The ongoing Covid 19 pandemic has, rather unexpectedly, achieved a miracle of sorts.Across the globe, people older than their hip young 20s and 30s, people well into their 60s, 70s, even their 80s, have been dragged, kicking and screaming, on to technological and digital communication platforms! Something most of them had managed to avoid for many decades before the world as we know it changed almost overnight.
From middle aged, tech-phobic, teachers who have been successfully taking classes and assessing homework and tests on platforms like zoom and google classroom for more than 10 months now, to grandparents checking in on kids and grandkids via google meet; from multi-person conference video calls instead of team meetings to webinars instead of seminars, it is a Brave New World, indeed, where interpersonal communication is concerned.
What we must also keep in mind, in the midst of all this technological largesse everywhere, is that mores and rules of communication will have to be changed and modified too, to keep up with the new ways in which we now largely communicate. While we learn to navigate the intricacies of Microsoft teams, adobe connect, Google meet, Zoom, and what have you, on a purely technological and skill based level, we must not neglect the changes we need to make in habits and ingrained behaviours we have cultivated over known history in face to face communication. New etiquette must take the place of the set of rules of manners we are used to. New skills must replace the older more honed and sharpened set of tools we already have in our arsenals.
Something as essential and fundamental as catching and holding the attention of your audience during any kind of interaction is now a world away from what it used to be when everyone was in the same physical room. Physical communication spaces, we are increasingly discovering, were a lot more forgiving than digital ones. In a physical space, face to face, people had no choice but to pay some amount of attention, or were predisposed to at least try, given the lack of many other avenues. We dealt with speeches, lectures, meetings, seminars, sessions, on the premise that the human span for attention is 90 minutes. Ah! Those were the days!
The Digital Communication world is not nearly as accommodating, as we have learnt over the last 10 odd months. Whatever the reasons behind it, people on online media tend to have a much shorter attention span. Instant gratification is easily available online, and one supposes that the mind has become trained to expect that from ALL online content, or maybe it is a much more fundamental difference in how our brains process different kinds of stimuli. Whatever the reason, catching and retaining audience attention has become a more critical and more difficult function of everyday communication, especially in the workplace.
Unless one can “hook” the audience in the first five seconds, consider the audience lost. People are a lot more distracted these days, there are more distractions available at our fingertips if we are to be online for any kind of work thing. As a result, they are a lot more impatient as well. If it does not appeal almost instantly, we tend to move on or disconnect mentally if not physically. Add to that the shortcomings of the digital mode of communication as far as sensory input is concerned, and “keeping” audience attention becomes as important and focal an issue as “getting” it in the first place.
Physically, in a hall, meeting room, or auditorium, you can present audiovisual inputs, walk around, use your body language as a tool to hold audience attention, easily interact with your listeners and receive inputs from them in the form of both verbal and non-verbal communication feedback. On a digital platform, this is much more limited. One cannot move around, sensory input that the viewer is receiving is all digital anyway, so playing a clip or displaying a PowerPoint presentation does not have nearly the same impact, and given that the likelihood of all members of the audience being visible is minuscule, nonverbal feedback is at a minimum. Verbal feedback too, in the form of replies, chuckles when you make a joke, an agreeing hum when you make a valid point, and so on, become quite limited as efficient delivery of content requires audience to be muted as far as possible.
Clearly then, it is time for a rethink of what we have always thought of as traditional communication skills. It is time to enact a paradigm shift in how we talk to people, and how we present our content. It is time to remodel old skills and learn new ones. It is time to re-imagine how we are going to effectively work in teams, lead them, conduct business, drive profits, and participate in the global workforce as efficient and productive members in the Post Covid world.
Written by: Prof. Arunima Das Faculty – Business Communication, ISB&M Kolkata