Like Being There

My biggest problem with emeetings is speakers who have very little way of knowing if they are boring their audience to tears. Of course, by "their audience," I mean me. But I'm guessing this happens all the time: A chosen speaker—likely an individual with extensive specific topical knowledge—sits in a room, possibly with one or two colleagues who already get what he or she is talking about, and drones on and on, virtually flipping through a PowerPoint presentation while the intended audience is virtually slipping into a coma at the other end of the line. In the old days, that same speaker (or at least the marketing person who is compensated to pay attention to such things) would see the glazed look in the audience's eyes and—if he or she has any speaking ability or compassion at all—respond by livening things up a bit.

Over the past month, I've been judging the Codie Awards, which has increased the volume of my normal once-weekly remote vendor meetings significantly and heightened my awareness of both the pros and cons of emeetings. Also, since my judging category is Enterprise Portal Software, I'm encountering all sorts of new functionality for remote meetings via the features of the demo'ed products themselves. During one demo, with the all-seeing and all-powerful IBM, they mentioned that their elearning product would include a hand-raising feature. Interesting. (Okay, not as interesting as their unending quest to put every piece of KM, CM, elearning, and other e-prefixed or M-suffixed IBM product into a single unified Portal environment, but I digress.) Thus, if a professor is lecturing and a student wants to interject, they can virtually raise their hand to be recognized.

But how can this same functionality be applied to giving emeetings the sense of place they so clearly lack? Virtual nodding-off? Virtual glazed eyes? Perhaps not. The Forrest Sawyers of the world would give a one-word answer: video. But we know that both the bandwidth and technological hurdles are still a bit high to break things down to such a simple-sounding response. Another quick fix that I, as a professional communicator, might proffer is watching for what speech psychologists call "back-channeling": Haven't you noticed your audience hasn't uttered a peep in five minutes? But take away some of the most primitive feedback mechanisms, and how can we expect the same from ecommunication?

Let's face facts: There is no way businesses are going to lower expectations of what a sales, vendor, or press meeting must accomplish. Thus, we have to figure out how to continue to make meetings work effectively. PowerPoint presentations were never the best communication tool and they do nothing to enhance remote meetings except, perhaps, to the recipient to read a magazine while the slides flip on.

One problem with PowerPoint is that it gives the speaker an excuse not to look at the audience at all and focus his or her attention on the slides, rather than in gauging audience members' interest levels. PowerPoint has, in effect, killed human presentation skills, reducing anything more than reading the bullet points to that of a value-add. It goes to that most basic premise of speech giving: Don't look at your notes because then you're not looking at your audience. Frankly, video isn't going to help overcome that foible either. Even if the individual video'ed has his eyes pointed at you, you are not actually looking at one another.

What makes a speaker engaging? While a demagogue might hold listeners rapt through oratory calisthenics, a "good speaker" is one who engages by reacting to audience interest, response, and direct questions. While some emeeting software programs offer IM or chat functionality, I've only once been encouraged to use these features. In fact, when I have the gall to interrupt the PowerPoint presentation on my screen—and droning monologue on my phone—with a question, I'm often ignored altogether.

In any case, this recent spate of emeetings makes me wonder why we think that remote interaction can actually take the place of face-to-face meetings at all. While unquestionably more cost-effective, one has to keep in mind the objective of the meeting in the first place, which was likely to sell something. Even demonstrating products to a journalist means selling him or her on their noteworthiness. And effective sales techniques include reading subtle clues from a would-be buyer that help mold the sales pitch into something worth buying.

So that leaves us with two alternatives: Try to make emeetings more interactive somehow, maybe taking a cue from Webinars that offer features like real-time polling, to which a speaker can respond on-the-fly. Or, dare I say it, actually get back out on the road again and interact via press junkets, tradeshows, or whatever means necessary. To get our jobs done, we need to communicate. And until the virtual world catches up with the real one, maybe we need to take our show on the road again and get our emeeting software back into the workshop for some real-life renovations.