After the telephone was invented, humans imagined overcoming time, space and travel limitations by combining audio and video transmissions. Inventors and business leaders believed that virtual meetings would be indistinguishable from face-to-face contact and would eventually replace the need for physical meetings. Today, videoconferencing providers like WebEx and Zoom claim they’re just as good as the real thing.

While it’s obvious that a digital interaction isn’t the same as a live connection, all of us have become absorbed in a good movie or a well-produced television show, even though we know intuitively that they aren’t real experiences. As powerful and helpful as virtual meetings are, fundamentally they’re different than face-to-face encounters. Understanding how these two types of meetings differ helps us advance our skills for conducting virtual meetings and enables us to become better equipped to get the most out of the tool.

Face-to-Face Meetings Activate Thousands of Years of Social Instincts

In simple terms, face-to-face meetings are real to us while virtual meetings have the characteristic of being almost real. This is because so much of communication is experienced through nonverbal cues. It’s much easier to establish rapport with someone when we’re close to and facing that person because of our instinct to match and pace him. Matching and pacing are instinctive signals that tell the other person, “I am a friend; I’m with you; there’s no danger here.” These signals, which have evolved over thousands of years of human beings living and working together, represent a huge amount of vital communication that doesn’t translate well in virtual meetings.

When you feel comfortable and in rapport with someone, mirror neurons in your brain are activated and chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin are released into your bloodstream. This happens when the person you’re talking with matches your posture and movements and paces the speed of your words and the tonality of your voice. Humans like others who are similar to themselves, and our social instincts evolved to activate these feelings. In higher doses and specific circumstances, the same chemicals cause us to feel in love.

As a result of these instinctive responses, face-to-face meetings present a greater opportunity for the salesperson to affect another person’s decision-making. That person feels an instinctive social obligation to accept the meeting, pay full attention, and respond positively to proposals or requests. Live meetings allow the presenter to activate the listener’s instincts, giving the presenter more control over the meeting’s potential outcome. In other words, the salesperson’s relationship skills and interpersonal style are critical during a face-to-face meeting and can influence the results.

Virtual Meetings Significantly Reduce the Role of Social Instincts

However, when a conversation takes place through a virtual channel, these natural responses don’t get activated. A face on a screen is tiny, which limits the nonverbal cues that the presenter can see. Our devices’ diminished audio quality tends to flatten the richness of the spoken word, making it nearly impossible to pick up on the nuances of vocal tone. This makes it much harder to match and pace someone on a screen than it is when she is close by, full-scale and three-dimensional. With so many of the usual nonverbal cues missing, virtual meetings are profoundly less real.

There are important implications for managing virtual meetings, as well as other areas of life where we encounter human beings without the safety of our social obligations. One example is the phenomenon of road rage, where the normal emotional constraints that we all practice in live encounters are reduced by the virtual anonymity of being in a car. All those other people on the road seem less real, which can liberate varying levels of intolerance and even violence. Most of us behave at least somewhat differently in traffic than we would at a dinner table filled with strangers.

This means that during a virtual meeting, the presenter cannot count on the same constraints from the person she is talking to. As anyone who has conducted or attended videoconferences knows, listeners feel great freedom to disconnect from the meeting, check emails or texts, or multitask. Interruptions are likely, as the absence of social instincts reduces the status of the presenter. He is no longer the only thing to pay attention to. And because the encounter is less real, the client or prospect often feels more comfortable disagreeing, ignoring information or cutting the meeting short.

Here are some tips for getting as much as you can out of virtual meetings:

  • Keep meetings short and stay focused on the core message; avoid small talk and anything that could be perceived as irrelevant or off the subject.
  • Set the duration of the meeting up front and try to end early; extend the meeting only if the listener is actively seeking more information.
  • Define your desired outcome (what you want the other person to do as a result of the meeting) before the meeting starts.
  • Start by explaining what you’re going to talk about, have the discussion, and close with a summary of what you said. Don’t assume the listener paid attention throughout the meeting.
  • In virtual meetings, relationship skills are less important; the quality of the message and visuals is much more crucial. Invest time in designing your message and illustrations to increase engagement and inspire tighter focus.

As we discussed in “Mastering the Virtual Practice: Why Advisors Will Prefer Virtual Meetings,” there are obvious benefits from the efficiency that virtual meetings represent. But because social obligations, instincts and brain chemistry are different in a virtual meeting, you as the presenter need to prepare more thoroughly and manage the delivery of information and the flow of the meeting more intentionally. For additional information on this topic, read “10 Reasons Why Virtual Meetings Are Harder.”

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The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.

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