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I was recently on a “Zoom” with school leaders from across the nation. To get the meeting started, the moderator asked us all to type in the chat box our answers to this question: “What should we, as educators, carry forward from the pandemic as we plan for next year?”

Seconds later, answers started popping into the chat. Every leader on the call responded,”virtual family engagement.” Honest to goodness… every single one of them said they’re planning on building on their success in engaging parents through virtual events and meetings. 

Like it or hate it, virtual meetings are here to stay. It’s time to get good at them.

I’ve spent the past 10 years in education. Prior to that, for 15 years I was a broadcast journalist and TV newsperson. So when I was forced to transition my communications trainings and workshops for educators to a virtual setting this past year, I was more than ready. Speaking into a camera is my “thing.” 

I want to help it be your “thing,” too. So, here are my top tips for communicating virtually:

  1. Know your camera and your position

Set your chair and camera so that your shoulders are visible and that your head is centered on the screen. You want families to listen to what you have to say and connect with you. Nothing is more distracting than a little head at the bottom of the screen or someone who is too close or too far away from the camera. It may seem like a little thing, but it just doesn’t “feel right” if you’re not centered in the shot. If you’re not sure what this looks like, watch a few TV newscasts and model the positioning of the broadcasters. It may take some work, you may need to prop your computer camera up on a box, or a phonebook or sit on a pillow, but it’s worth it.  

  1. Adjust your lighting

Again, seems an unimportant thing, but bad lighting is a serious distraction. Take the time to adjust your setup. Make sure your face is illuminated and is the focus of the screen. Try turning off the lights around you. Leave on any light that comes from behind your computer screen. Some of the best lighting for video is natural light Try setting your camera in front of a window. 

  1. Show your energy

If you can, stand for your meeting. Standing will help you demonstrate energy and stay engaged. That’s why many news anchors stand.  If you have to sit, scoot to the edge of your seat and put both feet on the floor. This will also help with energy, and it’ll help you sit up tall. Lean forward. Your position will help convey and project interest. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to use your hands

If you are someone who uses hand gestures when you speak, use those gestures when you meet virtually. Gestures reinforce what you are saying and help the conversation feel real. 

  1. Use eye contact

Look directly at your camera, not at your screen. If you’re looking at your screen, it will appear as if you are not making eye contact and that feels untrustworthy. To the extent that you can, especially when you are speaking, look at the “dot” of the camera. It’s hard to do at first… but it’s worth it.  

  1. Lead the conversation
  • Relax, chitchat, be friendly. 

If you’ve ever watched television interviews, reporters often begin by asking simple, friendly questions. These questions help the interview subject relax and get comfortable with the camera. These same questions also serve to “grease the wheel” and warm the interviewee up for tougher questions that may follow. You can use the same technique in your work with parents … chitchat and be friendly at the beginning of your meeting. This will help both you and the parent relax. 

  • Acknowledge your barriers. 

As you start your meeting, you may want to begin by saying something like, “I wish we could have this conversation face to face, but I’m just happy we are meeting today.”  Acknowledge the presence and potential challenges of the technology by saying something like:“ I hope you can hear me okay. If we happen to get disconnected for some reason, I will call you back by phone.” 

  • Check for privacy.

If you are having a difficult conversation, you might require more privacy. When you meet face to face with parents or caregivers, it’s easy to make sure your conversation is confidential. It’s much harder to do that in a virtual meeting. You might want to ask who, if anyone, can hear the conversation? In order to keep your words private, you may need to switch to a good, old fashion phone call. 

  • Allow parents and caregivers the option of using their camera.

Sometimes you won’t feel like it, but please, use your camera and appear on screen. Good body language is essential to effective communication. But that doesn’t mean you always need it to be successful. Give parents the option to opt in or opt out of using their cameras. It shows respect …and enables parents to feel more in-control. The more you build your relationship with them, the more likely they’ll appear on screen, but until that time, give them an option.

  • Be ‘bigger,’ but stay natural

The most challenging part of communicating virtually is making a connection with people. Remember to do all the natural things you would do in a face-to-face meeting. Smile, nod, convey emotions with your face. Try to do this with a little exaggeration. This will help bridge the virtual divide.  

Oh, and, one more thing: When you turn on your camera to begin, don’t be nervous. Afterall, it’s just a conversation. If you misspeak, if you hesitate, even if you lose your train of thought, don’t worry. Your on-camera imperfections all make you look and feel more approachable and real. And that will actually help you engage families. 
Interested in learning more about the power of communication in connecting with students and families? Download my Playbook for Clear, Effective & Meaningful School Communication.

Patricia Weinzapfel

Author, Educator, Journalist & K12 Communications Expert

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