Staying on message and soliciting employee input and engagement is especially critical during a crisis, according to Johns Hopkins Carey Business School’s Steven Cohen.
Strategic communication. It’s essential to all that we do, in business as well as in many aspects of our lives. But what happens to that critical commodity when everyday life is severely disrupted, as is currently happening with the COVID-19 pandemic? With in-person meetings moving online as millions of people start to telecommute from home, what challenges – as well as opportunities – do leaders face as they conduct essential business and keep the lines of communication open with staff and other key personnel?
“Consistency is vitally important in times of crisis,” said Steven D. Cohen, an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “Try to maintain similar communication processes to give your team a sense of purpose and control. It’s critical that people feel empowered to do their jobs well.”
A nationally recognized expert in the field of business communication, Cohen is well known for helping leaders communicate with confidence, influence, and authority. In addition to studying the communication behaviors of effective leaders, with a particular focus on executive presence, he is also an experienced trainer, creating custom courses and leadership development programs for Fortune 500 companies and government agencies.
"Virtual meetings, especially now, are an opportunity for excitement, engagement, and interaction. Identify the key agenda items, but leave plenty of time for questions and discussion.”
Steven D. Cohen, Associate Professor
Cohen offers some compelling advice on communicating effectively in a time of crisis to disseminate critical information, task individuals appropriately, and maximize results.
“During challenging times, it’s important to acknowledge the situation but not dwell on it,” advised Cohen. “Move to the business at hand. Pivot quickly to the specific reasons for the meeting, as this keeps your meeting attendees focused on the agenda.”
A well-planned agenda, added Cohen, is the key to keeping everyone on task. “Get input from your team before the online meeting. Make sure people are comfortable with the agenda. Strive to pick topics that will engage everyone.” This is not the time for detailed reports or status updates, cautioned Cohen. “Virtual meetings, especially now, are an opportunity for excitement, engagement, and interaction. Identify the key agenda items, but leave plenty of time for questions and discussion.”
In terms of meeting aides, Cohen advises minimal use of tools such as PowerPoint. If a meeting leader does decide to use such technology, keep slides brief, to the point, and easy to digest. This will keep the slides focused and the meeting on message. “You can use a few slides to review your key points, but shift to discussion and decision-making as quickly as possible,” noted Cohen.
“During challenging times, it’s important to acknowledge the situation but not dwell on it ... Move to the business at hand. Pivot quickly to the specific reasons for the meeting, as this keeps your meeting attendees focused on the agenda.”
Steven D. Cohen, Associate Professor
To encourage maximum participation, Cohen suggests meeting leaders have attendees turn on their webcams, as well as look directly into the camera, as opposed to at their screens. This approach reduces the tendency of attendees to multitask and allows the leader to observe expressions, sense cohesiveness, and anticipate questions. Moreover, meeting participants should speak in a strong, confident tone, in part to compensate for the lack of visual cues and to strengthen credibility. Focused questions seeking specific results or data also help to keep the conversation on track, promote engagement, and make the best use of everyone’s time.
In addition, Cohen points out that larger groups tend to lead to diffusion of responsibility, in that participants may mistakenly assume others are tending to vital tasks. To reduce the potential for this problem, Cohen proposes giving people concrete tasks. “Have people brainstorm solutions to a specific issue, and then share their recommendations,” he suggested. “This will help participants feel involved in and connected to the issue at hand. Specific, well-structured tasks are essential to success, especially in the current environment.”
Short bursts of content, followed by engagement opportunities, also work well for online meetings. According to Cohen, research suggests that meeting leaders should introduce a new problem for participants to think about or solve every five minutes to maintain attention in an online environment. “You have to incorporate engagement opportunities at a much higher rate than in a traditional setting,” said Cohen.
Not to be overlooked is the need for people to decompress and interact. “Virtual coffees or happy hours mimic the type of closeness we feel in a social environment and help retain and foster human connections,” observed Cohen. In addition, the use of anecdotes and personal recognition is vital to creating balance in a virtual environment, he added. Addressing people by name makes a difference, as does asking quieter participants for their thoughts and opinions. All of this, he noted, increases the audience’s interest and participation level.
Cohen recommends spending about the same amount of time in your online meetings as you do for those in-person. Don’t micromanage in the absence of face-to-face interaction. “Especially in challenging times, you want your team to feel trusted and supported,” he said. “Communicate your expectations in advance, and schedule regular check-ins to resolve issues and keep people motivated.”
Lastly, this difficult time should not deter people from continuing to develop professionally, said Cohen. Indeed, he suggests that team leaders schedule virtual meetings to discuss articles or books, host interactive workshops, and exchange best practices. “Now is the time for all of us to grow and improve our skills,” he said. “These online discussions will benefit organizations and lead to a stronger workforce once the crisis has resolved.”
About Our Experts
Steven D. Cohen is an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. He is well known for helping leaders communicate with confidence, influence, and authority. Dr. Cohen has been quoted in media outlets such as the Financial Times, Slate, HuffPost, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, and NBC News. He also was featured in the BBC Radio documentary, “Churchill’s Secret Cabinet.”