Name a common work activity that makes you feel uncomfortable.

Was it leading meetings? If so, you’re not alone; many people find that leading meetings can be quite stressful. You might think, then, that remote meetings, with their web conferencing and dial-in lines, would be easier to lead. Perhaps the physical separation from others would allow you to feel less exposed and more relaxed. However, if you are like me, leading a remote meeting is even more daunting than leading a meeting in person.

Successful meetings need good facilitation and participant engagement. In person, looking face-to-face at others in a room, there are solid techniques you can use to kick-off a meeting, set the tone, and keep a room engaged. (You’re likely familiar with these techniques already, but I included a couple of links at the end of this blog just in case.) But when we are on the phone, we can’t employ those same best practices, which makes managing attendees difficult. Often times, we feel disconnected and so do the participants. Beyond that, there are behavioral nuances that you are unable to pick-up on over the phone, which, if you can’t detect and react to, can affect the success of the meeting or the participants’ perceptions of you as a meeting leader.

This is a real struggle that many of us face – especially me. I was recently added as a new team member to one of our existing clients, and I had to take the first meeting over the phone. The client didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. While the meeting was successful, I later found out that the client thought I was too young to perform the scope of the work they were requesting because my phone voice tends to have a higher timbre and pitch, which made the client think I was younger than I really am.

Afterwards, I felt uncomfortable taking meetings over the phone and grew self-conscious about my “phone voice.” Eventually, I asked my organization if I could hire a coach to help me with my phone presence, as this was something I really wanted to improve, and they happily obliged.

Rob Salafia, a leadership and communications coach we’ve worked with in the past, helped coach me on my phone presence and pushed me out of my comfort zone. He challenged my “seriousness” and made me realize that the tension and straight face on my end of the phone carried over in my tone to the other end of the line. So, Rob taught me the power of a breath and a smile.

In the interest of helping others who can relate to this struggle, I wanted to share a few of the things I learned over the course of my sessions with Rob that helped me gain back my confidence and enabled me to lead more successful remote meetings.

Lead Yourself First

No matter how prepared you are for your meeting, it is important to have a personal plan. By personal plan, I do not mean an agenda (although you need that too); I am referring to a plan to be engaged – to be aware of the room without being in the room.

Show up with your full presence

We are often distracted. Our minds are always swarming with everything, and nothing, and most of the time we are not even aware of it. We tend to think about what happened in the past, or what needs to be done in the future, but are not focusing on what’s going on right in front of us.

Being fully present is hard and requires practice. During some down time, try sitting in a quiet place and focusing your attention on one point (yoga is great for this). I have found the easiest thing for me to focus on is my own breath, but you can also focus on an object, music, or something else. Keep your focus, and every time your mind wanders away, just notice that and go back to your focus. Don’t blame your mind or yourself for being distracted, just correct it.

You can apply this same technique during a meeting. Instead of your breath, focus on the conversation, and become aware when your mind slips away and refocus it. This will allow you to be mindfully present, and trust me, people will notice.

Write down your personal goals for being present

Writing down your goals before a meeting will not only allow you to self-reflect after the meeting but will also provide you with a framework for engaging in the discussion. Again, these are not goals or objectives for the content of the meeting but for yourself.

Rob and I developed a list of goals that I take with me to every meeting, whether in person or on the phone:

  • Be fully present and open
    • Be fully present: Focus on the meeting and redirect the wandering mind so that you are actively engaged.
    • Open: Sit up straight and have an open posture so that you feel more connected to the “room.” An open posture comes through in your phone presence and allows you to feel more engaged.
  • Breathe-connect-land
    • Breathe: Before speaking, always take a breath. This allows you to ground yourself in the conversation and control what you are about to say. It also gives you a couple of extra seconds to formulate your thoughts. Taking a breath also gives me a second to deepen and widen the pitch of my voice.
    • Connect: Physically connect your feet to the ground before you speak. It will give you stability and a sense of control as you begin your dialogue.
    • Land: Deliver the dialogue to your audience. Be sure that you overemphasize and articulate clearly when speaking. I find that this is easier to do when I have warmed up my voice before the meeting. You do not want to have that I-just-rolled-out-of-bed voice. Practice adding resonance to your voice with some warm-ups:
      • Yawn and say the phrase, “how wide the sky” in your deepest voice.
      • Have fun and recite Star Wars, “Luke, I am your faaather.”
      • Or my favorite, recite “Alfa Romeo!!!” loudly and with your best Italian accent.

Maintaining the Right Tone

Resting facial expressions are not always a direct correlation of how you are feeling, but they can still affect the way people perceive you and adversely affect the tone of your meeting. I tend to have a serious disposition, which can come across as uninviting and stark. Surprisingly, this involuntarily cold demeanor comes through on the phone as well.

To help combat the unintended consequences of my demeanor, Rob taught me to do away with the cold, blank stare, and to try smiling. Not the kind of big, cheesy smile you do for family photos, just a relaxed, resting smile. Here are some of the pointers he gave me to master the art of a resting smile:

  • Look at yourself in the mirror with your face relaxed
    • How does it make you feel? Would you want to talk to someone who shared your expression?
  • Now look at yourself in the mirror and slightly smile
    • Find a smile that is natural for you and that you feel comfortable with.
    • Take note of the way your mood automatically shifts when you smile versus when you have a straight face.
    • Remember that feeling and try to replicate it throughout the day.

When you start to feel your mood shift during a meeting, you are probably not smiling. Remember the way your mood changes with a slight smile and replicate it. This will not only make the audience more engaged, but you will seem more approachable and the tone of the meeting will become more positive. Smiles are contagious!

I started these exercises thinking that they would only help me with remote meetings, but these techniques have made a broader impact on my daily communications, both at home and at work. And while none of the techniques have fundamentally changed my voice (although you could argue that I have better control of its pitch), my age, or what I know about a subject, they have changed my demeanor going into meetings and have given me the confidence to lead others by leading myself.

Leading yourself takes practice, but you will be surprised at what a difference it makes. If you are interested in learning more about Rob and other services he offers, please visit http://protagonistconsulting.com/

Here are those links I mentioned earlier about “in person” techniques for leading effective meetings: