In times of crisis, leaders must communicate quickly, clearly and continuously. I remember witnessing this first-hand working with American Airlines following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That crisis was unprecedented for its time, as the entire U.S. national airspace was shut down in the wake of the attacks. Thus, there was no way for the airline’s crisis response and communications team to get to the disaster sites and manage the flow of information. Their existing crisis communications handbook had to be thrown out the window. None of the leadership communications could be conducted in person; it was mostly over email, fax and newswires. Nevertheless, American’s leaders used the tools at their disposal to communicate the facts of the situation and dispel rampant rumors and speculation.
Today, COVID-19 presents another crisis of epic proportions, except this time practically the entire economy is shut down and everyone is sheltering in place. Much like 9/11, this crisis presents an opportunity and responsibility for leaders to step up and communicate to their stakeholders what is happening, how employees and customers are being affected, the steps the organization is taking to respond, and their strategy and vision going forward.
But how do you do this when the situation is so dire and we’re all stuck at home? First, it’s important to know that your constituents not only want to hear from you; they NEED to hear from you. Communicate often, daily if possible. Provide updates on the decisions you are making and the actions you are taking. Even if it’s bad news. If it is, lead with that news first – it will build trust and credibility with your audience around the other items you are communicating. Don’t sugar coat the facts; give it to them straight but do so with a sense of compassion.
Second, it’s important to understand the virtual medium. Videoconferencing has become the communications tool of choice during the pandemic. Conducting a presentation over a video call can be tricky even for the most polished public speakers. Here are some tips for leaders to present with purpose in today’s virtual world.
Follow the KISS rule. In a virtual presentation where your audience can be easily distracted, it’s more important than ever to follow the “Keep It Short and Simple” design principle. Adapt your presentation content to the medium to keep people’s attention. Less is more for online presentations. Focus on a few key messages (follow the rule of 3’s if possible) and bring those to life with anecdotes and examples.
- Plan your attire and background. For a virtual presentation, your attire should match what you would typically wear for an in-person presentation, but focus on solid colors. Prints look different on camera than in real life and can distract your audience. Avoid any jewelry or accessories that might create noise or unwanted reflections. Before you go live, turn your camera on and determine what your background looks like. Be sure it’s neat and uncluttered and your chair is set to the proper height. You want your audience to focus on your message as opposed to your wardrobe or messy home office.
- Look into the light. It’s often difficult to know where to look when conducting a virtual presentation. To create a meaningful connection with videoconferencing participants, remember to look into the light…make direct eye contact with the lens of your camera, so participants will see you looking right at them.
- Speak slowly and clearly. In the normal world, we talk fast and listen slow. And nerves produce speed. This is even more true when giving a virtual presentation. People need time to hear and understand. Try to use short words and sentences. Slow down your pace. Include a pause after key points (or repeat the phrase). Remember that your audience may have poor speakers, noise in the background or a poor connection. Speaking clearly and articulating each word will give you the best chance of getting your message across.
- Practice, practice, practice. Physical or virtual, there is no better method for being calm and collected in front of an audience than rehearsing your presentation. Conducting a test run with your videoconferencing application will enable you to become familiar with different controls and potentially troubleshoot any technical glitches. Doing a virtual presentation has one strong advantage over doing it in person – your recording is identical to your live performance. Watch the video back of yourself presenting to alter your phrasing, eliminate filler words (“umm’s” and “ahh’s”) and adjust your body language and facial expressions.
Cohesive and persuasive communications is a key trait of effective leaders, especially during times like these. And presenting well over a videoconference has its unique challenges. Remember that great communicators aren’t just born this way. It’s a skill that is learned and developed over time. Don’t try to “fake it until you make it.” The more you prepare and practice, technology and all, the better your virtual presentation will go.