Tips for improving meeting communication as a leader
This article explores the topic of meeting communication, what it takes to master it, and gives concrete steps so that leaders can take their meeting communication to the next level.
Of the abilities needed to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, hard skills are by far the best documented. After all, how many discourses are written about the best MBAs needed in order to become an Executive? However, soft skills are the unloved child in leadership. And meetings are their overlooked cousin.
Therefore, when it comes to meeting communication, it's fair to say that many leaders won't have ever given their deliberate attention to it. It is the unsung hero of success in leadership. In order to align your people behind a common vision, inspire them to achieve, and guide your organisation toward its targets, you need to have mastered meeting communication.
This might sound like an easy task, at least in ordinary times. However, following the rise of remote working and the adoption of hybrid working practices, communication in meetings needs to be completely rethought. So, even those who might feel confident in their meeting communication for in-person interactions still likely have a great deal to learn.
This article explores the topic of meeting communication, examining the verbal and non-verbal devices that can be used, and gives concrete steps that leaders can take their meeting communication to the next level.
The need for effective meeting communication
Meetings are inherently human. As a real-time interaction between multiple individuals, they are marked by the nuances of human characteristics, and therefore they require careful management and deliberate communication in order to keep them on track. Without effective communication in meetings, by all participants, but especially by leaders, they can quickly descend into chaos. We can all recall participating in poorly managed meetings, and each of us have clear examples of individuals who communicated poorly in an interaction we had with them in a meeting or on a call.
As human beings, we are especially sophisticated communicators. By instinct we are conditioned to pick up on body language, tones of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal traits. Therefore, meeting communication doesn't just include what is said, but also how it is said, and the other devices that are used to communicate it. Meeting communication is a multi-faceted concept that needs careful and deliberate practice.
In the absence of effective meeting communication, there are a range of negative outcomes. At best, there are simple, innocent misunderstandings, and at worst, offence may be taken or psychological safety eroded. The latter is especially damaging to organisations, as when people feel unable to contribute openly, good ideas can fall by the wayside and innovation can be hampered. For example, in his book 'Black Box Thinking', Matthew Syed spells out the pitfalls of teams being unable to speak up in the very first chapter, where a patient dies as a result of poor communication between a leader (the senior surgen) and his subordinate.1 While in business, meeting communication is very rarely a life-or-death scenario, it is still at the forefront of organisational success and should be considered with the attention it deserves.
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Verbal communication in meetings
Verbal communication is perhaps the most obvious set of skills to consider when we unpack the concept of meeting communication. What we say, how we tailor it to different situations, how our words interplay with the words of others, and the way we react, all have powerful implications on the course of a conversation. Mastering verbal communication almost seems like a basic, childhood set of skills, however in the arena of meetings, verbal communication becomes increasingly nuanced, and the importance of choosing our words carefully can’t be understated.
To improve verbal communication, it is important to develop in three key areas:
- Empathy, and
Let’s consider them individually:
It is no secret that we modify our repertoire of communication depending on who we speak to. After all, we would communicate entirely differently with a stranger, a boss, a partner, and a subordinate. Developing the skills to adapt one’s communication skills in a very nuanced way is a key facet of effective verbal communication. In meetings, this should include the ability to open meetings informally, connecting with participants on a human level, and checking in with how people feel. However, throughout the course of a meeting, this could also involve adapting your choice of words to reflect the severity of a situation, such as a crisis. Being able to adapt your verbal communication throughout the course of a meeting is fundamental to effectively engage participants and keep the meeting on track.
Meeting participants are humans first, and leaders do well to remember this. Each person sat around the table or dialled into a call is facing any number of situations that it is impossible to have full awareness of, let alone fully understand. Therefore, as a leader, it is important to approach all participants with empathy. For some, this will come naturally, and for others it needs to be coached. According to recent research, “it is possible to increase cognitive, emotional and behavioural empathy through formal training.” Therefore, if this is something that you struggle with as a leader, it is worth exploring structured opportunities to learn this skill.
For many, the impulse to think before we speak is somewhat second-nature. However, in order to engage in effective verbal communication in meetings it is important to be thoughtful and train your emotional intelligence. The steps for doing this are very simple:
- Inhale and exhale fully
- Consider what has been said
- Formulate your response.
Being mindful about the way you respond, verbally, to different situations in meetings is highly important as a leader. Responding emotionally without thinking increases the propensity for situations to escalate unnecessarily.
What we say, how we tailor it to different situations, how our words interplay with the words of others, and the way we react, all have powerful implications for the course of a conversation.
Non-verbal communication in meetings
Non-verbal communication is every message that is transmitted without using words, whether written or spoken. It is also sometimes referred to as manual language.
While we might consider the most important parts of meeting communication to relate to what is said, how it is said is in fact more important. Dr. John R. Stoker, an expert in performance management and communications, confirms that only 7% of communication happens verbally - with 93% being accounted for in tone and non-verbal communication.2
As remote and hybrid meetings have taken centre stage, many of the non-verbal social cues that comprised much of effective meeting communication have been removed. According to Elizabeth Keating, a leading anthropologist, "[Remote and hybrid work] is challenging because the nuances of non-verbal communication that are present in face-to-face conversations are not conveyed through virtual meetings."3
Therefore, it is vital to have a clear understanding of the non-verbal communication techniques that are used in physical meetings, so that we can do our best to recreate or account for them in remote and hybrid meetings, too.
Non-verbal communication methods include:
1. Facial expressions
One of the most common and obvious forms of non-verbal communication is through facial expressions. For example, a raised eyebrow or a smile quickly indicate how individuals might be feeling, and it is often a give-away of an unspoken feeling or truth. Using our eyebrows, mouths, and eyes to convey emotion or information can therefore be very effective.
Gestures are deliberate movements and signals, usually with one’s hands, and they are an important way to communicate meaning without words. In physical meetings, we all will use different gestures to help give impact to our communications, however this becomes more challenging in virtual scenarios.
The musical accompaniment of our words is sometimes more impactful than the words themselves. Paralinguistics denotes the vocal communication that is separate from actual language, including tone of voice, volume, inflection, and pitch. Some individuals find it more challenging than others to project their voice during virtual or hybrid meetings, and there is proven to be a gender element to this issue. Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, found that “45% of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings and one in five women say they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls.”4 Paralinguistics play a key part here, but of course are not the entire story.
4. Eye contact
The eyes play a significant part in non-verbal communication. Looking, staring, and blinking are important non-verbal behaviours that help identify people’s engagement, feelings, and emotions. When we encounter people or things that we like, our rate of blinking increases and our pupils dilate. Looking at another person can therefore indicate a range of emotions including hostility, interest, and engagement - all of which is difficult to detect when individuals are reduced down to squares on a screen.
5. Body language and posture
Your posture and movement convey a huge amount of information, non-verbally. According to a recent Forbes article, there are two common mistakes that many make in virtual meetings:
- “Don’t lean on the desk. This makes it look as though you are bored and uninterested in the conversation,” and
- “Don’t lean back in your chair as this can seem like you are also unbothered by the conversation.”5
While these are ordinary, perhaps even default, positions that we might adopt when working from home, it is important to deliberately avoid them, so that we do not transmit the wrong ideas about our levels of engagement.
Adopting an upright, open posture is vital in sending the right message to other attendees.
Proxemics is the term given to understanding the appropriate physical distance to keep from another individual in a given situation; and the need for "personal space" is an important facet of communication - after all, for more sensitive subjects it might be appropriate to be closer, and in general, a healthy distance maintained. This differentiation is something that is impossible to recreate virtually - especially in emotionally vulnerable situations where another person might need consolation or reassurance.
As remote and hybrid meetings have taken centre stage, many of the non-verbal social cues that comprised much of effective meeting communication have been removed.
Tips for mastering meeting communication
While the concept of meeting communication might appear vague or woolly at first, there are concrete steps that you can take to improve your abilities in this area. The following are five actions that you can take, immediately, to improve your meeting communication as a leader:
1. Listen actively
The first step in conquering effective meeting communication is to listen actively. Active listening means giving other participants the opportunity to explore their ideas, thoughts, and feelings, before taking your turn to interact. In the arena of meeting communication, this not only involves listening to what is being said, but also observing participants - what non-verbal cues are they giving? After all, this will tell a more complete story than simply what they are saying.
2. Step outside of your comfort zone
As a leader, it is highly likely that your meeting communication experience has been built up during in-person situations. This means that in our new, hybrid world, there is an opportunity to grow new meeting communication muscle. This needs to start by forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. First of all, you should consider leading a proportion of your hybrid meetings remotely. This will give you an insight into the experience for hybrid employees, and will enable you to tailor your future communications in meetings accordingly.
3. Cameras on
As we have already learned, the large majority of meeting communication is non-verbal. This means that it is imperative that participants have their cameras on as much as possible during meetings. This will enable you to form a true picture of what is going on in your meetings, how people truly feel, and where the points of tension or disagreement lie - even if people aren’t ready to speak up.
4. Utilise technology
Another key tip for improving your meeting communication is to utilise the full extent of meeting technology. This should include asynchronous communication ahead of meetings, in which participants can ask clarifying questions about the meeting agenda and collaborate ahead of time. What’s more, reactions enable those ‘non-verbal’ cues to be deliberately expressed in the forms of emojis or other symbols. Encouraging your remote and hybrid participants to utilise the ‘raise a hand’ feature, or to use a comment/chat box to share their thoughts, is a helpful way of translating our in-person experience of meetings into the virtual sphere. To further encourage this, you could use the reactions feature as part of your meeting check-ins to canvas opinion of how others are feeling about the meeting, or just in general, before you kick off.
5. Ask for feedback
Another key step in improving your meeting communication skills is to ask for regular, structured, and anonymous meeting feedback from participants. This will enable you to get a true picture of how you are performing as a meeting leader - after all, it is proven that leaders regularly overestimate their abilities to effectively manage meetings.6 Collecting this feedback in a consistent and structured format will allow you to track your progress over time. Features such as Sherpanys free meeting assessment form help to automate this process.
Meeting communication: Deserving of leaders’ attention
Being able to effectively demonstrate meeting communication skills, as well as recognising the verbal and non-verbal devices employed by meeting participants, are key to squeezing every drop of juice from the meeting lime.
By following the ready to implement tips outlined in this article, leaders can begin their journey toward effective communication in meetings - but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Improving your meeting communication skills should be a continuous process that never ends, and feedback will play a vital role in charting your progress.
1 “Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes - But Some Do”, M. Syed, Portfolio, 2015.
2 "Overcoming Fake Talk: How to Hold REAL Conversations that Create Respect, Build Relationships, and Get Results", J. R. Stoker, McGraw Hill, 2013.
3 "Why Do Virtual Meetings Feel So Weird?", E. L. Keating, American Scientist, 2021.
4 “45% of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings” C. Connley, CNBC, 2020.
5 “8 Top Tips For Improving Your Body Language During Virtual Meetings”, B. M. Cole, Forbes, 2020.
6 ”Why Your Meeting Stink - and What To Do About It”, S. Rogelberg, Harvard Business Review, 2019.