Everybody has one. Your brand is what others think about you—how they describe you when you are not around.
Your brand is the result of thousands of small moments interacting with colleagues, clients and friends. Your brand is your promise to others built around the expectations you set.
Your brand is the key to that initial snap judgment everyone makes when they meet someone. Within three seconds, our brains make decisions about competence, professionalism, credibility, authenticity and level of success. These nanosecond judgments become the basis for our brand impression of a person.
ofessional services marketing, your brand is really your product—because people assume your skills and buy the person. Today most lawyers are in charge of their own practice, even if they are part of a large firm. Everything you do or don’t do in meetings, networking situations and client relationships affects your brand. Remote working makes it even more crucial to market yourself in online meetings so that your audiences—colleagues, clients, court personnel—see you at your professional best, the you in your brand.
How others see your brand is influenced not just by how you present yourself (your body language and attire), but also by your surroundings (your office environment and the networking setup). We know when meeting in person that projecting the most appropriate image for the setting is nine-tenths of success.
At an in-person meeting, we know to focus on being pleasant, collegial, interested, collaborative and knowledgeable. But, in a virtual meeting, soothed by the familiarity of our home environment, we can forget. There are extreme examples, such as when author and commentator Jeffrey Toobin was infamously fired last November after engaging in sexual behavior during an online staff meeting. But the same level of comfort that might have led Toobin to act so inappropriately can also lead to much less egregious behavior that would be much less likely during an in-person meeting.
It is harder to manage your brand online. We tend to ignore the different vibrations of online meetings. Online meetings place participants closer than in-person meetings; think two feet between you and your screen. At the same time, we are emotionally and psychologically more distant from the others. Let’s look at how our brain functions in each meeting environment.
Communication in Online Meetings
As Stacey Romberg has offered in “Five Tips for Communicating Effectively While Working Remotely,” American Bar Association, April 24, 2020, “Communication is an investment. . . . And especially now, in a time of chaos, transition and uncertainty, it is a necessary investment.” Conversations and relationships satisfy a basic human need to be part of something greater than ourselves. It is a primal need rooted in the collaboration necessary for early man to survive on the savanna.
Today, we are dispersed, working remotely from wherever we are sheltering in place. Under these circumstances, communication becomes more difficult and the risk of miscommunication becomes greater. Often communications
are misinterpreted, damaging relationships. Quoting Romberg, “Due to the inability to have face-to-face discussions, the interpersonal relationships in a virtual setting tend to experience more fragility than would be the case” in an office environment.
The difference between in-person meetings and online meetings lies in the context. Ninety-three percent of our communication is nonverbal: 55 percent of what we know about someone else we learn from their body language, 38 percent from their tone of voice and only 7 percent from words. During in-person meetings we converse within a visual framework in which people understand who and what is important through participants’ body language and speaking tone. We identify leaders and followers by the way they sit, their gestures and the intensity of their facial expressions. Body language makes it easier to understand what is going on and stay involved.
According to Steve Blank—an entrepreneur recognized for creating a customer development method to improve product success by better understanding customers’ problems and needs: Videoconferences “are missing the cues humans use when they communicate [in person]. . . . Today’s videoconferencing technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person.” We look for the implicit nonverbal cues that give meaning to in-person meetings. It is fair to say that we lose 90 percent of the communication cues that we would usually use in face-to-face meetings.
Because we have trouble processing the body bits we can see on the video screen, online connections are perceived as less authentic, less personal and less emotionally fulfilling. Instead of “whole” people sitting together in person, online we see a series of heads in small squares and an overwhelming jumble of dissimilar backgrounds. And adding to our confusion, we can see ourselves performing on the screen.
Our brains become exhausted trying to decipher the unconscious codes sent out by all these faces. The faces themselves seem made of stone as everyone silently watches their own face and everyone else’s. Computer glitches, video freeze and audio distortions further impede authentic communication.
The Wall Street Journal quoted one worker as saying, “We are trying to put our normal social cues and how we behave [at in-person meetings] onto these videocalls.”
Our brains continue to seek the intangible interconnections that they rely on to process activities accurately. The result leads many participants to feelings of dislocation, depression, loneliness and brain fatigue.
Conversation is often awkward. In larger groups, people either all talk over one another, or all stay silent because on screen we can’t see the informal, nonverbal cues that regulate participation. Online there are no commonly accepted cues for conversational back and forth. Often participants are asked to mute themselves unless they are speaking. This leads to unnatural lags in the conversation as the next speaker seeks to turn off the mute button. Meeting facilitators can alleviate some of this awkwardness by suggesting that people who want to talk use the raise hand icon or write their comments in the chat box.
One of my online networking groups attracts 85 people to meetings, creating a series of small, quilt-like squares on the screen. Not much time is spent in this mode. Rather, the group leader facilitates informal personal conversations by putting members into a series of breakout rooms, each with two to six people. Conversation becomes freer with fewer people.
When people do talk, even in small groups, it is hard to read any relationship cues from their eyes, because the technology does not allow us to actually look each other in the eye. Speakers appear to be looking at the audience when they are really looking into the camera or webcam. Camera angles may differ greatly, so people may appear to be looking up, down or to the side away from you. Low bandwidth connections can mean pixelated, frozen, smoothed-over or delayed images. Such technical issues may cause emotional cues to disappear.
Another important distinction concerns the lack of boundaries between work tasks. In online meetings, we do not physically transition from one location to another. We remain at our workspace and enter meetings by pushing a series of buttons. There is no transition to another room, no task demarcation, no boundary.
The seamlessness of the transition encourages our tendency to multitask. After all, we are participating from the same device that allows us to text, email, read Twitter and so on. Even if we don’t answer the devices’ constant notifications, once we hear the ding our brain begins to wonder what we are missing. These distractions further devalue meetings because we are no longer paying attention to the group endeavor on our screens and others can see our nonparticipation.
Communication in In-Person Meetings
Opportunities for informal communication are one of the most important characteristics of in-person work environments. At the office we run an idea by a colleague, kibitz at the coffee machine and collaborate in team meetings. Meetings are separate work activities that begin and end with the transition between our work desk and the meeting venue. The transitions bookend meetings, setting boundaries for us.
At in-person meetings, participants take their cues from others in the meeting room. Meetings usually begin with casual chitchat and physical touches that reinforce mutual trust and connection. We take in the setting and the spatial relationships among meeting participants and the venue as a construct for dissecting the unconscious relationships that influence the meeting dynamics.
Once the meeting begins, we watch for nonverbal cues—gestures, nodding heads, side glances, whispered comments and body language. Conversation segues naturally between participants, because we are attuned to nonverbal cues such as head nods or verbal pauses that indicate space for someone else to speak. The net result of these nonverbal cues is the unconscious background of every conversation.
Maximizing Your Brand in Online Meetings
Despite the difficulty of reading other people’s intentions in online venues, many of the brand enhancers remain the same. When participating in an online work meeting, you still want to be seen as professional, present, in control and a voice of clarity and preciseness.
To begin, pay attention to your image, the visual personification of your brand. Use your video so people can see you. Do not hide behind your avatar picture. Frame yourself in your online picture so people can see more of your body than just your head, because it makes you seem more trustworthy. It is also more familiar to your brain, which sees large, up close heads as potentially dangerous.
Take several deep, cleansing, calming breaths before the meeting begins to help you project an attitude of authority and calm. The message you want others to perceive will depend on whether the others are clients, colleagues or work teams. Plan the best message for each audience and establish it intangibly with your body language.
Enter the meeting with a smile, which will trigger corresponding smiles from others in the meeting and make everyone feel more upbeat. Approximate the impact of in-person eye contact by looking at the camera. Eye contact generates trust and signals genuine interest in the subject at hand.
Use your posture to project confidence. Sit tall with your butt against the back of the chair, shoulders squared, head straight and feet flat on the floor. Don’t fidget. Show that you are paying attention to the program by nodding, laughing, speaking as appropriate. Turn your body toward whomever is speaking to show you are really listening to them. Use the chat box feature to add ideas, provide resources or ask questions.
We know when people disengage. If you decide to multitask with the meeting in the background, we will see your hands moving and your head tilting downward. Similarly, we can see you talking on the phone, texting or reading online. If your body sags or your head rests on the back of the chair, we know you are tuning out.
Continue your pre-COVID-19 get-ready-for-the-work-day routine and wear work clothes to cue your brain to expect the workday to begin soon. Similarly, if you change into informal clothes when your workday ends, your brain knows it is time to relax. Subconsciously, you know that wearing business clothes has symbolic meaning, which leads to more focused attention. In other research, a 2015 study mentioned recently in The Wall Street Journal found that more formal dress at work “leads to the higher levels of abstract, big-picture thinking associated with someone in a powerful position.” “Centaur-dressing,” aka work clothes above the waist, leisure wear below, sends confusing messages to your brain and may make you feel restless and tired.
The impact of environmental cues is magnified online. Your clothing and surroundings should reinforce your brand. Obviously, what you wear depends on the purpose of the meeting and the audience. You might be more informally dressed to meet with team members than with clients. Think about the perception you want others to have and create your background accordingly. Remember that people take in more visually than vocally, so key it to your message.
Generally, you can’t go wrong if you dress like a news anchor. Women, look for simply cut, single-color tops that look good on the screen. Avoid white or colors that clash with your visible background. The lighting tends to wash out colors, so apply makeup as you would for a photo shoot.
Men, wear business casual—an open-neck, collared shirt and casual jacket or sweater when you want to look approachable but also innovative, trustworthy and authentic. But if your audience expects to see a professional in a suit or you want to be seen as an expert, then wear a suit and tie.
Once your personal style is set, consider the image of your surroundings. Remember the brain uses context to understand people, so your background needs to reinforce your brand. A spring 2020 study discussed in Harvard Business Review found that people do care about the background behind you. “[I]f you’re striving for authenticity, trustworthiness, or expertise a blank wall or virtual scenic background do not offer much in the way of gravitas or sincerity,” the study’s authors wrote. “Opt instead for showing the room you are in.”
In a New York Times piece on May 1, 2020, Amanda Hess noted that, “[T]he bookcase has become the background of choice for television hosts, executives, politicians. . . . The bookcase offers a visually pleasing surface and a gesture at intellectual depth.” Even if you work in your bedroom, find a way to position your camera so that the view is away from the bed. If your work area is the dining room table, either remove all family paraphernalia from your background or buy a screen to separate your video image background from extraneous objects.
For example, my brand is an experienced, honest, tell-it-like-it-is strategist and coach. At first, I chose a clearly fake bookcase background to hide my work in progress messiness. Then a colleague pointed out that its fakeness clearly contradicted my brand. I retired the fake books and cleaned up my office so it could be my more authentic backdrop.
There are many websites that offer free alternative backgrounds. Unless you ground them with a green screen, they tend to move your hair, clothes and hands in a distorted fashion. In terms of branding, swaying palms behind you are distracting to others and suggest a playboy image. Save beaches and flamingos for beer parties.
Best Practices for Online Meeting Leaders
The effort to more closely approximate online meetings with the relationship-building aspects of in-person meetings rests most heavily on the shoulders of the meeting leader. Your energy and presentation are as important as your program in creating the value of the meeting.
Before every meeting, review all the bells and whistles of whatever meeting app you are using. Create a set of meeting rules that you send out prior to each meeting, and review again at the beginning of the meeting. These could include: (a) asking participants to mute themselves when not speaking to avoid hearing background noises, which are magnified online and become distractions; (b) providing specific directions before speaking, such as using the chat function or the hand icon; and (c) inviting everyone to post ideas or comments in the chat box if they prefer not to speak.
As with any meeting, create an agenda that states the purpose of the meeting, desired outcomes, the meeting length and a list of attendees. Send preparatory materials out several days ahead of time, with a note explaining what participants are being asked to do as preparation and how it relates to the meeting.
Stick to your schedule as an acknowledgment of the value of everyone’s time. Similarly end on time. Your role at the beginning of each meeting is key to setting the tone of the meeting. Create an inviting, collegial atmosphere by greeting people as they sign on and engaging in small talk. When you are speaking, aim for a friendly tone, offer authentic smiles and maintain eye contact.
Be proactive during the meeting. Begin meetings by asking each person a question, something fun or topical. Direct questions to individuals rather than the whole group to avoid awkward pauses as people look for cues as to who should answer first. Speak slightly louder than you would at in-person meetings to project authority while striving for a conversational tone.
During the meeting, use active listening skills to make each individual feel understood. Set expectations for participation from everyone in the meeting. Prime the pump with problems to be solved. Use your facilitation skills to keep to the agenda. Keep the conversation on track. Rein in conversation hogs so everyone has a chance to participate.
Nothing is more boring than sitting passively for an hour while listening to talking heads. Structure meetings to create meaningful opportunities for participation every five to 15 minutes. Use available tools such as breakout rooms, whiteboards, visuals, Q&A or polling to keep conversations more interesting and personal. Close the meeting content loop with a follow-up memo detailing key points and agreed-upon actions.
Best Practices for Online Meeting Participants
Participants have equal responsibility for ensuring the quality of a meeting. We are used to being passive observers of entertainment on the screen. In online meetings you are the action. As such, you have to practice active listening, participate and be helpful. In meetings, if participants become observers rather than players, the whole enterprise goes to pot. When participants disengage, meetings fall flat, leaving people feeling let down or dissatisfied.
Yes, online meetings can seem endless, depressing and a waste of time. But you can do something about it. Prepare as you would for an in-person meeting. Review the agenda, do the homework and think about your contribution to the meeting. Arrive on time, and dress appropriately.
To live your brand, you need to contribute to conversations, or you run the risk of being ignored, sometimes forgotten. Use the chat box to demonstrate your thought leadership: Ask questions, offer access to relevant articles and support the ideas of the person speaking.
In a time of remote working and social distancing, online meetings become one of the few available opportunities for marketing your brand to colleagues, clients and friends. Within the confines of the camera frame and screen tile, live your brand. Use body language including posture, eye contact, smiles and gestures to warm up the meeting environment. Engage in the work of the meeting, using it as a showcase for your expertise, collaborative style and innovative approach to problems.
It may be difficult at first to ignore the pull toward passivity, but continue to practice involvement. As you become more comfortable in the role of positive contributor, meetings will leave you with positive feelings of accomplishment. Your audience will see your brand as authentic. You will have a solid foundation for future growth.