Messaging a Warm Reception

by Eric M. Bailey

We all know that if there is one set of instructions and five people listening to those instructions, it’s a virtual certainty that different people will perceive and interpret those instructions differently. Said more plainly, the information will be received differently. 

The reason leadership communication is so difficult is leaders can expect the number of people they need to communicate with is the same number of ways that they may need to communicate. Having their message received is infinitely more important than how they deliver it. 

You’re on Mute

Over the past few years, our communication challenge has gotten a couple more complex layers. Not only do we have to figure out the best ways to communicate with the various styles on our team, but now we have to identify the various ways to be effective when communicating with employees over video conference, teleconference, messaging, email and face-to-face. There are some brain science differences between these modes of communication, and understanding them can lead to reduced frustration, increased energy and productivity. 

When dealing with digital communication, it is critical to understand that messages are often received without tonal context. When the human brain receives information without context, we tend to instantly fill in the contextual gaps. For instance, in telling a story about a conversation that happened over text, most people add tone to what they say. This tone is created by the storyteller. When we are communicating via text, it may be advisable to put additional effort into communicating tone. 

Now, let’s consider the abbreviation “LOL” and its frequency in informal (and increasingly in formal) communication. According to linguist John McWhorter, the reason “LOL” is so commonly used in text communication is because it communicates not only that something is funny, but it communicates lightness and empathy, it communicates accommodation. Nowadays, LOL is less frequently used to communicate that someone is actually laughing out loud (as the abbreviation was originally meant to represent), but rather to provide color, tone and context to a communication medium that is naturally cold.

Awkward Zoom Wave

Adding context to our digital communication is critical. But, just as communication is a process of both sending and receiving information, there must be some sort of social agreement on what contextual cues we will use. For instance, some folks will keep their cameras off during video conferences, and many people (present company included) will wave to folks before awkwardly trying to find where the cursor is so that they can leave the meeting. My colleague Nicole Lance calls this the “Awkward Zoom Wave.” Think about it, if we were in person, as we are walking through the doorway we wouldn’t turn around and wave to everyone left in the room. But, for some reason, many of us do it on video conferences. Why? Possibly to make the unfortunately impersonal medium feel a bit more personal. 

There is a brain chemical that helps us feel connected to folks when we speak to them face-to-face. In fact, it is one of the most important elements that we lose during video conferences and other digital communication. When we make eye contact with someone as we’re speaking, our brain releases a bit of oxytocin. This is one of the happiness chemicals that helps us form bonds and build societies. It’s virtually impossible to make eye contact during video conferences.

My Eyes Are Up Here

Most folks on laptops or with external video cameras have the camera at or near the top of their display. The camera is the element that captures our image and projects it to the person or group we’re communicating with. Their camera is capturing their image and projecting it onto our screen. (I’m sorry for the remedial lesson on how video conferencing works, but it’s important that we have this language.) The image being displayed on our screen is below our camera. So, as we attempt to make eye contact with the person we’re communicating with, we are looking below the camera. The camera captures our image and (according to the camera) we are looking down. So our image being projected to the other person is us looking down — NOT looking at their eyes. And as they are attempting to look at our eyes, they are looking below their cameras. 

Those trained in the world of on-screen talent may be used to looking directly at the camera. This is a powerful communication tool, because it will give the person or people they’re communicating with the illusion that they are looking them directly in the eyes — releasing oxytocin. The problem is that looking at a camera and not looking at the other’s eyes will not provide the oxytocin boost, but they will be providing an experience that will bolster their communication in ways that most people are unskilled or unwilling to do. 


One element of communication that is expressed in the face-to-face workplace is the collision conversation — when people have unplanned conversations because their paths just happen to collide, or one stops by the office space of another. Oftentimes these conversations are purely social, but occasionally they can resolve lingering issues or important topics that have stalled for one reason or another. In either case, these collisions are important to the development of trust among a team as well as a sense of belonging. If folks on a team are working remotely, leaders should work to engineer unstructured conversations. Rather than showing up at the top of the hour, right when the meeting content starts, it would be helpful for leaders to plan 10 minutes of intentional buffer time, and talk to folks about events that they’ll be interested in or projects they’re working on. It’s important to provide opportunities for collisions. 

Yes, it is more difficult to engage with people remotely. But, as was stated earlier: Leadership is hard.

Eric M. Bailey is president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, is the bestselling author of The Cure for Stupidity and is regarded as the rising star in human and organizational communication.

Did You Know: According to study after study, when researchers ask employees, “What is the worst part about your job?” at least three of the top five responses are, regularly, related to poor communication.

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