A lot of people feel awkward when communicating in a digital world which is an ever increasing problem considering our reliance on it.

We have been letter writing since 500BC and had relative stability in the way we communicate for thousands of years. But the internet, email, video calls and more have exploded and thrown instant communication at our fingertips!

We have had less than 60 years with emails and even less time with social media posts, online meetings and so on. We are going to look at how we can improve our online communication skills to better survive this new world of instant communication we find ourselves in.

Are you comfortable with communicating in the online world?

This CBS News article makes a pertinent point about authenticity versus holding back:

“Some people are more comfortable with online communications and therefore more transparent than those who aren’t used to it and might tend to write like polite robots.”

Being comfortable in your digital communications is important to ensure your personality comes across so that people can communicate with the real you. However a lot of people feel like they need to be more formal in their communication. Whilst that might be good for clarity, it isn’t for connection.

Some people might be nervous about this: the same CBS News article also stated that:

“Another thing virtual and real body language have in common is that some cues can mean several different things, so you really should take all the cues in aggregate.”

This to me is about getting to know people, in whatever digital context it might be, so that those cues become the person, rather than individual elements on their own. What does that look like? It’s a number of comments from people that round them out, rather than one quirky comment that you think means they are a bit odd, or reading past their nervousness to see the great ideas that they are sharing.

This also means that it’s not just what people are commenting or the content that they are pushing out, it’s the whole picture.

More than voice

Whether you are on social media, a content and communication network like Slack, or attending a Zoom virtual event, you are likely to have chosen a profile picture.

This is about re-embodiment, and Russel Belk writes the following:

“Compared to face-to-face meetings, we are disembodied when we use social media, e-mail, blog, engage in online dating or virtual worlds, or play digital video games. However, in most of these cases we are now re-embodied via avatars, photos, or videos.”

We need to consider what our profile picture represents. A lot of people know the difference between their LinkedIn professional profile picture in a smart clothing, versus the image of you and the kids on a personal social platform.

This shows my Facebook profile picture.

It’s me, but it’s edited with a fun app to give a comic book look, linked to the t-shirt I’m wearing.

And this is my Twitter profile image – it’s smarter and more focused on my face to make me recognisable when meeting up.

It’s also got the Lightbulb Moment logo behind me as I’m hoping that will help recognition of my company social media accounts, and highlight our new logo.

The profile image can humanise a remote account in digital communications. In Zoom it’s so much nicer to see a people panel full of images and not just initials. It helps the speaker, and other people attending the event, to remember it’s real people they are engaging with.

Colin Steed used to run the Virtual Learning Show, a live online conference. It was a great way to show that you can have live online sessions running for an entire day, as they were designed really well, with different speakers on a variety of topics and with appropriate breaks in-between.

What I do remember reacting to at the end of one of those days though, was that I hadn’t “seen” a person all day. No one had been on video and I’d just heard those ‘disembodied voices’ that Russel Belk spoke of above. That made a huge impact on me and certainly highlights the challenge when people are remote.

Jeffrey Ventrella wrote a book on Virtual Body Language and focused on live online learning:

“In a virtual classroom (for distance learning), there should be more than a disembodied text or voice originating from the teacher.”

Jeffrey here is suggesting that we need more than just voice when facilitating live online. In the eight years since Jeffrey wrote his book I think in the corporate world we have become much more used to people speaking across live sessions and telephone or computer-based audio conferences. Not in all walks of life obviously, I still have to explain what a webinar is to some people when I tell them what Lightbulb Moment does.

However the disembodied voice is still very pertinent. It’s precisely the reason I say to people that, at the very least, they need to include a picture of themselves in an opening slide for any live online session.

Ideally they would also use their webcam, if for nothing more than an introduction. Since the global Covid pandemic, people are generally much more comfortable having webcams on and in some instances it’s much more expected.

I found this article really interesting: The Secret to Selling with Body Language. It focuses on the body language you should use on video. However they were all good body language and communication tips generally, rather than sales related or video specific. This highlights to me that a lot of traditional body language, when we move online with enabling technology, can be applied in a similar way.

Metaverse and online communication

There’s been much chatter about the metaverse, which Ed Greig describes as:

“In the simplest terms, the metaverse is the internet, but in 3D. Many of the metaverse ingredients are with us now – think interacting with lots of people and content made by them, in persistent, immersive worlds across many devices, including virtual reality. The more these components intertwine, the closer we get to a fuller version of the metaverse.”

I think the metaverse as part of virtual classroom development, and linked with virtual reality and augmented reality, might just give another layer of context to digital communication. To explore this further, more from Jeffrey Ventrella:

“Bruce Damer, author of Avatars! (1998), points out that video conferencing doesn’t allow the participants to create the world within which they are communicating, which can generate context and meaning. Virtual worlds, on the other hand, “promote that concept of shared, created worlds and identities not tied to the real people behind the avatars” (Damer 2010). In a virtual world, I can experience you as if we were in a café, a business conference room, or a Ferris wheel. I can morph my avatar into anything imaginable in order to make a point. While video chat is literal, avatars in virtual worlds are imaginal.”

Does being the same virtual world as someone have a real impact on your communication, your cognition, creativity or learning? There needs to be some really good research on this to convince me, beyond it’s novelty factor.

I was on a webinar recently where the presenter was standing in front of their slides, which software and green screen can do relatively easily, and the presenter could put the video of their head into a circle and use it to point to parts on a graph.

If you were in person, you would have used a laser pointer or you hand to do that. There was a lot of response in chat about this being fun and engaging and capturing our attention. But I think it was more of a distraction and I don’t remember what the graph was about that was being spoken of.

Steve Cartwright on WebSiteDesigns finishes us with this point:

“Accept the Differences: Remember that online communication via technology does suffer from lack of information, whether unconsciously or consciously received. This applies to video, simulated in games with avatars, text such as with chat and email, or even over the phone.”

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