Elevate Your Influence with Virtual Executive Presence

A man is sitting in front of a virtual chart with emojis on it.
Virtual communication has become the norm, but the skills we use to communicate when face-to-face don’t fully transfer over. A new set of skills is required to reach on the other side of the screen.

In today’s digital era, virtual communication has become the norm, but the communication skills we use when face-to-face unfortunately don’t fully transfer over. A new set of skills is required to effectively convey influence and build connections with the people you’re trying to reach on the other side of the screen. 

In her insightful discussion, Founder of Performance Sales Training Julie Hansen, highlights the complicated nature of influence in the virtual environment. Beyond mere words and data, she emphasizes the crucial role that physical presence, voice quality, and body language play in effective communication. 

Drawing from her expertise in helping sales and pre sales professionals enhance their virtual presentations and demos and her background as a professional actor, Julie underscores the importance of these non-verbal elements in creating impactful connections with clients and prospects. As an author of three sales books,including Look Me In the Eye: Using Video to Build Relationships with Customers, Partners and Teams, Julie’s insights provide valuable guidance for individuals seeking to excel in the virtual realm of sales and persuasion.

Developing a Virtual Executive Presence

Customers connect to speakers who display what’s known as executive presence. Sylvia Anne Hewitt, author of Executive Presence, wrote, “Executive Presence is a combination of self-confidence, poise, and authenticity that impact your ability to inspire confidence in others to believe in and follow you.” 

While you may appear confident and capable delivering presales demos in person, it’s a whole different ball game when it comes to delivering information through a camera.

Julie explains why this happens, “A lot of the qualities that make up executive presence, like confidence, credibility and authenticity, are very difficult to convey on camera. And so while many leaders and solution engineers have great in-person executive presence, It doesn’t necessarily just transfer to the virtual environment.”

As humans, we receive communication mostly through physical presence. In fact, the lowest ranking way we perceive someone’s message comes from the actual words they use.  On video, we lose approximately 80% of our body language, so it is difficult for our audience to measure our competence as accurately as they can in person.

Being able to effectively display executive presence in a virtual environment requires a full understanding of the way we’re perceived when on camera. Because you might ooze qualities like confidence, credibility, and authenticity in person, you can’t rely on those skills when it comes to speaking over video. 

Creating Credibility in Virtual Meetings

Credibility is essential for success in any sales demo, but how you convey that online requires special attention. When you’re in a virtual meeting, you’re put in a tiny box on the customer’s screen making your face the main focal point. Research shows that people assess another’s trustworthiness, aggressiveness, likability, and competence in the first 10th of a second of looking at someone’s face, and people rarely change their opinion once it’s been established.

Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to make that first impression a good one. 

Avoid keeping a blank or unemotive facial expression, as Julie calls it, “Resting Business Face”. We tend to think that a serious look gives off a contemplative air that shows how deeply we’re listening.

In actuality, it does the opposite. Since we rely on body language for context in conversations, being reduced to a face on a screen puts a much greater weight on your facial expressions than it does when you’re in person. According to Julie, it’s vital to make sure your face conveys what you are genuinely thinking and feeling.

Maintain “eye contact” with the people you’re speaking to which in this case means maintaining eye contact with the camera. It may sound odd, but looking into your camera gives the impression you’re maintaining eye contact.

Your audience will notice if you are looking away from them to look at other screens or reading directly from your slides. It’s ok to sneak a peek every once in a while when you need to remind yourself what the next topic is, but this should only happen occasionally. Just like you wouldn’t read directly off slides when in front of a live audience, don’t do that to a virtual audience either.

Projecting Confidence Virtually 

Confidence is key to projecting that executive presence we all strive for as solution consultants. When you are on camera, the way you carry yourself can make or break the impression you make on your audience.

One of the biggest confidence killers in virtual meetings is the fear of silence. Silence during an in-person meeting is less scary because we can see our audience. We can see people shifting or emoting as they think of how to respond to your question, so we know they’re engaged even if they aren’t speaking.

This is more difficult in online meetings because we only see a portion of the audience at best. But, if most of the meeting attendees have their camera off, you won’t know if they’re even listening at all!

When there’s complete silence in response to a question, it’s tempting to fill the silence ourselves. However, this takes away from the confident image we’re trying to present and frankly, comes across as insecure and unprofessional. You need to learn to embrace the pause. 

Screenshot of the list showing the breakdown of how long it takes someone to respond virtually. 

According to Julie, “It could take 17, 20 seconds for a virtual audience to think through the question and unmute themselves to give an answer. Now, I’m not suggesting you have to wait 17 seconds every time you ask a question, but if you short circuit that process every single time, you will not get any responses to your questions.” Give your audience time to process your question and formulate their response. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it to get a thoughtful answer.

Being Authentic on Camera

Customers are looking to build trust and rapport with the sales engineer and authenticity is key to developing it, especially in virtual meetings. When you are on camera, your audience you’re already in an artificial environment, which makes it even more important to be authentic in your communication.

Make sure you’re presenting your authentic self. You want to appear comfortable being in the spotlight while still keeping energy levels high. Just be careful you don’t come across as complacent. The camera already removes some of the energy you’re projecting. If it looks like you’re lounging in the meeting, it can give the impression you don’t care.  

Another way to be authentic is to be transparent. This means being honest and open with your audience. Julie warns, “Make sure you’re coming across as authentic and transparent as you can, not only it helps your relationship, but the camera is a lie detector. It will pick up if you are incongruent. If you’re saying one thing but you feel something else, it will leak out in your face.”

Active Listening Through Video

Active listening is one of the ways we establish trust and rapport with our customers. In virtual meetings, this requires being a little more intentional so the body language and facial expressions translate over the screen. Don’t go overboard, but make sure the audience can tell you are paying attention. 

Julie shares some active listening cues that you can use in virtual meetings including:

  • Nodding your head to show that you are following along, that you’re listening, and that you’re understanding what the other person is saying.
  • Asking clarifying questions once the other person has finished speaking to show you were paying attention and that you want to make sure that you understand what the other person is saying.
  • Summarizing what the other person has said and you understand the main points of their message.

Expressing Empathy Long Distance

Making a purchase is an emotional experience for buyers, especially since there is a certain amount of professional risk involved and most don’t make these kinds of decisions often. Every presales professional needs to be able to express empathy. Just like with being authentic, you need to make sure your face, voice, and message are coming across as genuine and reassuring.

Some verbal cues that you can use to show empathy in virtual meetings include:

  • Using words and phrases that show you understand and care about the other person’s situation. For example: “I understand how you feel,” “That must be difficult,” or “I’m here for you.”
  • Asking questions to show that you are interested in the other person’s experience. For example: “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How did that make you feel?”
  • Reflecting back the other person’s emotions especially if those emotions are strong or negative. For example: “You sound frustrated,” “You seem excited,” or “You seem scared.”

Elevating your influence in the virtual environment requires a deep understanding of the multifaceted nature of communication. Julie Hansen’s insights shed light on the crucial role of physical presence, voice quality, and body language in creating impactful connections with clients and prospects.

By developing a virtual executive presence and leveraging non-verbal cues effectively, individuals can excel in the virtual realm of sales and persuasion. In a world where virtual interactions have become the norm, these skills are invaluable for building trust, establishing credibility, and forging meaningful relationships in the digital landscape.

Julie says “Influence is not just through our words, the data, our demo, or our product. It also comes from how we deliver it. If it didn’t matter how we delivered it, we’d just send out a report. That is pretty empowering for presales, the fact that we need to be the vehicle to communicate all these good things that are going to happen via our solution.”

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