There is a restaurant in Amsterdam called Ctaste. I would recommend everyone to go there (AFTER COVID!). Not because of the food – which is great – but because they do one thing very differently: You have to dine in the complete dark. Believe me, you cannot see a single thing. You are escorted to your table, they sit you down and guide your hands so you are able to find your glass, plate, fork, knife, etc. After that, they will leave you to it and you’ll need to rely on your other senses. And don’t worry about etiquette – no one can see you either.

I went there a few years ago. The point is to make you more aware of the world that blind people live in. Most of the staff are actually blind. It is so impressive to experience how smoothly the staff operates in this environment. After the first course I got more comfortable eating (with my hands, because I couldn’t navigate my fork properly), and I started to notice that I struggled to keep the conversation going (so now you know how to shut me up). This was such an eye opener, because I started to realize how much of my conversations are actually triggered by visual cues. Now, let’s think of all those virtual meetings that we’re having. What has changed – and why does interaction seem to be so much harder? My perspective on this is that with limited visual triggers (the non-verbal stuff) we struggle to keep the conversation going. Voice (verbal) is now the weapon of choice, and we all need to get used to this different presentation style.

If you’ve seen both Birdbox and A Quiet Place, combine both and you know what virtual meetings can feel like if everyone is on mute, and they have the cameras off, too.

In virtual meetings, you usually don’t see your audience (except for the occasional webcam), so you have to figure out how to engage them with your voice. For this blog I want to focus on just one thing: Helping you engage in virtual meetings by asking the right questions. We should see every presentation as a conversation. Asking questions helps us discover what is relevant to our audience, and this way we can steer our message. Therefore you should never have a slide at the end of your presentation with the word ‘Questions’ on it. We all have it or at least have seen this slide and it’s used too often without questioning why we do this. I’ve seen people that have it on screen but don’t even want the audience to ask something- it was more or less part of the standard format. Please remove it, there are better ways to end your presentation and this way you might only find out at the end of your talk that what you just shared was irrelevant.

For virtual meetings, don’t say something like ”any questions?”. This is too open-ended and no one will respond.

Note: I do understand that this can be cultural. For example, when I work with Japanese clients, they politely write down their questions and those will be asked at the very end of the presentation. In some cases, you simply need to adjust your talk. A good way to help adjust your presentation based on culture is this book: Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands. Again, you don’t need a slide that says ‘Questions?’ for this. You come across more sincere when you ask your audience yourself, without the template-slide. Really, you should welcome questions at the start of your talk, and at any point during. You have control over this.

Questions, when asked in a virtual meeting need a warm-up. If you say something like ”any questions?”, no one will respond. This is too open-ended. Your audience does not know you are looking at them. You can look directly at your webcam, and people will not be triggered to react. It works in a face-to-face meeting because you are directly looking at someone. We need to help our audience and guide them a little bit to make it easier for them to speak up. So this is how that is done:

1) First, let your audience know you are going to ask a question. Assume they are disengaged. This will help then to zoom back in again.

2) Direct your question to a person, and mention their name. This way you activate someone. It’s up to you to select this person. You can always tell the other people in the meeting to jump in after your asked your question. For your question to be picked up you need to direct it.

3) Warm-up the question by introducing where the question is coming from and what it will be about. Again, assume they were zoned out.

4) Now ask the question!

5) Always plan your way out. If you get no reply, how will you continue? Maybe you need to paraphrase your question, or maybe the person you asked is on mute. It also helps if you check who has their camera on. (Keep in mind: You don’t want to scare your audience and make them think that they sit in the first row. Everyone avoids the first row because those people are targeted too often. They might switch their cameras off and now you feel like a radio DJ again).

6) Get a moderator on the call that can help out in situations like this. If you have that option, go for it! Virtual meetings are hard to manage. Don’t underestimate the value of a good moderator. They can also monitor the chat and interrupt constructively to keep the flow going.

7) Create some breathing room for questions. When you are presenting, remember, you don’t see your audience. You can’t see if they want to ask you a question like you can in a face-to-face presentation. Please create some breathing room when you talk, so your audience can interrupt you and ask!