Chapter 5 - Communicating Virtually and in Person

The chapter opens with a description of a "virtual office" whose personnel, mainly sales professionals, are often working from home or travelling to meet with clients. Given a laptop and a smartphone, along with various software solutions for exchanging messages and documents, all communication between staff can be done without being in the same physical location.

It is mentioned that the office manager hosts a dinner party once a week for all local staff, travels personally to meet with staff in remote locations, and brings his entire workforce together for an annual planning meeting ... all of which constitute considerable expense given the rising costs of travel.

Technology and Communication

Communication technology has dramatically changed the way in which people conduct business, providing a myriad of ways in which people can share information. While enthusiasts argue that one technology or another is superior based on its features and capabilities, the more important consideration is whether a given channel is effective for a particular purpose at a particular time.

From a perspective of nonverbal communication, technology is considered by the richness of the message. The most "lean" methods of communication are largely text-based and carry only the content of the message from sender to receiver. The most "rich" methods of communication carry more data. By that consideration, a letter is very lean (it's just words, read at a later time than it is composed), the telephone call is richer (it is real time and carries vocal qualities), and face-to-fast is the richest (body and voice are used to communicate the message).

Text-based communications are fast, cheap, and familiar: a file, email, or text message can reach large audiences in different locations very quickly, and everyone has a written record of what was said. It is also possible for people to "hide" behind a text message - qualities such as age, gender, race, voice, appearance, etc. are not carried in the body of a message (EN: though someone familiar with linguistics can likely figure them out from word choices and patterns.)

However, the nonverbal cues play an essential role in understanding communication. Verbally, we can use our tone, gesture, and expressions to support the message or clarify its intent - but when all there is to interpret is writing, people may often misjudge the writer's intent, especially if their language skills are poor. There are often miscommunications and misunderstandings when the reader assumed the writer is angry with them, and the writer doesn't get to tailor the message based on the reader's reactions (as in speech, where we can tell I something we say is upsetting or confusing to them).

Richer forms of communication enable the sender to leverage nonverbal cues in communicating with others: the stress, tone, pitch, and timing of speech, facial expressions, gestures, and posture. Telephones and videoconferencing enables people to add some of the elements of face-to-face communication, though both are somewhat lacking.

She considers videoconferencing in particular, which is touted as being just as good as face-to-face communication - but it is not. Physical distance is not perceived the same on video as it is in person. The frame captures only part of the person. The synchronization of audio and video are still buggy and there are technical glitches aplenty. "Eye contact" is made by looking into the camera, not at the person, and is generally a little off.

She also speaks to the bad habit of multitasking when using technology. Primarily, research shows that there is no such thing - people cannot pay full attention to multiple things at once, but are switching their attention back and forth, and as such are only getting part of the message - and it is not an even split because there is a gap in the switching process as the brain disengages from one activity and engages in the other that can be "several tenths of a second" - such that if a person is switching equally between two things every five seconds, they are getting only about 40% of each message.

With some forms of communication, such as text messaging, the other party may not notice that an individual is switching at all, unless there is a particularly long delay. But in video and face-to-face communications, switching attention away signals disinterest and dismissal - and some companies have gone so far as to "ban" laptops and smart phones from meetings.

Tips For A Conference Call

Telephone conversations add various nuances of pace, tone, volume, pauses, and inflection of the human voice to support the meaning of the message, which is an advantage over text-based communications, but still lacks the visual cues present in face-to-face conversations. A few quick tips are offered:

  1. Modulate Your Voice - Beware of speaking in a monotone voice, as that suggests you are bored, disinterested, or angry. Changes in tone and pitch indicate you are being attentive.
  2. Enunciate - In face-to-face conversations, people pay attention to the movements of your mouth, which help them to resolve any uncertainty if your words were unclear or garbled. On the phone, there is no such cue, so it's important to speak clearly.
  3. Focus - Letting your gaze wander around the office because you've nothing to do with your eyes can lead to being distracted. Have something to focus upon (notes or speaking points)
  4. Stand Up - When seated, your posture puts pressure on the diaphragm and you speak less volubly, and the strain comes through as a lack of conviction or confidence on the phone.
  5. Smile - The way you hold your mouth affects the tone of your voice, and when you smile your voice takes on positive characteristics (people have noticed the tone of voice people have when they are smiling, and are unconsciously aware of it even when they can't see you)
  6. Be Brief - People tend to tune out when they have only a disembodied voice to hold their attention. Keep statements short and direct when speaking on the phone.
  7. Use an Agenda - For any conversation, it's best to have an agenda. For telephone conferences: make sure everyone knows the objective, how long it will last, what they need to be prepared, and how the conversation will flow.

Tips for Videoconferencing

Research (Ferran 2008) suggests that people process information differently in videoconferencing than they do in face-to-face meetings. While videoconferencing adds the ability to "see" the other person, only part of their body is visible (generally a "talking head") and it's difficult to gauge distance, posture, and other factors.

In particular, people find others less likable and credible when they see them on a television screen, so it's useful to emphasize nonverbal signals of warmth, likability, and confidence.

Set your camera to show others you entire upper body, keep palms up and hands in sight, and gesture in the camera's view. On the other hand, a larger view of the face (especially the mount) has been found to enable others to understand a speaker more clearly. (EN: Yes, this is contradicting advice and the author makes no attempt to resolve it.)

Also, remember to look at the camera, not the screen, to make eye contact with other participants.

Technology Brings New Communication Options

The author briefly considers a couple of technology tools for communication, adding the caveat that she cannot be certain whether they will catch on, but they seem interesting.


Cisco's branded telecommunications technology replicates a conference-room environment. The large video screen shows people at "life size" and shows the entire upper body above the level of the conference table. It also employs directional sound so that audio appears to be coming from the direction of participants' video images.

The author suggests the experience is "so realistic that the impression of actually being in the same room is uncanny" and that it is very effective in contributing the same range of nonverbal communication as one might have in a real conference environment.

Because the cost of the system is exorbitant, many firms rent facilities, and a few major hotel chains have begin renting out TelePresence suites at hourly rates.

Second Life

(EN: I balk a bit at the mention of Second Life, which was proclaimed "dead" and was a massive failure long before this book was published. Moreover, what the author has to offer here is based on some very unscientific observational studies about the way that avatars in the game allegedly influence behavior - e.g., people are more willing to interact with avatars of the opposite gender, and had more confidence when their avatar was taller than someone else's. However, these "studies" were highly anecdotal and seemed contrived. There's nothing here that seems worth salvaging.)

The Value of Face-to-Face Interaction

It's long been observed that in-person meetings are cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive - but many leaders still feel that "face time" is indispensible. The author cites an HBR survey in which 87% of readers suggested face-time is essential for making business deals and 95% indicated it was a key to developing successful working relationships.

Technology is simply insufficient as a means of dealing with other human beings. It's long been observed that long-distance relationships generally fail, and most people are well aware that it is entirely inappropriate to give someone bad news, or even important news, via email. It's simply too impersonal, and simply does not substitute for face-to-face, in-person communication for developing a sense of intimacy and mutual trust.

Technology can substitute for personal interaction in some instances - generally for the convenience of both parties in communications where relationships are not an issue, and also to communicate with someone with whom a relationship is already established.

There's a passage that considers the degree to which managers have attempted to come down out of their towers and interact with employees - practice "management by walking around" - and become more familiar with their people. Technology, even things as simple as written letters and telephone calls, have become a barrier to developing positive working relationships, and digital technology has only extended that distance.

Personal interaction is also important to people further down the chain of command, as there is an informal human network inside of many organizations that is often surprisingly efficient. News travels through the grapevine faster than it does through official channels. A lot of things get done as a result of conversations at the water cooler. And a lot of business decisions are made on the golf course.