All of us have been on a web or phone conference where the host asks “are there any questions” and the sound of a clock ticking is all you can hear after that. What about getting a response like “could you repeat that question please, I was on mute”. Frustrating, isn’t it?

Sensing the tone and voice reactions of your audience in a virtual environment doesn’t always come as easily as face-to-face meetings. Often, the important message that you are trying to get across is missed in the process.

So how can you close the gap? Here are some simple guidelines you can use to gauge your audience’s level of interest and how to keep them engaged.

It’s all about learning the basics

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian concluded that human beings communicate as much as 38 percent of our message through our voice (tone, pitch, and so on), with as little as 7 percent through the words we actually say.
When it comes to meetings, always be on the lookout for ‘what’ the other party is saying and most importantly, ‘how’ they say it. If you’re in a web meeting, it’s good to encourage your guests to use their web cams because it will give you more of an insight by looking for cues in their eyes and overall body language. Most importantly, learn to interpret messages from the tone of their voice.

Ways to read your audience and keep them engaged

1. Listen to their speed and tone - Like body language or facial expressions, tone and speed can tell you a lot about your audiences’ level of engagement. For example, if they reply in:

  • Monotonous and curt says, “Can we please move on and get this done? I’ve got better things to do”.
  • Slow speed and low pitch communicates, "I'm not in the right frame of mind for this meeting and want to be left alone."
  • An abrupt speed and loud tone say, "I'm frustrated and not open to input!"
  • Muffled with drawn-out speed indicates “Pardon me, I’ve not woken up yet”.
  • Ask if there is anything else they would like to discuss apart from what’s on the agenda
  • Give them a task to do and get them to share it with the rest of the attendees once the time is up
  • Regularly ask each attendee for their agreement or feedback verbally
  • Throw a little bit of humour to lighten up the mood
  • Run polls through the web conferencing interface.  Make these fun or informative and use them often.
When any of the above happens, try to spice things up with your audience by doing:

2. Listen to their voice inflections: Stressing different words in the same sentences gives you clues to your audiences’ moods. For instance, stressing the words “would you” in this sentence makes it sound defensive: “What would you like us to do about it!” But, if they stress the words “like us”, it hints that they are curious and want to find out more.

3. If they’re not talking, get them talking: If you are experiencing the uncomfortable silence during a web meeting, you may want to ditch the PowerPoint and use a digital whiteboard as a substitute. If this happens during a conference call, you may want to pass presenter control to your audience and encourage them to voice their thoughts and ideas instead.

Also, always have back-up activities – such as polling and voting - that require your audience’s participation to illustrate a point. When you create an open, collaborative environment, you’ll be surprised who comes out of their shell.

4. Identify multi-taskers: We all do it, and we can agree it makes for less productive meetings. Who’s muted and but is actually on the other line with her friends? Who’s in a remote office and not in the conference room with others?

When you know that you have multi-taskers in the group, try to encourage them to own a piece of the meeting like taking the minutes or even moderating the flow of the discussion. During a web meeting, you can also get the multi-taskers to share their desktops so they can demonstrate an application or walk the audience through a presentation. These tricks will definitely work in keeping them away from their inbox, chat, or browsing the web.

At the end of the day, if you are the one running the meeting always remember to be fun and entertaining and most importantly, yourself. Start the meeting by telling a story or delivering a creative opening to set the right mood and tone. Original examples, especially from your own recent experience, always work well to relate and identify with your attendees. Engaging your attendees with an occasional relevant joke also helps them to loosen up and raise the level of expectancy and anticipation. When you know that your audience is excited, you will feel confident and they will settle in more easily.

With that in mind, good luck!

Joanne Rigby is the Asia Pacific Marketing Director at PGi. She is responsible for driving PGi’s marketing strategies across its full communications offering throughout the Asia Pacific region.

Keep a look out for PGi’s The Art of Great Meetings Part 2 on 10 ‘unique’ meeting personalities you often encounter in meetings and tips to improve your interactions with them.