What a Pandemic Taught Us About How We Communicate — and How We Can Improve


Charles Hua, CEO of Poised and Matt Abrahams, Stanford GSB


Thanks to enforced mask-wearing over the last year, we’ve all had to learn to emote with the top half of our faces, master the smize, and discover, often by trial and error, how much eye contact is just right. Too little, you seem evasive; too much, creepy. In fact, in just a year, the entire world shifted a bit on its axis, and suddenly, it became important to be engaging — and engaged — on a screen.

From our eyebrows to our Zoom presence, how we communicate matters deeply. If we’re not clever, compelling, and crystal clear with our language and the way we deliver it, people are disengaged and feel like something is “off.”

Poised advisor Matt Abrahams, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the co-founder of consulting practice Bold Echo, recently spoke to me about the top-level takeaways he’s derived from observations of virtual communication in a pandemic year and in general.

1. Video conferencing puts a microscope on your communication skills

Close up on screen, the person you’re talking to appears to be unnaturally close. As Abrahams says, “Things that we find moderately annoying in person are accentuated on video — not making eye contact, chewing gum, low energy and lack of vocal variety. 

Filler words such as “um” and “like” and hedging words such as “almost,” in particular, can become accentuated when used repeatedly on video calls. Training yourself to use them less frequently makes you appear more articulate and confident. Working on the cadence and volume of your speaking voice makes you more engaging to the listener. These are all things that can be taught.

2. Virtual communication is exhausting

Video conferencing is fatiguing for everyone, not just natural introverts, according to study after study after study conducted in 2021. You’ve probably conducted your own informal study of this phenomenon, and have come to the conclusion that Zoom is tiring in a different way than person-to-person conversation might be. Processing information over video requires a more overt form of paying attention. Social mores demand that you make “eye contact” with the screen for prolonged periods of time, and the constant feedback of your own image is also a cognitive load.

“It’s important to learn to speak efficiently and keep meetings short,” Abrahams advises. There’s no legitimate reason to stick to the traditional parameters of meeting length. An effective meeting can be five minutes long. You can also minimize the degree of fatigue by keeping yourself and others engaged with questions and dynamic conversations. Asking questions helps people focus and communicates to others that you’re genuinely interested in their thoughts.

3. We can’t lose the water cooler aspect of conversation

Conversations that happen over video often get right to the point with less chit-chat, and that’s good for combatting Zoom fatigue. But it has a detrimental effect on ad hoc conversations — those “water cooler chats” that used to happen around the office, which often sparked creative ideas and built rapport between co-workers. “There’s been a loss of spontaneous communication,” says Abrahams. “It’s always planned out now.” 

Casual, ad hoc conversations are critical to the generation of new ideas and solutions, and so is time away from the screen. Abrahams suggests two remedies in tandem:

  1. Carve out time for intentional ad hoc conversations, with meetings that have looser agendas so participants can riff in a casual way
  2. Whenever possible, take these conversations “on the road” — walk and talk, for instance

4. Empathy is essential to communication

Participants need to feel heard and understood. Without taking empathy into consideration in the way we communicate, our conversations become “merely transactional,” in Abrahams’ words  For this reason, granting everyone both talk time and listening time is critical. In fact, in the sales field, the idea of listening has been elevated to the status of science — Hubspot claims the “ideal” talk-to-listen ratio is 43:57. That’s incredibly specific, but the important takeaway is that good leadership and communication must include listening skills. 

Empathy means listening more, interrupting less, and thinking about the actual language you use when you talk. If you’re unintentionally slipping in sensitive or prejudiced phrases, regardless of your intention, your audience absorbs the message. Address a mixed-gender audience with “Hey guys,” and you may feel you’re being casual, but to the women on the call, something sounds slightly off.

Repetition, reflection, and feedback

Abrahams warns, “Just because you’re good at communicating in person doesn’t mean you’re good at communicating virtually.” It’s easy to assume that if someone’s charismatic and conversational in person, they have an advantage on a screen as well, but that’s not always true. The flattened backdrop of a Zoom screen can be distracting, and there’s a lot to manage in addition to actual conversation — the backdrop, the lighting, the sound, the video.

Technology can be distracting, but it also grants the opportunity to examine our communication skills and improve upon our shortcomings so we can be the most compelling speakers and effective leaders possible. Abrahams introduces the concept of “repetition, reflection, and feedback.”

With Poised, you get that feedback in a quantifiable, metric-oriented way. Virtual communication is a skill, and like any skill, can be practiced and mastered — even better if you have a coach like Poised.