Soft Skills Shuffle
The greatest soft skill is to care about and be interested in other people. The age of saying that this “is too touchy-feely for us” is well and truly over. If you doubt that, look at the scores for online meetings, chats and discussions. Without any question the winners are those whose personalities come across the screen. Smiles, body language, laughter, sadness, all exaggerated – as actors have to do when performing for an audience. And that is the point. You have an audience on the Zoom – it just isn’t physically close. As you find it difficult to see them, they, in return, find it hard to read you. So you must make it easier for them.
You also have an audience in live meetings, journeys together, shared lunches, of course. In these cases your vibes are sharing with the other person as your breath mingles with theirs. They can ‘feel’ the heat of your body even though you are not physically all that close. Eye to eye is a different thing from eye to camera – and where exactly is the point on the camera lens that lets you really look into their eyes? Your soft skills are crying out for attention and practice. Get them right and you will sell ice to the Eskimoes. Get them wrong and you are simply another webinar that people drift into and out of, in a way they never would in a meeting.
We all know the importance of body language. Gestures, waving hands, frowns, raised eyebrows are just a few of the communications we take for granted when face-to-face. Face-to-camera is different. Now we have to put twice the energy into our speaking, twice the emphasis into our gestures, twice the conviction into our voice. The way in which we speak has to change. We are in a situation that resembles more a town hall, even when our audience is only two or three people.
We must have a few clear points we want to make. They must be so distinguished from the rest of what we say that they should be more like a clarion call to war than a tip about how to do something. In between the key messages, we should sound like an easy-going friend who understands our limitations but regards helping us as tremendously important in spite of them.
The sensible amount of time we should devote to a conference is about forty minutes. For one-on-one sessions that are largely learning you can extend that to ninety minutes, provided you are lively and assertive. It will exhaust you, but we need some of that in our sedentary, keyboard engaged lives. Don’t forget that it will exhaust the person you are dealing with too. The old soft skills of Socratic discourse still apply. Today they must be more obvious.
Take background, for instance. Zoom provides you with a smashing range of places to be, but are you serious about a discussion from in front of the Eiffel Tower? Neat rows of books on shelves behind you are thought to be evidence of good learning but they say little about your work, unless you are a professor or happen to have written them all. Let your background be a real, working one. I was flattered recently when someone said that I looked as though I was in a workshop.
A big fault in our internet communications is camera position. Most people put their face in the camera. This makes any signs of body language disappear. Moreover, we don’t sit that still when we are at a table. We lean forward to emphasise a point, lean back to show an attitude of relaxed agreement, throw our heads up to laugh, look down and puzzled when we are out of our depth. All this can be done on camera with a little thought.
Then there is the question of headphones. There are, of course, circumstances when headphones have to be worn. But for the person watching you they look like those people who wander along the street so engrossed in their music that you fear they will be run over. Headphones are a barrier to internet communications. When you can do without them you will be in much better touch with the other party.
We are learning about online living. It is an exciting and demanding time. As with all communications the first rule is think about the other person more than about yourself.
Sending is easy. Ensuring receiving is less so.
A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points
Alan Kay, computer scientist (b. 17 May 1940)