Writing

How to make people like you – virtually – BBC News

It’s easy to make people like you in a normal office. But how can you charm colleagues and clients via video link?

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You’re on a work call, telling some colleagues the story of that time you accidentally blew up the kitchen. You know, the one where you were carrying a worktop from another room, and you bashed a wire… Anyway, it’s going well; you’re starting to see smiles flicker across their faces. This really is a classic. 

Then, out of the blue, your connection fails. By the time you re-join the meeting, the conversation has moved on – now your audience is talking about the weather. You never even get to tell them about the fireball the size of your head. (No one was hurt in the making of this anecdote.) 

Bonding with colleagues in the real world is easy. It’s about group sessions cooing at internet cats, collective eye-rolls at breaking political developments and endless rounds of coffee. But life is no longer so simple. Now that everyone is working from home, the only tools at our disposal are video conferences, group messages and email – arguably the coldest forms of communication invented. 

To make matters worse, the early days of the pandemic were an exercise in the perils of video chatting. There was the worker who accidentally went to the loo on camera, the pets which followed suit, the boss who inadvertently turned on a filter that warped her head into a potato and a lot of unintentional nudity. With these mishaps in mind, it’s hard to relax on screen – let alone display any charisma. 

So how can we make colleagues, or indeed business partners and clients, like us in this new virtual world of work? In the time-honoured tradition of self-help, here are five simple rules. 

Smile 

In 1936, American writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie published a book which changed the world. How to Win Friends and Influence People went on to sell more than 15 million copies, making it one of the most popular business books of all time. Billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett read it when he was 15, and credits it for his success. He keeps a framed copy of the certificate he received from one of Carnegie’s courses in his office.

A smile is a powerful tool, say experts - so use it!

A smile is a powerful tool, say experts – so use it!

Among Carnegie’s tips is the importance of smiling. He points out that if you seem pleased to see someone, they will be pleased to see you – and speculated that this is why we all love dogs. “They’re so happy to see us that they jump out of their skins,” he writes. “So, naturally, we are glad to see them.” 

Though this is generally useful – albeit slightly obvious – advice, here video conferencing offers an unusual opportunity: while you’d normally have to flash your smile to everyone in the room individually, on a video chat, you can charm 10 or 20 people for the price of one. 

“If you don’t have a natural smile,” says Nicholas Boothman, an ex-photographer and the author of How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, “I learned from fashion models that some of them say “great great great” in verses of three, which has the same effect.” 

Though video chatting is surprisingly tiring – and can certainly drain your energy –  there really is no excuse for looking bored or fed up. 

Find common ground 

In the office, we rely heavily on shared experiences to bond with others. We delight in the strange snacks people bring back from holidays – tomato-flavoured boiled sweets, anyone? – moan about the commute and gleefully recall that incident at the Christmas party. Though we might not realise this is what we’re doing, finding common ground is one of the first steps to being charming.  

“When I get briefings from corporations, most really cool, great CEOs can find common ground even over the phone, within about 15 seconds,” says Boothman. “If you can get someone to say, ‘wow, me too’, then that’s it.”

We're all experiencing the pandemic - so finding common ground with colleagues and clients across the globe should be easy

We’re all experiencing the pandemic – so finding common ground with colleagues and clients across the globe should be easy

Boothman set to work winning me over from the moment he answered the phone, launching into a conversation about the heatwave we were both experiencing, thousands of miles apart. Discussing the weather may be superficial and clichéd, but it works. 

So while we’re currently restricted to video calls, group messaging services and email, there’s still a whole world of pandemic and weather-related experiences to discuss. Enjoy. 

Be ready 

Though you might be impressed with your new-found ability to conduct virtual business meetings in bed or make dinner while you tune in for the last call of the day, this might not be the best idea.

“Zoom calls aren’t meant to kill time,” says Sally Hogshead, a former advertising executive and author of Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation. “They’re meant to grow a connection and build ideas. So it’s important that we are fully present.” 

Hogshead recommends preparing for virtual meetings as you would for any other. This often means starting with online research. If you’re meeting a new colleague or collaborator, find out what their history is and what interests or motivates them. If you’re going to be brainstorming ideas, write some notes down in advance.

Consider your background; personal touches could endear you to colleagues during Zoom happy hour

Consider your background; personal touches could endear you to colleagues during Zoom happy hour

It’s also vital to get to know the software you’re using – if you’re going to be chatting via Zoom, find out what features it has and use them to your advantage. For team drinks, for example, Boothman suggests adding a virtual background: either one that tells people something about you or something funny. One man went viral for his deliciously meta video wallpaper – a video of him awkwardly walking in on himself in a Zoom meeting, played on repeat. Others have used stills from actual pubs, the US sitcom The Office and that time an expert’s children interrupted a live interview with BBC News.  

Zoom backgrounds have the dual advantage of blocking out any distracting clutter and avoiding colleagues judging your home. “There are a lot of people that don’t want to know how great your life is,” says Boothman. Though it might be tempting to impress your colleagues with a background of your newly landscaped garden or ultra-modern kitchen, instead he recommends choosing a background that’s simple and neutral, such as a wall or a bookshelf.  If you’re tempted to use virtual backgrounds, the photographer in him wants everyone to invest in a green screen – or even just a white sheet which they can pin up – to avoid the background popping in and out of focus. These details will help your audience focus on what you’re saying, so they’re more likely to follow your stories, laugh at your jokes and be suitably impressed by your ideas. 

Give people credit for their achievements 

“There’s flattery, which is ‘that shirt makes you look nice’,” says Hogshead, “and this is either a cliché, or insincere, and it doesn’t help build a connection.” Then there’s acknowledgement, which is a very different beast; it’s about handing out compliments people deserve and making them feel seen.

Giving people due credit is one of the most effective ways of influencing them, without turning yourself into a villain. Don’t tell people what they did wrong – tell them what they did right. “That makes them want to do more of it,” says Hogshead. 

This is not only solid management advice, but a classic way to endear yourself to people in almost any situation. If someone makes an intelligent point on a Zoom call – tell them there and then. If they have a great idea, say so. Recognise your colleagues for their preparedness, or even their ability to take feedback on board. 

Hogshead emphasises the importance of avoiding ultra-common compliments, which won’t have much of an impact. “Acknowledge them in a way that is not so obvious that they hear it all the time,” she says. “My husband has gorgeous blue eyes, and people always people comment on it. He is flattered, but it doesn’t build a connection.” 

Tell stories 

Humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years; recently scientists discovered a 43,000-year-old cave painting depicting eight small human-like figures hunting two pigs, which is thought to be the earliest narrative ever found. They’re thought to have evolved as a way of bonding with others, transmitting information and making sense of the world around us. 

Though we’ve moved from campfires to offices and now virtual workplaces, storytelling is still thought to be fundamental to the way our brains work. Psychologist Jerome Bruner believes that facts are up to 22 times more memorable when presented in story form – and in a world that’s increasingly saturated in information, the ability to craft a narrative is crucial for being heard. 

And while storytelling won’t generate rapport on its own, journalists and advertising executives have known for decades that it’s the first step to capturing someone’s attention. Once they’re hooked, you can work on demonstrating how funny, clever or interesting you are. 

“Sometimes when I do phone interviews with corporations that are sussing me out as a speaker,” says Boothman, “there’ll be like eight people on a conference call and they’ll say ‘how are you?’. I’ll say ‘Oh, I’m on my farm in Canada. Oh my gosh, look at the horses coming up from the valley into the paddock…’ And there you are, straight into their imaginations. They can see it.” 

Boothman explains that an easy way to improve your storytelling is to throw in sensory information or make comparisons. “One of the best in the world at this is Warren Buffett,” he says. “When he described the last financial crisis, he said: ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.’.” This was a reference to the banks that had borrowed money they couldn’t afford to pay back, expecting that no one would notice because the market would continue growing. It’s widely quoted to this day – and arguably it’s descriptions like this that add to Buffett’s legendary status, and explain why people will pay millions for a private lunch with him.

In a world where people are being made redundant over Zoom – and worse, email – and your next face-to-face meeting with your boss might not be until 2021, it can feel like we’re increasingly de-humanised, reduced to an email signature or a job title. But though many of the usual ways to bond with our colleagues are currently off-limits, Boothman and Hogshead agree that it’s eminently possible over Zoom – it’s just different.