Differences Between In-Person and Virtual Communication—Quantified

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by Noah Zandan and David Murray

When COVID-19 first emptied workplaces and sent employees scattering to their home offices, the question on company leaders’ minds was, “How do we communicate virtually?” But as we’ve become accustomed to videoconferences and cleared the initial hurdles of remote work, leaders are revising the question, asking not only how to communicate virtually, but how to do so exceptionally.

Over the past few months, leaders have given meaningful speeches, originally intended to be presented live, on virtual platforms. For example, Mary Daly, president and CEO of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, was planning to speak live at SXSW, but when the festival was cancelled, rather than skip it altogether, she gave her powerful address via video instead. Her message about courage was particularly resonant in these uncertain times, and our analysis placed her in the top tenth percentile for audience perception, largely due to her ability to build trust, weave effective storytelling into her presentation, and communicate her passion through the screen.

Mary Daly Video Address

Unfortunately, not all virtual presentations have proven nearly as compelling.

As a behavioral science company, we are thinking and talking about virtual communication almost exclusively with our clients: how it differs from in-person communication, how it can be impactful, and how our clients can excel.

To answer these questions, we began where we always do: with the data. We analyzed individual speakers giving both in-person and virtual presentations to compare each person’s performance over the two channels. Then we identified specific characteristics that led to successful virtual communication — and how they aligned with in-person best practices and how they differed. On average, audience perception scores were 19 percent higher when the speakers were presenting virtually versus in-person. We were surprised, as we would have guessed in-person communication was more effective. But our research found that, in general, speakers are adapting well. Notably, the audience found the speakers’ virtual messages were 28 percent easier to follow, 25 percent more compelling, and 19 percent more memorable.

From our findings, we picked out three key insights to help you become a better virtual communicator. For further analysis, we ran our conclusions by David Murray, executive director of the Executive Communication Council and the Professional Speechwriters Association. His commentary appears in italics.

It’s More Important than Ever to Include the Audience

Watching a speech over Zoom from your living room — versus listening to it live in a room full of people — is a solitary experience versus a communal one. When presenting virtually, speakers can close this fundamental gap by tailoring the message to their audience and intentionally including them in the conversation. This inclination is already appearing in the data, with our focus group of experts identifying virtual speeches as 28 percent more personalized and 10 percent more inclusive than their in-person counterparts. When writing a virtual speech, keep these questions in mind: Who is my audience, why does this matter to them, and how can I include them in my message to keep them from getting distracted — and opening up a new browser window?

Comments from David Murray: Think of all the elements involved in attending a physical speech that are missing in a virtual one: the shared ambiance of the room; the shared vibe of the audience; the possibility, however remote, of a startling interruption from the audience. How can you introduce these unpredictable, surprising elements to keep people glued to the screen even when they have the privacy to turn to more immediate concerns — like their latest Instagram alert? For instance, consider incorporating multiple speakers in short stints (vs one speaker’s monologue) or relying more on spontaneous and interactive speaking formats, such as Q&A.

Shorter Content Is More Effective

Communicating and presenting virtually allow for some rewriting of the rules, including shorter speaking time and punchier content. Many of us have already seen this happening in our day-to-day work in communication. Given the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue,” we’re more careful about not scheduling unnecessary meetings, and meetings we do have are shorter and more focused. And, given the myriad distractions they’re competing with as audiences tune in from home, virtual speakers are learning to keep it short. Otherwise, they risk losing their spotlight.

We’ve seen this on a dramatic scale with what would normally be full-day or even multi-day conferences. Leaders are distilling their presentations from half an hour or more to just a few minutes, and traditionally all-day events are condensed to just a few hours. Speakers and companies are learning how to cover more ground, with punchier content, in less time, to be sure their messages get across effectively, even virtually. And, as we saw in our data, the efforts are already paying off.

Comments from David Murray: Imagine giving a speech above wailing sirens. It would be shorter, yes — though Mary Daly’s speech clocked in at more than 40 minutes. More importantly, it would be to the point and it would be original. There’s no time or interest in the traditional, leisurely conference-going fun of seeing a CEO or other important figure in the flesh — watching them make their way to the lectern, listening to them genially thank event organizers, tell a charming self-deprecating story, and flatter the audience with sweet nothings about the importance and virtue of their work. That stuff must be handled with a poet’s efficiency or dispensed with altogether for an online presentation. Especially in an environment where people are incredibly busy, chronically worried, distracted at home, and demanding of need-to-know information, your audience’s b.s. detectors are on full alert, and once those buzzers go off, they’re hard to silence.

We’re Using Our Voices Effectively Over Technology, but Not Our Faces

In the age of cell phones and conference calls, we are accustomed to having important conversations over the airwaves (and many of us are better speakers on the phone than in person). And this comfort showed in our data.

Vocal resonance — a common indicator of nervousness or lack thereof — improved by an average of 96 percent in virtual delivery over live delivery. Accompanying vocal markers, such as pronunciation and use of fillers, improved by 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

However, the speakers’ visual performance told a different story. Though, vocally, they sounded clear and confident, virtual speakers made 20 percent less eye contact with the camera and employed 13 percent fewer pauses in their virtual presentations as opposed to live. And that makes sense: both are tendencies that come fairly naturally in real-life conversation and interaction, but most of us aren’t accustomed to making eye contact with a camera or pretending a computer is a person. Given this sense of isolation, many speakers appeared tempted to read from a script while speaking virtually — but following a script too closely will only make your presentation feel robotic. Instead, remember there are humans behind the camera, and use your visual delivery to foster a connection.

Comments from David Murray: One of the most sophisticated presentation experts I know tapes a smiley-face above her computer’s camera to remind her to address the thing as a person. Hey, whatever works. More fundamental is to speak only on subjects about which you care personally and deeply. You’ll be sustainably animated on the screen only when you’re stirred in your belly. Routine announcements, friendly reminders, subtle policy changes — send an email. Talks on subjects that a colleague might be more thrilled to address than you — the audience will also be more thrilled to hear from that colleague than from you. Every moment online must be relevant to you and to the audience both — intellectually, practically, emotionally, and preferably all three.

While we originally viewed the mass shift to remote work and virtual conferences as temporary — something that would be over in a few weeks once we flattened the curve — it’s becoming clear that virtual communication will be a long-term reality. In a recent survey we conducted, 86 percent of respondents said they are satisfied with their communication via video conference, and 70 percent anticipate using video conferencing the same amount as today or more, even after social distancing guidelines are lifted.

On a positive note, our data shows leaders and businesses making the transition naturally and intuiting how to best captivate, move, and persuade audiences via video.

Comments from David Murray: The bad news is my observations show that many leaders have struggled to adjust to this new reality — and so have the speechwriters who serve them. The good news is, leaders and their communicators understand the importance of getting better on video, they’re starting to narrow down the source of virtual communication challenges, and they’ve begun seeking innovative solutions.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Quantified Communications can help your organization’s leaders become world-class communicators — both virtually and in person — request a demo, and one of our experts will contact you to walk you through our platform and process.