Communications experts Annie Fine and Cat Clancy are teaching corporate home workers to perform better in virtual meetings and rid themselves of Zoom Resting Bitch Face. Ruth Elkins tried it.
“Are you saying that I have Zoom Resting Bitch Face?” I ask Annie Fine as she asks me to ‘find’ and then ‘use’ my ‘head voice’.
“Maybe a little bit.” she says.
“Oh.” I say, looking even more disgruntled, which probably doesn’t help.
Fine, a communications training expert, is teaching me to perform better in virtual meetings, to improve my presentation and interviewing game and effectively use my voice on Zoom calls.
The Virtual Communications Survival Guide - a course she’s been running since the first lockdown in March 2020 - helps you to harness the power of your voice on camera, teaches you how to reframe your language, use eye contact in a virtual meeting and unpacks the psychological state of body language.
It also covers how to interrupt politely when you’re not physically in the meeting room, how to say goodbye successfully in an online meeting (it’s not by waving by the way), even the neuroscience of what your hands are doing.
The course, which Fine teaches with voice and accent coach, Cat Clancy, was brought into life as millions were sent home from the office to continue their usual corporate dance from their kitchen table or bedroom desk.
And since I am also ‘WFH’ for the foreseeable – and frankly, if Fine is right about my Resting Bitch Face - this is the kind of training I (and probably many more of us) desperately need.
“When you are speaking on screen, the voice has to work twice as hard,” says Fine. “So we really focus on vocal skills – inflection and tone work - so your voice can command attention and engage the others you’re meeting and talking with on screen.”
Fine and Clancy are certainly very good at what they do. They have already spent over 10 years teaching presentation and voice skills at international companies such as Deloitte GSK, CMS, McDonalds, Shell, Time Inc, HSBC and Ernst & Young and have featured in The Guardian and on the BBC Radio 4.
We start with some vocal resonance work. The trick is to slide our notes, according to the effect and result we want from what we say – but it’s not about ‘doing a Maggie Thatcher’ in order to get those we are meeting virtually to take us seriously.
This moves us neatly onto ‘upspeak’. This is the upward inflection at the end of the sentence which many of us have copied from the likes of the Kardashians and other reality TV stars. It sounds like everything we say is a question. It is Fine’s Bete Noire.
“Using upspeak makes it sounds like you don't know what you’re talking about,” Fine says. Not a great look for a high flyer worker stripped of their suit and slick office, who is now trying to lead on a Zoom call from their garden shed. Yet again, WFH, and virtual meetings mean the voice has to do so much more.
In order that those we’re addressing take notice, it is important to know how to slide our notes up, when we start to speak, in order to come down, Fine explains. The end of the sentence needs to go down. It is a bit like talking like a newsreader and it takes energy and real focus.
We go on to learn how to ‘de-umm’. Like the dreaded upward inflection, de-umming also takes quite a lot of effort. Fine asks me to talk about what I had for breakfast, without hesitation, saying ‘so’ or ‘umm’. It is like being on the Radio 4 game show, Just a Minute and it’s hard.
She suggests pausing and taking a breath. This will allow more oxygen to the brain. “Think about what you want to say and then chunk up your sentences,” she says. It all takes so much thought. I yearn suddenly for pre-pandemic waffling and gossiping in the office kitchen.
And my Resting Bitch Face? It turns out that loads of us do it. “Mostly it’s not that you’re bored or annoyed,” admits Fine. “It’s more that you’re just concentrating. On Zoom, it’s just more noticeable.”
The trick to avoid the dreaded RBF is to ‘Eye toggle’, a technique of switching seamlessly between looking straight at your laptop camera, engaging the person or people you’re speaking with, as well as keeping your eye on your own Zoom ‘celebrity square’.
Again, tiring stuff.
We move onto physical pose. “We can’t micromanage body language, but your psychological state will manifest itself there, so you need to be aware of this when you’re in virtual meetings,” says Annie. “Because it will be noticed.”
If you need to be calm, ground yourself by placing both feet flat on the floor and pay attention to what your shoulders are doing, are they tense or raised? Best to shake out the tension before you go onto a call - like an actor preparing to go out onto stage. Ultimately doing well on Zoom, says Fine, is nailing this trinity of body, voice and energy, enabling them work in harmony.
How about our dress and make up and those nifty ring lights that light our faces nicely? Do they help us too? I ask.
“Sure, if it helps your confidence” is Fine’s reply. “But ultimately it’s about energy. The ability to adjust and calibrate your vocal and physical energy is hugely important.”
“The problem when you’re on camera is that you are seeing and being seen.” Fine admits. It takes a lot of practice to stop looking at your own reflection and concentrate on who you’re talking to, especially when business needs doing, and deals need sealing. I nod. Anyone else tend to get distracted and constantly rearrange their hair on Zoom calls?
The Covid-19 pandemic has opened the floodgates to home working, and many believe there will be no way back, despite the imminent rollout of a vaccine.
There is no doubt the training has made me more aware of myself on my laptop camera and how important it is to learn how to use my voice. But doing it well takes a lot of energy.
Practice makes perfect, Fine reminds me. And, as we settle into the long Covid winter of 2020/2021, when it comes to practicing virtual meetings and Zoom calls, well, I suspect we’ll all be getting a lot of that.