The Independent Consultant’s Essential Guide to Virtual Communication
The changes to how we communicate with clients have been extraordinary over the past year. They might have been forced on us by lock-down conditions, but many have been for the better and are likely to continue even as the world opens up again.
Whatever the changes, good relationships remain the bedrock of successful business consulting. And communication is central to relationships.
Technology has become both a boon and a scourge for communicating with clients. Let’s talk about online meetings via Skype, Zoom, Discord, Teams, or whichever tool you and your clients are using.
On the one hand, they give access to people you might otherwise have struggled to meet. Geography no longer matters. Interestingly, there also seems to have been some breakdown of hierarchical structures. A wider group of people may now be invited to attend virtual meetings at virtually no cost – no pun intended! Time-saving is off the charts. No more traveling and sitting in traffic to get to appointments. Documents and presentations can be shared and saved by everyone – no one is sitting at the back of the room straining to see your small fonts. Entire meetings can be recorded for further sharing or transcription.
All good so far. But there are downsides. Fortunately, many of them can be addressed through mastering some communication techniques that are specific to virtual meetings.
Let’s have a look at four typical pieces of advice for consulting communication skills to see how they stand up to the new reality of virtual business consulting:
- Communicate and act empathetically
- Think about how to present yourself
- Be digitally competent
- Use the Minto Pyramid Principle
Communicate and act empathetically
Empathy is a challenge when there is a lack of genuine person-to-person contact, removing the clues of facial expressions and body language. Videos and microphones are often switched off or muted, and it’s difficult to “read” the audience. Misunderstanding and miscommunication are easy.
Possibly the most crucial new way of showing empathy is to recognize the overall cognitive load imposed on people by multiple video conferences. Many people are distracted by seeing everyone’s faces and backgrounds so close up. Switching off videos for everyone but the speaker can help.
Attention spans are shortened in these meetings – we can only look at the same thing for so long! Research is showing an audience starts to lose focus after ten minutes. People have difficulty remembering what happened in the meeting because they don’t have the physical cues that usually aid memory. This is particularly true when they move quickly from one session to the next. And creativity suffers when they are sitting for too long in the same place.
If you are leading the discussion, much will depend on your ability to monitor attention, break up meetings into different activities, and get people to move. A helpful technique you might use to have quick breaks in a meeting is to use the Anshel 20-20-20 rule. This has been used in the past to relieve the stress of looking at computers. Ask everyone to look at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes. When they look at their screens again, their focus will be better.
Technology can also help. You can encourage people to participate by using virtual breakout rooms for smaller group discussions, by using polls to collect opinions, and encouraging the use of the chat feature. You could also have people collaborate through a shared document.
Consider ways to cut down the number and length of meetings. Perhaps you can set up a wiki page to run asynchronous sessions – you add your findings, ideas, recommendations, or whatever you want to communicate with the client and allow people to respond in their own time. When you have a synchronous meeting with everyone present, you can start a discussion rather than presenting your ideas or findings.
Think about how to present yourself
The conventional wisdom about presenting yourself as well as you can during any interaction with a client takes on a different meaning when you’re on screen.
Rather than watching the client's reaction, you are often watching yourself. Do you remember those awful sessions when you were first learning to make presentations, and someone videoed your mannerisms? Many of us are having the same sense of discomfort now. And the background that everyone is seeing is often your own home – which you may or may not want to share.
One of the funniest videos I’ve seen was of an American professor being interviewed live by the BBC for his views on South Korean politics. The interview was “gatecrashed” by his two small children, a one-year-old in a walker and a four-year-old swaggering across the room in a bright yellow jumper. The mother slid into the room to pull them out, then leopard-crawled back in to shut the door. And the BBC and the professor just kept going! It was what the professor called a “family blooper” – and the video went viral.
It was even funnier when you watched a rerun – and just about everybody did! You suddenly noticed how the room had been carefully staged to look like an office. The prof was wearing a suit and tie. The piles of books neatly stacked next to him were actually on a bed. And the huge world map on the wall behind him was covering the bedroom décor.
Today, we all run the risk of the same thing happening during one of our meetings. Your home is not just your workplace but also the boardroom. Strange though it may seem to call this a consulting communication skill, the way you stage your room for your online meetings has become the new version of presenting yourself as well as you can.
Luckily, some platforms offer solutions, allowing you to blur the background or provide a backdrop. It’s worth investigating some of them.
Be digitally competent
Suddenly, being technically savvy is an essential requirement for every business consultant. My biggest concern pre-2020 was that I’d arrive at a client and find that my laptop was not compatible with their data projection system. How simple that seems in retrospect!
Use the Minto Pyramid Principle
Your success as a business consultant is to address problems that the client can’t or doesn’t have the time or resources to manage. It means collecting and analyzing data and providing objective recommendations to leaders and senior stakeholders. And then it depends on a compelling presentation that will lead to the audience taking the actions that you recommend.
Most of us communicate in storytelling or linear fashion – leaving the punchline or final finding and recommendation to the end.
The Minto Pyramid Principle means organizing your presentation – written or online - like a pyramid. You start with your central thesis and three main recommendations. You follow this with a second level, where you provide the reasons and back-up for each recommendation. If necessary, you can add a third level, usually with data backing up the reasons given in level two.
This method gives the punchline at the start, when people’s attention and focus are highest, and then reinforces it in a structured way.
It also forces you to structure your thinking by asking what primary thought or governing idea you want to communicate with your client and finding the three most critical reasons to support it. You are forced to prioritize. You will not be tempted to show how clever your data analysis is or ramble into long-winded slides.
It allows you to maximize your time and effectiveness. Your clients know what you are recommending and are following the logic behind it. They know where to focus and ask questions. If your meeting is cut short for any reason, everyone has heard the most important part.
There are underlying techniques in this method, and it may be well worth the time to research and add them to your arsenal of consulting communication skills. The Minto Pyramid Principle makes you look confident and decisive and may revolutionize the outcomes of your online meetings.
Virtual communication for consulting success
Communicating with clients has always been an essential feature of the work of business consultants. The modern version of communicating online and in virtual meetings has brought with it the need to rethink some of the ways in which consultants communicate and present themselves. Mastering new skills will improve the ways you communicate with your clients, help build relationships and drive success in business consulting.