I sent the screenshot above to my colleagues at the Spontaneity Shop yesterday afternoon, and was genuinely excited about it. The little network symbol in an orange square is the long-awaited MS Teams Breakout Rooms button, and it is a strangely big deal for those of us who want to communicate more effectively.
At the Spontaneity Shop we come from show business, and something all actors know is that the best scenes are between two people. I’d go further and say that to a degree all scenes are between two people, even monologues – when Hamlet says ‘To be or not to be’ the other person in the scene is the audience. It’s true of a crowd scene: when Evita sings ‘Don’t cry for me’, the other person in the scene is Argentina.
This creates a real tension in many work meetings, because of the number of stakeholders that need to attend. Can six people have a conversation? I wonder. In the before times, clients (often quite senior people) would tell me how much they hated ‘standing in a circle of six strangers with a glass of white wine’. The reason is twofold: firstly, it is not dialogue, more a group of people taking stressful turns to make a speech; secondly, the more people present, the less time you can justly take to be – and importantly feel – heard.
So we’ve used Zoom’s breakout facility for every remote training session (unless clients insisted on the old Teams platform) because during the best meetings there is time to be heard. Breakouts are best in quite small groups, and we usually send people away in groups of only two. At a session last week, a client said that ‘the breakout conversations I’ve had in your workshops have been my most satisfying work interactions in 9 months’. Even with the vaccine rollout, remote participation is going to have a long legacy, and now – finally! – the most broadly used platform can make real dialogue possible as part of bigger meetings. It is the best thing to have happened to the technology since the first lockdown began.
Now go away and discuss this in pairs, then let’s feed back here in 10 minutes.
It’s 2019. You’re having coffee with a close friend, and within seconds of putting down your chocolate éclair she’s alerted you to the blob of cream at the corner of your mouth so that you can dab it away. With her it’s trivial, though it might amuse you both. But what if the meeting had been with a new client? What if you were at an interview for a job you needed? What if you were the person interviewing candidates, or on stage at a public event? A stranger would feel less permission to mention it; and in those circumstances we might obliviously carry on with the blob of cream in full view. I’m thinking of Rudy Giuliani, hair dye and press conferences here.
‘Oh would some power the giftie gi’e us, to see ourselves as others see us’. Well, careful of what you wish for, Robert Burns: 2020 has brought us Zoom. At every meeting there is a ghost at the table – as well as ourselves, an image of ourselves on the screen – and it slightly spooks us. At least Zoom, Skype and MS Teams show us the flipped, reflected image that we are familiar with from our bathroom mirrors (though they de-flip your image on everyone else’s screen). This mitigates the uncanniness slightly, but it is still a huge distraction. We are, permanently and literally, ‘self conscious’.
‘Hide Self View’ therefore should be a boon. If you float your cursor over the three dots in the top right corner of your image during a Zoom call, one of the options that drops down allows you to switch off your own image (see picture above). Others can see you, but you are not distracted by seeing yourself. You can send your ghost back to purgatory where they belong, and then you are 100% available for the other people you are engaging with. This option is still not available in MS Teams, so it is one of the things Zoom still does better than its competitors.
But I notice that it’s not easy to deliberately give up that power that Burns is yearning for – I know the benefits of being less self-conscious, but… if I can see what they are seeing it seems like I might be slightly more in control – I can be watchful of my image, notice and wipe away treacherous blobs of cream and hair dye. And I can feel myself accepting the ghost at the table.
Video Conferencing has been a salvation for all of us this year, make no mistake – but I am still questioning its default assumptions. Human interactions float on a vast collective ocean of trust; that we won’t exploit the advantage our perspective gives us over others. If our remote working patterns mean that we can take over the policing of our own dignity – muting the sound of our children in the background, switching off the camera because our pyjamas or bedroom wallpaper make us feel vulnerable – things will have changed. An implicit set of principles, ‘behave honestly, and be generous to others’, are subtly replaced by new ones: ‘beware, they might be out to get you – don’t get caught out’. And in a blended work environment, this subtle difference will matter even more.
I see clicking ‘Hide Self View’ as a way of setting the tone for the call – saying to myself ‘I am going to trust these people like I would if we were meeting in person’. Some readers will think this approach incompatible with their work culture, or for other reasons may not feel they have that freedom; some days (and with some people) I may not feel it myself. But it’s the future I’m looking forward to, so I’m doing it today.
Going on a course can feel slightly scary; to learn we must face and embrace our failures. At our workshops we make a virtue of this, and validate it – after all when any human is learning they are heroically heading on a new path, and ‘scary’ is how every adventure feels. When we work with corporate groups in-house, the shared experiences and mission can make for exhilarating discoveries, when a problem that was thought to be a personal weakness turns out to be a shared one, and possibly even a helpful indicator of more structural vulnerabilities, which the company can strengthen now they are exposed.
But for some learners, those in-house sessions may not be an option. Some people are sole traders; some businesses are still small enough to need people at the phone so that a group can’t be assembled. And some people’s work culture means that even with an external coach offering support and setting a healthy tone they won’t feel able to risk the openness that behavioural change needs.
At our open events for individuals you’ll be learning safely alongside total strangers who are not your commercial rivals – all facing challenges slightly different but with surprising common threads. In our calendar we now have sessions on Impact, Storytelling, Negotiations and finessing your Zoom software set-up. Have a look and book today!
Here’s a screenshot from today at 1114hrs GMT; arguably one of the most important videoconferences in history. This group is discussing the preliminary results of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine trials. It’s wonderful news so far, but let’s assess some of their image choices.
Virtual backgrounds: Professor Andrew Pollard and his boss, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson, are using badged images of the institution’s high-status environment. It’s partly brand-building, but it also signifies that they are there to represent other hardworking brains – a point that must feature in their media strategy, because they consistently reiterate it whenever they are on the news. Menelas Pangalos and his boss Pascal Soriot are also using virtual images of buildings (AZ’s new compound in Cambridge). In all these cases it helps to associate them with a specific geography in our minds (especially if they are not actually there physically).
Locations: Professor John Bell is in an office (rather too starkly sidelit by his office desk lamp), as are the members of the Government science team that Brits have come to know – Whitty, Vallance and Jonathan Van Tam. It doesn’t surprise me that uniquely JVT, who is by far the most gifted communicator of the three, has taken care to elevate the camera angle and ensure that everyone gets clear audio of his contributions through a headset – when he’s not on mute, that is.
The UK Prime Minister: the least professional in some ways; flat lighting, and even his tripod-mounted camera is too far away. But oddly it’s quite on-brand for Boris Johnson, who can show off the classical environment of the state apartments at Downing Street while being ‘adorably’ unconcerned about the trivia of electronic whatnots and thingumajigs.
To learn more about getting your Zoom style and approach right, book here.
The independent report into the UK Home Secretary’s management style reported back last week, and was instantly (and reasonably) the subject of hot debate at the virtual water cooler; schoolyard intimidation tactics seem to be a pattern among high officials in the last few years…
Bullying is a thing we all learn about early in our lives, and those same schoolyard behaviour patterns of dominance and submission live on in our adult communities too. The power politics of the workplace are less overt, and hopefully less destructive – but they can still be confusing, especially when leaders feel under pressure to seem ‘in charge’. At our virtual training session ‘The Charisma Key’ I’ll be walking attendees through the map of ‘status dynamics’ and teaching them how to negotiate the subtleties of confident (NOT arrogant) workplace leadership behaviour – and how to handle those who are still using the tactics of the schoolyard.
To sign up for our next 2-hour virtual session on 2 December click here.
“I’m someone who owes his career to being in the room with my clients – that’s how I’ve made every sale, and grown every relationship, and – well, frankly I am terrified that I won’t survive in a remote world.” This was said to me and the others on the call by a 40-something consultant a few weeks ago. Even those on mute joined in the shared, solemn nod, and there was a feeling of relief as someone said the Thing that was too Scary to Say.
I’m writing this at my kitchen table in mid-November. In May, June and July some of my contacts acted as though things could be getting back to normal after the summer holidays; I had clients who were making room bookings for face-to-face behavioural training in September. But with the winter surge upon us, and people right across global organisations working from home, this is it for the medium term – and at least some of the old way may be gone for good. It feels like being on a boat and imagining it was a dinghy you could pilot quite sharply, while all along it was a cruise liner proceeding inexorably forward, and some of the passengers are going into quarantine.
The question for my consultant, and for all the rest of us, is this: “How different is the new world?” We should take some comfort from this fact: though our priorities have been radically reordered for us more quickly than most could have imagined, the fundamental needs of humans don’t mutate at the same rate. Your clients want to know they matter to you, that you are still on their side, that there is space in your agenda for their needs; your team wants to feel seen and heard, their contributions to be recognised; your boss wants to feel confident that your resourcefulness is available to her. And everyone you work with will be more likely to call, message or Zoom you if they know you are prepared to bring energy and empathy to each interaction.
Sign up here for ‘The Charisma Key’, my next interactive Zoom training session, at 1400hrs GMT on Wednesday 2 December. We will be looking at how to build a charismatic impact from home, using timeless insights into what people want from human communication, and learning practical things you can do to truly connect in today’s remote world. Be ready to engage – it’s a workshop not a lecture, fun because it’s demanding, and not a podcast you can multitask over. I look forward to meeting you.
“Content was relevant, exercises revealing! I will change my behaviour as a result of the session” (Senior legal associate, summer 2020)