In the spotlight – What Hollywood can teach today’s business leaders about virtual meetings
What are you up to this evening? For many of us still locked down in our own four walls, there is one rather predictable answer: Netflix!
Ironically, despite interminable video conferencing during the day, huge numbers of us are still turning to video technology to entertain us in the evenings. We log out of our work laptops, then sit in front of another screen to watch our favorite series or movie for the umpteenth time. It feels so easy to become utterly absorbed in the worlds of these characters. Lounging on our sofas, we are moved to laugh, to cry, and to exclaim in indignation.
Why is it that we get so invested in these on-screen characters and the stories they tell, yet during a virtual project kick-off with trusted colleagues, we feel bored and frustrated within minutes?
The tricks of the trade
The brightly lit conference room was once center stage in the theater of work. In this past year, however, the vast majority of sales pitches, client meetings, and weekly briefings have taken place from our own homes, via virtual meeting rooms. It is fair to say that the novelty of seeing our colleagues’ taste in home furnishings quickly wore off.
Good news, then, that there are ways to counteract the dreaded “Zoom gloom.”
Hollywood directors use two main strategies to get audiences invested in the action on screen:
1. Evoking emotions: Using camera angles, music, and evocative expression, directors invite the audience into the psychological world of each character.
2. Stimulating curiosity: Inviting the audience to experience the choices and dilemmas that each character encounters as they strive towards a specific goal (love, revenge, world domination…)
Remembering these Hollywood strategies can be a game-changer when it comes to (virtual) performances as a leader.
Make emotions seen
It’s not enough for you to feel passionate about the launch of a project you’ve been working on behind the scenes for months. You have to show it to your team at that virtual kick-off event –through your eyes, your facial expression, and the animation of your voice. This is, of course, much trickier to achieve via a webcam than it was when we could work the room in person. First, your audience can see less of you; second, being expressive when you are talking to a computer screen can feel unnatural.
As a leader in this virtual environment, your visual performance should be geared towards building intimacy and trust with your audience. You must do deliberately the things that come naturally in a face-to-face setting, for example, making regular eye contact with another person in a one-on-one conversation. Admittedly, maintaining good eye contact online is easier said than done, as it means looking into the webcam lens, not at their pixelated image on your screen. We always recommend putting a sticker next to the webcam to remind you where to direct your gaze.
Several senior executives that we met during coaching interventions since the switch to online meetings reported being out of the habit of standing up when presenting. However, standing up immediately gives our voice more energy and our body more room for gesture and emotional expression – you will immediately become much more watchable.
Even something as simple as being backlit makes it harder for your audience to engage with your virtual self and, therefore, with your vision. However, unlike a Hollywood actor, you won’t have a whole production team of lighting engineers and camera operators to help you build intimacy with those on the other side of the screen. As such, rehearsing is key. Set up and test your lighting and camera height, and curate your background before dialing into the meeting. You may even wish to record yourself and observe your performance with a critical eye – something that we call an “iterative rehearsal process.”
Make emotions heard
The past year has been a case study in the importance of foregrounding emotions in the content of meetings too. There is only one audio stream in a video call, which means no more whispered asides or idle conversations with colleagues as we file in and out of the meeting room. All too often, we focus entirely on sharing task-related information in the call. While our team may understand the raw facts, they often have limited access to the intent: What is the overall goal? Why is it important? What does it mean for us, and what do others think about it?
In a face-to-face setting, we would conceive and share intent in a variety of ways: in a spontaneous chat at the coffee machine, or by interpreting non-verbal clues in those around us (facial expressions, body language, etc.). As team leaders, we need to create alternative communication streams such as text chat during virtual meetings. Try setting up regular emoji “check-ins” during video calls – a simple and fun way to assess the underlying mood of a discussion.
It is the exchange of this sort of emotional information that helps teams to form a group identity and generate novel ideas. Without structured opportunities to discuss the intent behind a project, we lose the human factor in our collaboration – and the motivation and interest of our team.
Experiment with plot devices
Now let’s consider the second Hollywood strategy: presenting the audience with choices and dilemmas to involve them in the story.
Movie directors pull us into the action on screen using classic storytelling techniques such as suspense (Which wire will diffuse the bomb?) and dilemmas (Should she reveal the truth now or keep quiet?). Al Pacino once said that he decides which movie scripts to accept by counting how many big choices his character has to make.
Most meetings are not destined to become a Hollywood blockbuster. But – spoiler alert! – plowing through the bullet points on your prepared meeting agenda certainly won’t stimulate your team’s curiosity and willingness to collaborate. Neuroscientific research demonstrates that storytelling is very much a key component of effective collaboration. As team leaders, we should use this to our advantage. Note that the highest-grossing movies of all time explore dilemmas with universal resonance. When team members are isolated in their own home offices, it is vital to regularly address the bigger purpose behind their daily activities, rather than focusing all the virtual meeting time on operational details.
In executive education programs at ESMT Berlin, we teach business leaders to center virtual meetings around a particular dilemma that can be solved together. After all, the worst thing you can do in a meeting in terms of engagement is present each individual with a ready-made assignment. Instead, it needs to be about the choices you need to make as a team. Rather than writing out an agenda that follows the “one topic/one speaker” paradigm, spend your planning time setting up collaborative activities for your team. Don’t just dictate your observations on customer segments from a prepared slide - use online brainstorming software to transform the topic into a team activity (e.g., “Allocate our team’s top 15 clients into these customer segments …”). Actively inviting every team member into the decision-making process works wonders in kick-starting productive discussions and championing project ownership.
Remember your audience
The performing arts industry experienced its own digital transformation last century when actors swapped the stage for the silver screen. They too had to develop new ways to engage with their audience: rather than broadcasting their lines out to the back of the auditorium, actors had to learn the more subtle art of inviting the viewer into their character’s emotional world. As we come to realize that the shift from the conference room to the virtual room is likely to be permanent for many teams, we would do well to learn from their success.
This article was originally published by Forbes on April 30, 2021, and republished with permission.