This week, as many of our face-to-face meetings started to get replaced with video calls the world suddenly felt different. We’ve all been adapting and thinking about how to make the most of the skills we have in a rapidly changing scenario and we’re only going to be doing more of that from now on, so I say let’s skill up and get good at using the online setting, because it’s going to be normal for the weeks and months ahead.

As we take more and more of our interactions online, our ability to use stories – to influence, persuade and inspire – is what’s going to help to bring the human element into our virtual meetings.

Why do I say that? Basically because stories are one of the things that make us human. Our brains are hardwired to enjoy, remember, repeat, understand and use stories. We’ve been communicating using stories since we first learned to speak, and the human race have been at it since pre-history, so we are good at it and we already know that it works.

And of course, that’s great news, because the storytelling can continue. We just need to take it into the online environment. And to be honest, we already know that storytelling thrives online. There’s plenty of evidence of that in every aspect of social media, online marketing and business comms. As we get more used to running meetings online, we can use the natural, human interaction of story to make our meetings memorable, comfortable, compelling and effective.

Be more human

How we do business this week is in a huge state of flux. Here in the UK – and across the globe – we are all impacted by this sudden change. We are minimising physical interactions, and we know that’s possibly going to go on for some time. Human beings are relational creatures, so for everyone to be flung into a situation where normal workplace interactions are minimised is confusing and potentially depressing. Today people who are normal positive and cheerful may be lonely and frightened – but we can do something about it.

A social media colleague, Gary Ennis, was posting on LinkedIn yesterday saying that he is well known for saying that we all need to be more digital, but his new message, given Covid-19, is that we need to be more human. Of course, as he knows, the two things are not mutually exclusive. Right now, to be more human we need to connect and if we can’t connect face-to-face then we need to do it using digital.

Be better prepared…

Going to an online meeting is different from face-to-face and yet, in a way it’s the same! If we put effort in up-front to decide what we want from the conversation, then it’s far more likely to be successful. If we can also take a few minutes to think about some great stories to tell when we are in our meeting then, all of a sudden, we will have our colleagues’ attention. More than that we will make our meetings places where we encourage and support each other.

So what’s the purpose of your meeting? What do you hope to achieve? What new reality are you trying to create? And therefore, what story, past, present or future imagined, will help people to grasp the point you are trying to make? What personal story could provide the emotional connection?

…and be more spontaneous

The ability to share personal stories in an online setting will help other people in the meeting to relax, understand and contribute.

Have you noticed people sharing more in the last few days? I have. I had a 15 minute conversation with the postman yesterday, learned his name, why he loves his job and how coronavirus is changing what he does. A new neighbour came round to introduce himself. I was out walking and a mountain biker stopped to chat (that one never happens!). Why? Because extraordinary things are happening about us and we want to share our stories, compare, learn, understand.

So would you consider being more open about the stories you tell in a work setting? It could have a positive impact on the quality of your meetings.

Tell personal stories

I recently ran a workshop where a team of senior leaders spent time thinking about a personal story that they might tell in a work situation. In the course of the day they had time to develop and share those stories with each other and the results were powerful. Not only did the team explore and learn techniques around storytelling, they also developed the relationships and trust that will enable them to better fulfil their roles. Several people commented at the start that they felt vulnerable and uncertain, but despite – or maybe even because of – that everyone in the room ended up telling a meaningful story about themselves that connected with their work setting. The impact was powerful and memorable and the group felt it was a positive way to build relationships as well as a relevant skill to use in their leadership roles.

That all happened face-to-face, but the next time I run that workshop it will almost certainly be online. The group dynamics will be slightly different but I am convinced that the power of the stories will still shine through and may be even more important.

Tell other people’s stories

Sometimes the stories we want to share aren’t about ourselves but about other people – people who have had their lives transformed in some way, overcoming challenge or adversity. Back in November I had the privilege of leading a seminar at a conference where all the delegates came from different charities and social enterprises, all contributing the the circulating economy and aiming to make the world a better place for people, planet and pounds. The stories were the highlight of the day as presenter after presenter got up to share what their organisation was doing to make a difference. Once people got to sharing about individual lives transformed the connection with the audience was always palpable. That’s what our stories can achieve.

Tell great stories

And finally, our stories don’t always need to be closely connected with our own situation, they may be timeless stories about success, failure, resilience or whatever other message we want to share. A personal favourite at the moment is a story of courage and perseverance which might inspire us to keep going through the challenges ahead.

Be relational

For many people, workplace colleagues are people that they are used to spending vast amounts of time with. For desk-based workers suddenly working from home will feel like a shock. They will be disorientated and simply lonely. Our online meetings can become important hubs where people can connect and feel human once again. Providing time for apparently unimportant chit-chat could actually turn out to be the most important thing of all.

Be kind

I love my kids’ school where the informal motto is “Work hard, be kind!” It stands up today, doesn’t it? As we work hard together to get through the current challenges, we need to be kind and in the virtual meeting setting that undoubtedly means listening. Much of great communicating is about listening – that’s why God gave us two ears and only one mouth! In a meeting with more than a couple of people, a little bit of listening discipline might well be just the thing to help your colleague through.

Be realistic

Virtual meetings come with challenges. Some people will be new to the technology and helping them to settle in and feel comfortable in the new environment will be a challenge. How people interact in a virtual meeting will be different from what happens if everyone is in the room together. In a bigger meeting it can become easy for one or two people to dominate the conversation, for others to become distracted and disengaged. With a little bit of planning combined with deliberate management of the meeting we can get past these hurdles and really make our online time count.

In fact we may well find that online we have far clearer intent, with people using their time better and choosing their words more carefully.

Be practical

Of course we have great apps such as Skype and Zoom that enable us to keep in touch with colleagues. Many of us use these tools all day everyday anyway, and for others it’s a steep learning curve. Either way we have technology at our fingertips that can help us retain our sanity and keep business ticking over, thank goodness.

There are plenty of practical top tips around right now if you are running the meeting and want to make it easy for others to cut through the tech barriers, relax and join in. My favourite one is don’t wear a checked shirt – you might confuse the camera.