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Something Got Lost in Transmission!

I was on a video conference call last week when I realized that I had missed something important. It was a video conference and we were discussing the next steps in a project when I became aware that I wasn’t in tune with the other main participant. I had missed something subtle and I couldn’t understand why. Then it hit me. The problem was body language or, more accurately, the lack of it. I love the benefits that video conferencing has given businesses, particularly smaller organizations who are trying to compete in an international landscape but it’s not perfect and that meeting reminded me why.

I think the absence of body language cues can be detrimental in many types of video meetings, from planning R&D projects to management team strategy sessions but, cards on the table, I am interested in sales and how suppliers can best promote their products to prospective customers. So, in this blog, I am going to focus on selling situations.

I have been making deals, selling, dealing with complex discussions with colleagues and collaborators for three decades and reading body language has been integral to successful communication in all these situations. Now, I am not a student of body language. I haven’t read a single book or done a course. I am just a regular person who recognizes that non-verbal cues can help people to understand each other. I don’t claim to be a human lie detector or to be able to exert my will on others with just the subtle wave of a hand or shrug of a shoulder. Most advocates claiming such prowess are charlatans, to be avoided.

So what am I talking about? There’s no magic. It’s simply this. Many people don’t say what’s in their heads. This is especially true if voicing a thought could either (a) make them look less intelligent i.e. admit they don’t understand something, or (b) risk conflict by voicing open disagreement with another person’s stated view. Most of us can tell if someone isn’t following our explanation of something or disagrees with us but is not saying so by subconsciously reading their body language. Usually, when we sense this, we ask open questions to make it easier for the other party to voice their concerns.

For most of us this is a natural part of communication and we are unaware that we do it. It is hugely important in sales presentations, especially in technical sales. For example, we observe (without consciously thinking about it) that an individual who has been leaning in and looking attentively at a product we have been demonstrating suddenly seems to sit back, maybe fold their arms and disengage somehow. At that moment we realize that maybe this person is no longer on the journey with us and so we ask searching questions to identify what has just happened and get things back on track. This happens in a natural way because we recognize the disconnect in the moment.

The problem with Zoom, Skype, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, etc. is that we often don’t see the problem until the very end and trying to diagnose where things went wrong is difficult, as is trying to go back, fix the issue and then having to repeat the subsequent steps to get the presentation flowing again. Now I am not suggesting that we abandon video conferencing as a sales tool. I simply think we should recognize that it has inherent pitfalls when used for sales and that we should therefore modify our behavior to compensate for these pitfalls.

So what can we do?

There are a few easy steps we can take to minimize the downsides of having sales interactions using remote video connections. These are:

1. Use the features within the software effectively. If you are showing slides or using a video connection to show a physical product then make sure you split the screen so you can still see the other participants' faces. Then remember to check those faces regularly and notice if they seem to disengage.

2. Add an extra monitor to your set-up. This is a really simple way to see peoples faces clearly while still having plenty of screen space for your presentation, videos, online whiteboard tools, etc., etc.

3. Stop regularly and ask searching and open questions to ascertain if the participants are following you and are in agreement. Regularly drop in questions like: “Does this make sense?”, “Can you see this working in your lab?”, “Am I going too fast?”. Keep asking and investigate further and adjust if you get anything less than a positive response.

4. Set the stage to allow for repetition. Use your introduction to say something like “I know this may be hard to explain on video. So forgive me if I end up repeating a few things from time to time.”

5. Encourage participant participation. Try to make it easier for your participants to speak up with “I am not always great at explaining over video. So please interrupt me at any time if I haven’t managed to explain something properly or if you have any questions at all”.

The above steps won’t guarantee success in all video conferences but they will reduce the likelihood of failure and they may even make the interaction more enjoyable for everyone.

So enjoy your next VidCon and close that deal!

Rory Geoghegan

September 28th, 2022

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