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Even before Covid redefined the typical marketer’s business day, Zoom was increasing in popularity. Most people are aware that Zoom is a great tool, but most are also aware that it is inferior in many ways to good ol’ fashioned in-person communication. After a year and a half of most meetings and events occurring over virtual platforms like Zoom, Teams and Meet, many of us now have colleagues, friends or even doctors we’ve only ever seen on the screen.
Whether you’re trying to land new clients, work more effectively with a team or just get more out of virtual events, you might be wondering how you can better connect with people on these digital platforms. I was curious about how to maximize my usage, so I recently spoke with behavioral scientist Jon Levy, the founder of the Influencers Dinner and author of You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, and learned what he does to better connect with people over Zoom.
1. Find common ground by being authentic and vulnerable
It can be hard to remember that the person you’re talking to through the screen is multi-faceted — just like you. But if you try to be authentic and human instead of just a laser-focused professional, you give the other person an opportunity to see you from a multidimensional perspective.
Levy says that he always answers the question “How are you?” honestly, because doing so gives the other person an opportunity to put him in a new context: Say, someone who’s stressed because he’s having a long day or planning travel, or excited because his favorite team won last night. Now instead of just being a “supplier”, the person is also a sports fan, an adventure traveler and someone who cares about their work.
That’s not to say you should be negative or treat the other person like your therapist. However, you should still be human by signaling vulnerability. Being authentic brings your communication back to how you communicate in real life: an opportunity to connect as people instead of as part of a task-oriented event.
2. Leverage the pratfall effect
In the past year, we’ve all become great at cleaning and decorating the exact part of our homes that the camera sees when we’re on Zoom. No doubt you’ve carefully curated the books and family photos on the shelves behind you, and lectured the people and/or pets you live with on the dire consequences that await them if they end up on camera when you’re in a meeting. But I’m starting to rethink that.
My dog let herself into my office and plopped down on camera during a recent meeting I had with a high-profile client group. For a moment, I was mortified, but then to my surprise, everyone else in the meeting started showing off their pets. The ice was broken and suddenly, everyone was much more relaxed. This is actually a great example of the pratfall effect.
The “pratfall effect” is a psychological phenomenon that was discovered in the 1960s. Researchers sent a group of people for job interviews, instructing some of them to do embarrassing things like spill coffee on themselves or drop their papers. Remarkably, the people who made these mistakes were rated more highly.
Levy explains that the pratfall effect is about humanity. When someone messes up like this by defying expectations, others end up rooting for them. Mild imperfections make people seem more like three-dimensional humans. Psychology shows that we perceive people with mild imperfections as more likable and trustworthy than those whose imperfections remain invisible.
The takeaway? Stress less about minor mistakes that might humanize you on camera. Let your family or pets interrupt you (within reason). If others can see you as an imperfect person, you will connect better with them, all thanks to the pratfall effect.
3. Design your interactions to build trust
Trust is comprised of three elements: competence, honesty and benevolence. But which one is the most important? Levy emphasizes that benevolence is actually the most important element in building trust, followed by honesty and only then competence. He gave the example of taking a walk with a friend, and the friend asking to pick something that they left at someone’s house along the way. When you get to the location, suddenly all your best friends jump out and yell “Surprise!” Most people wouldn’t be angry about the deception because they know their friend mislead them about the pickup for benevolent reasons, and that they had good intentions at heart. And even if the party was a disaster, your friend’s party-planning incompetence would likely be overlooked in favor of their benevolence.
The process is also important to building trust. The “IKEA effect” refers to the tendency people have to care about their IKEA furniture not because of the excellent Swedish craftsmanship, but instead because they built it themselves. We value the things we expend effort on, and we come to trust those who have demonstrated benevolence, honesty and competence in the process of expending that effort. Even if you can’t build furniture with others on Zoom, the same principles apply. Levy recommends using games and activities to provide opportunities to be authentic and to work on something with others. A trivia game might not be an IKEA bookcase, but you’ll still feel proud of the results.
4. Build, trigger and use vulnerability loops
You might have noticed that all four of these recommendations flow into each other. The theme that unites all of them is vulnerability: We demonstrate vulnerability when we can trust someone. When we let ourselves be vulnerable, others might feel they can trust us. This is the basic concept behind vulnerability loops. Vulnerability loops are critical, and they tie together all the rest of these tips.
A vulnerability loop might be when you honestly tell someone on Zoom that you’re not having a great day, and they share their own experiences in response. It might occur when you ask your team for their input on something and they respond with both insight and questions. It might even be as simple as asking someone to show you the book or trophy they have behind them, which is something Levy recommends.
It might seem hard to structure these loops into the format of a Zoom call. However, there are still so many ways to do it. Whether it’s through games, questions, an authentic background or even a minor gaffe, you create opportunities to be vulnerable, to invite authentic vulnerability and to establish norms of trust.