones so that the person on the other end of the line would hear confidence and warmth in the voice of the caller. These is even more important on a computer screen. Smile. It goes a long way to engage your audience and to give you confidence as well.
  5. Listen. Just like pre-covid public speaking in a space with other people present, be sure to listen to points being made by other people and favorably respond to new ideas. It’s OK to say, “that’s interesting. I had not thought of that,” or, “that’s new. Tell me more.” Anything you would do or say to shut down someone in an in-person meeting that could be uncomfortable for other participants will be even more obvious within the confines of a group video chat. Be a leader by engaging as a welcoming, kind presence. We could all use a little more kindness these days.

Also, be mindful of time. Just because many meeting participants are stuck working from home does not mean time has become less valuable. On the contrary, time might be more of the essence as some decision-making has accelerated to meet the quickly evolving circumstances to function as a business amid a pandemic. Respect people’s time and they will respect you. In a trying economy, the economy of words is as important as ever.

If you are interested in a public speaking training session, contact me at

Debates are chances to shine, not whine

Much of life, especially in business, is improvised. Yes, we plan and prepare. Nonetheless, we maintain agility to respond to changing dynamics and to handle new challenges and debates. This is reflected in how we chose to communicate with customers, counterparts, staff, etc.

If you don’t like a question, answer it in way that suits yourself instead of complaining about the question. We saw Republican candidates for president do both during and after the CNBC-moderated debate – promote their policy positions in their answers and complain about the questions.

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It seems some of the debate questions were designed to gauge how well the candidates respond to challenges, which is essentially the most important characteristic for anyone considering holding the office. The moderators of the October 28 debate have been accused of having a political bias, but perhaps they were simply overzealous in seeking to gin up a lively debate. Let’s review the transcript.

The first question was what is your greatest weakness, which is widely viewed as one of the biggest puff questions for job interviews of all time.

Donald Trump was asked if his campaign came out of a comic book, after the moderator noted the candidate said he’d deport 11 million people, build a wall on the southern border while making Mexico pay for it, and cut taxes $10 trillion without raising the deficit. Maybe the moderator should have said, how is that realistic?, rather than frame it derisively as a comic book narrative.

This follow-up question could have been seen as the moderator teeing up a chance to go through the mechanics of how the proposed fiscal policy would work: “I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said that you have as chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.” Trump went with a snappy answer that a CNBC personality has complimented his plan.

When Ben Carson’s tax policy numbers were challenged, another candidate – not a moderator – Ohio Governor John Kasich jumped in and called the Carson and Trump tax plans the stuff of “fantasy.”

With the next question, Senator Marco Rubio was asked if he’s too much of a young man in a hurry and about missing votes in the Senate. He very effectively rebuffed those questions, so they served him well.

The main thrust of the debate’s detractors was that the questions were disrespectful. For example, check out this question for Jeb Bush: “Governor, the fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen in this race, despite the big investment your donors have made.”

OK, it’s not something you’d say to someone at a cocktail party, but this was a presidential debate. Carson on ABC’s This Week on November 1 said the job of the moderators is to disseminate information for the candidates. Wrong. That is your campaign’s job, not the role of reporters.

Meanwhile, candidates excelled at responding to the challenging line of questions. For instance, a moderator said that the stock market was unkind toward Carly Fiorina when she was the CEO of a publicly traded question. Numbers tell a story and Fiorina took this opportunity to elaborate on the broader context of the story of her time at HP, what was required of her and what she accomplished in a difficult time period.

Still, the criticism of the debate was that it was personal. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas ably summed up what he heard: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media… This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”

Answers matter most

Fair enough, but shouldn’t they be able to face such questions and handily respond with aplomb? Frankly, the answers were very good and gave the candidates a chance to shine. What’s the problem?

Is the problem that in some instances the answers were head-scratchers? Trump was again asked about bankruptcies in his business dealings and he seemed unsure if that has happened three or four times. He also seemed to suggest that his experience with bankruptcies makes him adept at addressing debt.

When Rubio was asked tough questions about his judgment in personal finances, he again used the opportunity to shine. He talked about overcoming financial adversity through hard work. That answer overshadowed the question, which admittedly sounded pretty rude.

Rubio also used the forum as an opportunity to get in an effective dig at the “mainstream media” and Hillary Clinton, in one fell swoop regarding the Benghazi hearing that week. The candidates may not have liked all the questions, but they sure had some effective answers.

Carson took exception to being asked about a nutritional supplement company. Though the retired neurosurgeon said he thinks its products are good and he gave paid speeches for it, Carson still distanced himself: “It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of a relationship with them.” Should anyone be surprised that a line of questioning on a business news TV channel would seek clarification on this?

For the most part, the candidates demonstrated who they are and what they stand for in their answers to the questions, including the pushy questions. The answers were obviously to their advantage.

“I just want to thank all my colleagues here for being civil, and not falling for the traps. And, I also just want to thank the audience for being attentive, and noticing the questions, and the noticing the answers,” Carson said.

This debate will likely be remembered for the answers more than any specific question. Despite their complaints, the candidates came off the stage looking pretty good.

For guidance on improving your next business presentation, contact consultant Katharine Fraser.

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