How to Communicate Powerfully in a World of Zoom

How to Communicate Powerfully in a World of Zoom

“More than anything else…people want to hear stories!”
― James Rosebush, Winning Your Audience: Deliver a Message with the Confidence of a President

James Rosebush knows a thing or two about effective communication. A former senior aide to President Ronald Reagan, known as “The Great Communicator,” James is a coach of public speaking who has given hundreds of speeches to audiences worldwide. In his latest book, Winning Your Audience: Deliver a Message with the Confidence of a President, James draws on his decades of experience working with presidents, politicians, and business leaders to teach others the art of impactful oration. One reviewer called Winning Your Audience “the new bible for public speaking.”

InterimExecs spoke with James about his experience working with President Reagan, the new challenges facing leaders, how Millennials’ can advance their careers, the way to command an audience even when you’re not in the same room together, and how to overcome fear of public speaking.

Why Small Talk is a Big Deal

In our hyper-efficient, over-scheduled world, engaging in small talk can seem like a waste of time. But even though the information exchanged during idle chitchat may not be particularly important, small talk establishes a key to good communication: building a bridge to your audience.

James recalled one of his first bosses starting every meeting by “shooting the breeze” about sports and other topics that had nothing to do with the agenda of the meeting. “I thought it was a big waste of time,” said James. “Well, as time wore on, I began to see that he got more results out of his meetings than I did, where I took the approach of, sit down at the table and get this business done. Because he was building a bridge to his audience.”

Millennials—the largest generation in the U.S. labor force—may be less inclined than other generations to shoot the breeze. This is often attributed to them coming of age in a digital world. Research indicates that Millennials engage with their smartphones more than they do actual humans. And while they have excellent technology skills, their lack of interpersonal skills could be hurting their careers.

Not everyone is born with the gift of gab. Fortunately, small talk is a social skill that, like any other skill, can be improved. Part of building a bridge to your audience is putting your ego aside and showing curiosity in others. James learned about this from the Queen of England, who he called “the best purveyor of the art of conversation.”

“She knows how to make that bond because she asks genuine questions. So, that’s what I use as a tool,” he said. “People generally like to talk about themselves. If you really want to develop a relationship, and you’re thinking too much of yourself, ask a person to tell you their life story. Give them a platform to actually start talking to you.”

How to Connect at a Distance

Our means of communication have dramatically changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conferences and public speaking have ground to a halt, while meetings that used to take place in-person are now done online. But James stresses that, even though we aren’t in the same room together, the same lessons of building a bridge to your audience apply.

“Today, basically, all we can do is communicate over Zoom or another platform. And I would have to say that there are a lot of similarities with the ability to effectively present in person,” said James. “Even if you have a Zoom call, you have to build a bridge to the person you’re speaking to.”

With feelings of uncertainty high, it’s more important than ever to show interest in others. This means asking others about personal matters such as their family and their company. It also means not being afraid to open up about your own personal matters.

“One of the ten most important things you do as a speaker is you have to show your authenticity and in some cases some personal vulnerability,” said James.

At a time when many people are at home and yearning for human connection, James’ advice to business leaders is to have more distance meetings, rather than fewer. “There’s a tremendous amount of fear in the world about what’s going to happen, and as a result, leaders need to go the extra mile.”

The Value of Good Communication

Good communication is good business. Taking time to talk to people and understanding what they’re going through is a way to invest in your workers and build your leadership bona fides.

“It’s an investment in your future to spend more time with your employees and learn about their concerns and just to talk, just to share, because we’re all in this together,” said James.

Inc.com reports that poor communication costs companies billions of dollar per year. But companies led by good communicators tend to produce significantly better. An Economist study found that employees believe miscommunication contributes to their stress, failure to complete projects, and loss of sales. The most frequently cited cause of communication barriers was different communication styles.

In addition to connecting with employees of diverse backgrounds and personalities, today’s leaders must address challenges that are not exclusively financial. As the world becomes more interconnected, work life bleeds into personal life, and public issues—such as COVID-19, social justice, environmentalism, and data security—become inseparable from business issues. Modern business leaders who are not adept at navigating public issues, and cannot clearly communicate strategic objectives to employees, risk losing equity value.

“Today, people who are managing companies need to know a whole lot more in several different roles than just a strict discipline of either management, labor relations, or finance. It’s all integrated today with what’s happening on the outside,” said James.

Delivering a Message with Confidence

Around seventy-five percent of people suffer from glossophobia, or fear of public speaking. Even Margaret Thatcher, “The Iron Lady,” told James she experienced pre-speech jitters and had to encourage herself every time she got up on a podium.

Picturing your audience in their underwear might be good for a laugh, but it’s not likely to help get your point across. James described learning how to communicate as “the most basic and valuable and necessary skill for which people receive the least amount of training.”

“Whether you have to make a sales call or give a speech to 10,000 people, you still have to learn one very critical skill, and that is what you say is not always understood the same way you think it is by the people in your audience,” he said.

He emphasized that you must communicate with stories, and you must be confident in your content. You gain confidence by trying out your message on critics before unleashing it on your audience. James always gives speeches to his wife or somebody else first to gain honest feedback. “A lot of people don’t do that,” he said. “They just go ahead and inflict it on and audience. It needs to be tested.”

We can’t all be Ronald Reagan—the most fearless public speaker James ever saw. But we can find a coach and improve our communication skills.

“If you don’t know how to deliver a message, you’re only half way there,” said James. You might know your subject, you might know how to manage a company from a financial or marketing standpoint or labor relations standpoint. But if you don’t know how to communicate, you only have half of the package and half of the skill.”