How you show up matters, even on a video call

How you show up matters, even on a video call

Numerous in-person professional events have been shifted to online only, delayed by months, or cancelled in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That doesn’t mean that we can’t strengthen connections with those we know or make new business contacts, according to Todd Cohen, a consultant, speaker, and author.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Tips for how to display presence on a video call.
  • Why presence “is the most powerful selling tool we have”.
  • The value of continuing to build connections despite a lack of in-person interaction.
  • The importance of specific questions in online meetings.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Neil Amato: The months of April and May represent for many the kickoff of conference season: travel, knowledge sessions with experts, and of course time to strengthen existing connections and make new ones through networking. In 2020, networking season has been at best put on hold with the global coronavirus pandemic either making in-person events virtual, moving them to later in the year, or cancelling them altogether. I’m Neil Amato with FM magazine, and on today’s podcast episode I talk with consultant, speaker, and author Todd Cohen. Here’s our conversation, which focuses on the ways we can continue to build business relationships even through our computer screens at home. I’d like to welcome a return podcast guest and a regular speaker over the years at conferences I’ve attended, Todd Cohen. Todd, thank you for joining me.

Todd Cohen: Neil, thanks for having me back. Always happy to spend time with you.

Amato: Todd, how can people best convey their skills with another person or company virtually, which obviously is a big thing on people’s minds right now?

Cohen: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great question. Look, we’ve all been forced into this massive pivot of working in a way that some people are accustomed to and candidly many, many are not. You know, we all have to learn to communicate differently. I have a passionate belief that we could all do this. And it’s not that much harder to do, except I’m going to ask people to practice something which you know we’re not all used to doing, because we’re all constantly reacting and now we have to be very proactive about how we come across and how we communicate and how we engage.

And that secret is how present you find yourself able to be and practising presence virtually. You know, I always say presence is the most powerful selling tool we have because people make a decision on us often before we ever say a word based on what they see.

Well, if we’re doing work virtually — and I always recommend that we do something by video because there’s nothing better than eye contact — then being present and able to convey yourself and your skills and everything you do is now more important than ever. So it’s about being present. It means we have to work a little harder at it.

Amato: And I’m going to say for the listeners, one, we’re recording on Thursday, April 2nd, just so you know kind of the time that we’re in, but two, we are recording through Zoom. I can see Todd, and Todd is a living example of being present on a video call. He is looking in the right spot. We have eye contact even though we’re looking through computer cameras. He’s got a nice sign behind him. He’s clearly thought about a lot of things.

He’s not just wearing the T-shirt that he had worn the previous three days. He’s got a nice button-down shirt on. So clearly, he knows what he’s talking about, he’s thought about some of these things.

The previous time Todd was on the podcast, it was about networking. So much of that is about your in-person interaction with people, whether it’s at a conference or a mixer, whatever. But now we have to think about networking and kind of selling ourselves, selling our interest in a job in a totally different way.

Cohen: Yeah, absolutely. There’s no difference here. And I think what people have to remember is that selling doesn’t just happen you know when you’re live with somebody. Now, obviously, I’m a little bit old school and I always believe that absolutely you should be face-to-face with somebody. Well, with Zoom or WebEx or other video, you have absolutely no excuse not to be face-to-face with somebody. So whatever the message is you’re trying to convey when you’re on video — even if you don’t have video capability, which frankly everybody does — but if you’re not using video, and you are using video, you have to show up on the other end of that electronic connection as if you’re sitting across the table from people. There is a mental edge, a mental competitiveness that you give yourself when you show up exactly as you would show up if you were going into the office.

If you default and you abdicate that opportunity, you abdicate that moment, you abdicate that energy by showing up in your fuzzy slippers or in that — as you put it — three-day-old T-shirt, whatever it might be, you know what? That comes across.

I’ve got a news flash for everybody: I don’t really want to see your fuzzy slippers. The truth of the matter is if I’m taking my time to connect with you virtually, preferably by video, I want to see you, and you have to make a decision about how you want to show up. That’s one of the very first lessons I teach in my module on presence. I’ve been teaching this one for the last four or five years across the accounting industry: Presence is a selling tool.

Well, when people first see you or first hear your voice, there’s something that’s about you that’s going to trigger them to say, “I want to continue to talk to this person” or “I don’t”. How you show up matters. How you prepare yourself before this has a huge impact on the energy that you put across. So, yes, Neil, before I did this, I changed my clothes. I have the same outfit on that I’m going to be wearing regardless, and I came ready to work. To me this is no different than if you and I were sitting across a table, although doing what I do for a living as a speaker, I would always rather be live, but I’ll take this as a stopgap for the time being.

Amato: Do you think that some people who are, I would say, like you — and while you have told me you are not truly an extrovert, you’re kind of more an ambivert, if I remember things correctly — that you’re fine being around people, but when you get back you’re kind of exhausted and ready to just be by yourself. But where I’m going with this is you clearly are comfortable speaking to people in person. Is there still an adjustment to be made to speaking to people on video?

Cohen: The answer is yes because the environment is different. Here’s what I believe is our advantage. We’re all speaking with people regardless. You know if it’s after or before COVID-19, we’re all still out in the world speaking to people. So doing it on video just takes a little bit of a shift in terms of being comfortable looking at the computer, looking at the camera. The same messages are being sent.

So whether you are the introvert or the extrovert and I’m a believer that we’re all a little bit both. Yes, when I’m done with a keynote or a workshop, I’m tired. The reality of it is that it’s your mindset that makes this different or makes it the same.

I know people who we might look at and say, “classic introverts”, who actually are doing great over video because it’s a little safer environment for them. They can control it, and for them perhaps it’s a little bit safer. I’ve seen people go both ways. This is not an excuse for somebody who says, “I’m an introvert”, to even recede more into the background, because when this is over, we need people to keep us top of mind.

Amato: Obviously, if people were planning to be at a conference this spring, April, May, June, many of those if not outright cancelled have been rescheduled to the fall or rescheduled for virtual events. How can they still make the best of that situation where they counted on some in-person time with people and they’re not going to have it?

Cohen: Yeah, that’s a great question. This really gets back to the question you asked a moment ago and I think we’re coming back to this idea of “How do we network effectively virtually?”

The first thing we have to remember is that every interaction — I always say every interaction fulfils three bold purposes. It’s a selling moment, it’s a networking moment, and it’s a coaching moment. They’re all the same thing. So with respect to networking — look, networking is about building a relationship. We all do that whether it’s on the phone or in video or in person. The trick is to put yourself out there to do it.

I think the biggest challenge people have is not using this as an excuse to say, “You know what, I don’t have to quite be there. I can just listen.” We’re going to have to push ourselves a little bit further and, when we do that, we’re going to continue to build relationships. Networking is about building relationships, it’s about the conversation we’re having, it’s about the fact that when we’re on video or if we’re just doing voice, the questions we ask make a difference. Making sure you ask people more about themselves. It’s about making sure that you use people’s names continually. It’s about making sure that you end every conversation with an ask. “Hey, I really enjoyed this conversation. Can we schedule a time to speak again?”

If we don’t look at this as any different, then we will be fine, and we will get through this. And actually what I’m noticing is that this virtual world that we’re working in right now, you know, it feels like a parallel universe. I find myself reaching out to connect with more people and having success doing it. So in an odd way I think when this is over, I’m going to have more robust relationships and having reconnected with more people, because you see now I’m making the effort to do it, and that’s what I’m finding people are doing. We have to make the effort.

If you’re going to an online conference, don’t just sit back and listen. Jump into it, engage, raise your hand, turn your camera on. Do what you need to do to be seen. Remember how you show up matters, and that sends a powerful message.

Amato: I’ve heard a lot of talk recently and I think you even used the phrase that you did this yesterday: “virtual happy hour”. Now that sounds like a fun thing, but it also sounds like a recipe for disaster, the same way a networking event can turn into a recipe for disaster. Do you have any do’s and don’ts for the casual get-together virtually, whether it’s happy hour or not?

Cohen: Well, absolutely. I mean first of all you know who you’re inviting. You know who you’re spending time with. You know, I’ve done two sorts of virtual happy hours. I’ve actually reached out to a lot of my colleagues and clients and had them all on a call, a video call, and I’ve been able to introduce people. It’s actually worked out really great.

What I’ve asked people to do is you know bring your favourite beverage and explain what you’re drinking and why you like that, for example.

I think you also have to be very careful where you’re doing it in your house. Don’t do it in a place where you don’t want people to see what’s going on behind you. You know, be aware of the photo bomber. You know, I happen to love my dog, Luna, and she’s with me a lot. Sometimes I bring her into it and often I don’t, because she’s distracting, and I want to honour other people’s times.

I think you have to decide what kind of event it is. I’m doing one at 5:30 today, and it’s a get-together of a lot of my clients and talking about two or three things that they’re doing to pivot for the business. I’ve asked them all, “Bring something to drink. We’re going to have a casual conversation.”

In a way, Neil, it’s really no different than standing at a happy hour after a conference. It’s the networking portion, having the same conversation. We just have to be a little bit more careful about what we’re willing to show in the course of that conversation.

Amato: I haven’t actually taken part in a virtual happy hour yet, in part because I haven’t really known how to behave, so thank you for giving me those tips.

Cohen: Here’s another thing I would offer, and this goes whether it’s a happy hour or a business gathering or whatever it might be. Folks, don’t overthink this. This is really no different than any other interaction you’re going to have. Would you go to the office in a T-shirt and fuzzy slippers and short pants? Probably not. And if you are, I kind of want to know where you work. But anyhow, would you show up at an online conference looking like you hadn’t showered or shaved in three days? I’m betting not.

So, take the same mental preparation and the same physical preparation and show up. People will remember that you took the time and the care to respect them as well. This is a powerful selling time and networking time for all of us.

Amato: That seems like a great way to end, but I will also ask the question I often ask at the end: What would you like to add on this topic in closing? Obviously, we’re in a totally new environment, totally unprecedented, but what would you like to say?

Cohen: Yeah, thanks. I want to send this message to everybody. We need to push ourselves a little bit harder. We need to make sure we’re not abdicating the opportunity to keep the momentum up of the relationship building that we’re required to do. There are far too many tools at our disposal that allow us to keep the momentum up: video, conference calling, all the things we’ve talked about here.

And if we continue to use those, we continue to practise basic presence, showing up like you’re showing up live, wearing something that you know is going to leave the message that you want to leave. Using people’s names continually screams engagement, screams presence. Asking people to write things down and ending every conversation with an ask. “What’s the next step?” “When will we connect again?” Don’t just say, “This has been great,” “Shoot me some dates” or “This has been awesome. Get back to me when you can.”

Everybody’s trying to pivot and figure this out. Let’s make it easier for people to be engaged with us. So when this is over — and it will end — we come out of this with better relationships because we worked a little harder now and we didn’t get lazy about it.

Amato: Todd, thank you very much.

Cohen: My pleasure, Neil. Thank you for having me. I always have fun on your podcasts.