Turn off the MUTE (and 5 ways to lead your people)

Stewart Bewley

Years ago I was a singing assistant to Carrie and David Grant. It was a brilliant job — turning up to corporate gigs and watching them coach hundreds of people (or a handful of Senior Executives) on how to tell their story through song…

Through song? How the heck did they get people to do that? Ultimately they brought so much energy to each job that it was infectious. They got people to turn off their internal mute button, open their mouths, sing and connect with their colleagues. Now we live in a world where people are literally on mute and their videos turned off for entire meetings. And this is a problem. Andy Stanley recently said in a podcast “People need to hear our voices — our voices are more important that our words and our presence is more important than our presentation”. He was talking about leaders, but let’s expand this to everyone on a Zoom call.

We all need connection. If you have ever presented on a Zoom call to mute faces, or no video you will know full well how isolating it can feel, how energy sapping it can be. It just feels awkward when you are talking to a wall of silence. Nobody wakes up saying “ I can’t wait to present to people who will give me absolutely no feedback. I love a bit of mute”. But we do this everyday. When Carrie and David asked their clients to stand up and sing, David would often say “Your joy is so deep it hasn’t reached your face”. There are a lot of people in a lot of meetings right now who have deep joy. Good for them — nightmare for anyone they are presenting to!

It has been 114 days in Lockdown in the UK. It only takes 66 days for something to embed as a habit, for behaviour to become automatic, which means that we are now embedded with habits that are bad. We have gone “how to get through” to “too exhausted to change anything” to “stuck in a rut”. It’s time to call your people out of their rut. But be warned, what I suggest below will make you unpopular, mis-represented and you will have to work harder than ever before. Here are 5 things that will set you apart as a leader in this time:

1) Say the Elephant in the room.

Everyone is struggling, everyone is Zoom-exhausted and getting into bad habits, so start your meeting by asking people to step out of this. Say something like “Hi everyone — before we start can I ask you all to turn your cameras on — I would love to see your lovely faces and turn your mic off mute. If there is an echo I will ask you to mute, but it would be great to see and hear you”. And then wait. I role played this with a client today and although I felt a little bit offended that he was asking me to turn my camera on, once it was on I was in. I was engaged. If you don’t do it, you will spend the meeting wishing you had, wondering what people are really thinking, faced with lots of “Deep joy” participants.

2) Invite people into the story.

Until we are in the story, we are out. If I know I won’t be asked to contribute I will tune out. But if you let me know “After the update I am going to be calling on people for feedback, because your opinion matters” you are not letting me escape. In fact more than that, you are giving me skin in the game. I am alert, ready and a better worker for it.

3) Play headline bingo.

Steve Morris, our COO and one of our Senior Coaches does this all the time with our clients. How many headlines can you spot in a presentation? The more you can spot the more your audience will spot. And we all love a good headline. They are what draw us to buying newspapers, reading news apps. They don’t have to be super funky, they just have to be relevant and point to where you are going — “I’m going to talk about version 3 and how we need to re-invent it”.

4) Deliver on your headline as quickly as possible with as much picture as possible.

Don’t wait for line 4 of your update to be interesting, do it on line 1. Tell them where you are going — break the uncertainty and the monotonous drone we are all used to and be direct. Two thirds of our brains are wired for picture, so take advantage of that and use the wires that are there to keep your audience with you.

5) Don’t chicken out.

Do call on people and ask for their opinion. If you chicken out and revert to “any questions” you will see and hear tumbleweed. There is a reason your people are in their job. Now more than ever is their chance to shine and your chance to stand up as a leader. Expect push back and lethargy. It is one of the new normals.

What if the other new normal was you giving your people their energy back?