Best Practices for Communicating Effectively Online
Most of the skills that are valuable in business spring from one, single source: effective communication.
Greg Satell calls it “today’s most important skill.”
Yet few people take the time and effort to practice or refine their communication skills—especially when it comes to communicating online.
Given that so many of today’s meetings occur online, communication isn’t just a nice skill to have – it’s essential. Good communication can be the difference that prevents problems, improves the flow of work, and even makes working as a team a more satisfying experience.
Below, we tackle some of the best practices you can incorporate into your daily life to improve the way you communicate online:
1. Improve Clarity with Less Word Clutter
The “Laconic phrase” is your inspiration here. In ancient Greece, Phillip of Macedon once sent a message to Sparta threatening war and destruction if he were to invade their lands. The Spartan reply came with only one word: “If.” They were never invaded.
Hopefully, you don’t have any ancient Macedonian kings threatening to invade your lands, but there are still important lessons to learn for modern business: Don’t use two paragraphs when a single sentence will suffice. Don’t go on and on with your question just to sound like you know what you’re taking about, especially when “What do you think?” will be just as effective.
Less word clutter also means giving up the “microphone,” and learning to make communication a two-way street. Ask direct questions and make sure that your meetings are more than just ways for you to inform; they should be about achieving a common goal together.
2. Apply the Same Logic to Your Meeting Invitations
Doing too much will only result in confusion and lack of clarity. That means avoiding inviting people who aren’t necessary to be in on the meeting in the first place. Christine Comaford, contributor to Forbes, wrote, “Invite the doers, decision makers, impacted parties only.” Anyone else is just there to muddy the waters.
Sometimes, people want to be in on meetings because they want to be a part of the process, even if they don’t have much to contribute. That’s perfectly fine. But remember that increasing a meeting size beyond what’s necessary doesn’t increase its importance; it only reduces clarity and focus.
3. Work in Batches, Not Long Chains
Let’s say you need to clarify multiple points from a client with whom you communicate online. Is it better to hold three different meetings to address each issue in full, or hold one meeting with three different topics?
They might sound the same, but remember that there are associated costs with every meeting you schedule:
- Three different meetings mean finding three different windows of time that work best for you and everyone else.
- Three different meetings mean three different email chains setting up each meeting.
- Three different meetings mean three different sessions of chit-chat and “catching up” talk.
Three ten-minute meetings no longer become a half an hour. They add up to much more than that in associated time costs.
Schedule it all in one batch, though — one larger meeting — and you’ll reduce the associated time costs of setting up a meeting.
Think of it like buying stock: if you have to pay a commission on every trade, it’s better to buy in large batches. And given the old axiom that time is money, the same holds true with meetings.
4. Remember That Most Communication is Two-Sided, At Least
Seth Godin wrote an insightful post: “Communication is a path, not an event.” In it, Godin details his experience with a CEO who gave a one-sided presentation that most people listening immediately forgot. According to Godin, it would have been much more effective to simply say, Let’s talk.
Look for the same opportunities in the way you communicate online. Are you focused on your presentations and your one-sided communication? If so, where are the opportunities to open it up to both sides?
Get out of the habit of setting up meetings so you can give presentations. At the very least, schedule some portion of these meetings to include a give-and-take, so you can clarify your points and receive feedback. The more you let people contribute, the more likely they are to remember what was said.
Not to mention, the more your meeting feels like a lecture, the more it will be remembered like one. Which is to say, not at all.
5. Make Your Meetings Visual
Sometimes the best way to communicate effectively online is simply to let go of the need to say the perfect thing. Instead, incorporate some visual tools. Don’t just use the audio aspect of GoToMeeting to stay in touch — use all the features you have at your disposal:
- Try desktop/application sharing whenever someone needs to explain how a technical detail is done
- Utilize the “virtual whiteboard” to keep the meeting organized
- HD video conferencing means seeing people face to face
- Include drawing tools to illustrate a concept or portray workflow
The old saying that a “picture is worth a thousand words” is your guide here. If you can illustrate a point or better understand a colleague because you see it rather than hear it, your meeting will accomplish twice as much.
6. Don’t Interrupt a Great Working Relationship
If you have a great working relationship with someone, but find that you communicate with them only occasionally and sparsely, it’s tempting to want to interrupt the pattern.
Maybe you want to build more rapport with them. Find out about their life. Ask them if they’re happy about the relationship and if they have any feedback for you. And that’s great — it’s always good to check in and ask if they have any questions or concerns.
But beyond that, stay out of your own way. There’s a chance that communication between the two of you is so sparse because it’s effective. Why add a new meeting to your schedule when one per month has sufficed? Sometimes, things are already working. The problem isn’t finding ways to tweak it so that it works in a different way; the problem is trying to get your other collaborations to run this smoothly.
These relationships can serve as a model for the way you communicate in the future. What are you doing right here that can be used in other meetings or interactions? In business, it’s just as important to learn from success as it is to learn from failure.
7. Build Your Confidence with Dedicated Practice
If you’re not used to hosting a lot of meetings, practice is your friend. This is especially true if you suddenly find yourself thrust into a position of hosting more meetings than you’ve ever had before. Issues like poise and confidence seem to come naturally to others, but for you, it’s a struggle.
That’s okay. Not everything has to always go smoothly for you to accomplish your goals. But there are ways to mitigate your fears by boosting your self-confidence as a meeting host:
- Practice. Even if you feel silly, practicing a few key points in the mirror can give you a confidence boost by the time the meeting rolls around. If it feels like the second time you’ve hosted that meeting, that ‘experience’ will show.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some meeting hosts avoid asking questions because they fear it makes them look out of the loop. But asking questions also encourages valuable input you wouldn’t otherwise receive.
- Know your topic. The better you study the topic at hand, the more competence you’ll have. That leads to more confidence. Study up the night before if need be; there’s nothing worse than a meeting with a host who’s blatantly unprepared.
Confidence isn’t always about mere social poise. It’s often the result of good communication habits. Keep the above in mind for your next hosted meeting and see how much it changes the flow of communication.
8. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues
The value of face time with video conferencing: non-verbal cues. Some estimates say as much as 90% of communication is non-verbal. If you pick up on specific issues that need to be addressed, don’t be afraid to confront them.
The world of non-verbal communication is vast, so it’s possible that your interpretation of these cues is off. But if you notice one meeting attendee showing doubt, or looking like they want to speak up, give them the floor. That’s the reason everyone’s at the meeting to begin with.
All it takes is a quick sentence as simple as “What do you think?” when you pick up on these cues. Here, you’re keeping it open-ended. Maybe they have something they’d like to contribute, or maybe you misinterpreted their cue and they want to say something else. Either way, asking an open-ended question addresses the non-verbal cue without forcing you to stick to any interpretation.
Do you have any tips for communicating effectively online? Which online meeting features do you use most to ensure your communication is clear? Leave a comment below.
About the Author: Dan Kenitz is a freelance writer and ghostwriter who helps individuals and companies build their brands through valuable content. Learn more about Dan at empirewriter.com.