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Online Communication and Charlie Chaplin 2

Online Communication and Charlie Chaplin

One morning, back in early 2020, you woke up and walked a few steps to start work.  For some, working from home was already part of their routine but for many of us it was new and different.  As with any change, many of us hoped it would be temporary, and everything would go back to normal in no time. 

Fast forward fifteen months and we’ve become experts at working online and communicating with people through screens.  But how expert are we at online communication? How can we be effective at interpersonal communication in such unpersonal surroundings?  How much do you notice those small gestures that mean more than words?

When meeting online it’s difficult to really see each other, to notice each other’s energy, body language, smile, or lack of it. The senses are made redundant as well. In a face to face meeting, you can share the experience of smell, share the view, see colours and movement happening in the room and outside. Senses allow us to create the feeling of a shared experience.

In the online world,  the level of common understanding drops, so naturally, there is more space for assumptions. And as humans, we like to think that we know and usually that means we make up assumptions that are negative.

How can you create effective interpersonal online communication?  

After running one of the sessions of Managing Remote Teams, I could not stop thinking about the participants who were having a hard time incorporating their body language in online communication. Even when introduced with playful activities or rituals opening the meeting. It looked like somebody had tied  them to their office chairs and the image of the group glued to the screen would not leave me.

The same evening, I went for dinner with my family, and as I entered the room, I saw a movie, ‘The Modern Times’ from 1936, projected on the wall in front of me. I found the key to the solution.

And that is remembering to be more like Charlie Chaplin.

Sir Charles Spencer, popularly known as Charlie Chaplin was movie star of his generation. By only using his body and short messages added between the images, he provoked deep emotions in people, allowing them to laugh and cry. His body language and communication still evokes the same feeling today, which is a feat in itself.  He was way ahead of his time by telling stories and creating masterpieces that prompted people to think.

 As Charlie strongly believed in the power of body language, even when sound recording was invented, he still made two more movies without adding voices.

Does science agree with Chaplin’s belief in the importance of body language? 

Yes! In 1970 Albert Mehrabian researched communication in conflict, and he developed the communication theory of 7 38 55. According to his research, 7% of what we communicate consists of the pure content of the message. The use of one’s voice takes up 38%, and as much as 55% of communication consists of body language.  When in a conflict situation, you might be saying “I am not angry” but your face is tensed, and you are stamping your feet. What message are you sending to the receiver?  We all sometimes overthink what we should say, but maybe we should reflect on how to say it and how to respond.

There will only ever be one Charlie Chaplin. But he can offer some insights in how to improve our communication online and ensure that others understand our message. Here are five tips to get you started. 

  1. Use the technology that is available to you and be aware of your body language.  Remember that your body speaks for you whether you are conscious about it or not, so use it with a good intention.  Do not be afraid of it, instead find a way to enable it. 
  2. Use light that enlightens your face, sit comfortably looking at the screen, and look directly into the camera so people to feel like you are looking and connected to them. You might even think of placing a picture next to your camera of somebody who inspires you to speak with confidence.
  3. Sit at the proper distance from the camera to allow others to see not only your head but also your shoulders and arms. As your hand gestures play a significant role in the way people understand what you are saying.
  4. Keep sound distractions to minimum or use a high-quality headset if you work with others in the room. Speak more slowly, make more pauses, and ask more questions to check if others understand what you are saying. Share slides only to support the message, not to transfer the complete information for you. 
  5. During online meetings, follow the person on the other side of the screen. If they lean toward do the same, it shows you are paying attention and listening. Don’t forget to sk questions to ensure the clarity of the message. 

Finally,  I encourage you to be creative, observe others, join workshops facilitated by professionals. Join improv classes online, voice training, dance before an important meeting, allow your body to speak up. See it as a challenge rather than as a burden. 

Hybrid/remote work is not going anywhere so we’re all going to have to take a leaf out of Charlie Chaplin’s book with our communication online. What can inspire you to find deeper human interaction online? 

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