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It’s a bit tatty now, but sitting on my bedside table is my turquoise Five Year Diary.  Each night, just before light’s out, I jot down two or three sentences about the day that’s been.  And I glance back at what I was getting up to 1, 2, 3, 4 years earlier.  

Wednesday 7 April was the anniversary of my first Virtual workshop, and I marked the moment with a modest glass of wine that evening.  That workshop was to become the first of five free ‘pilots’, as I tested the tech and explored the possibilities of delivering meaningful thoughts on crystal clear communications to my clients — down a lens.   Since then, I have delivered 55 more, to paying clients. 

One year on, here are five things I’ve learnt about virtual meetings — that could help you get ahead of your competition, and keep you and your staff happy. 


1  It’s a chance to look really smart (while everyone else is just looking scruffy.)  I base all my Newsroom Secrets on what I learnt in my three decades working for BBC News.  A fundamental principal is that when you’re on air, you look the part: lighting, backdrop, clothes.  Yet our new virtual world has revealed CEOs in what looks like a back bedroom, MPs showing off inappropriate artwork, campaigning spokespeople in silhouette.  Investing in a £150 pop up green screen, and downloading a relevant logo or neutral backdrop, could have transformed a badly lit mess into a powerful and professional message. 

2  Thrill your staff by ending your meeting on time (or even early).   Quite a few articles are appearing now about how damaging it can be to have too many back-to-back virtual meetings.  Once they start to over-run, we stumble into a culture of joining late, ending later still and irritating people for whom it’s easier than ever to abandon the meeting altogether.  My Newsroom Secret here may sound a touch uptight, but it works when you’re directing a broadcast news bulletin, and it works in a broadcast meeting.  Be really clear on timings.  Invite participants to take, say,  “30 seconds each” if you’re seeking a range of opinions from a zoom room of 10 people.  If things do slip, as they will, have something at the end that you can always cut back. (In our news bulletins, it’s the live weather forecast.)  Of course, these are basic skills useful for any meeting … but they’re more important than ever when peering down a lens at people who can so easily slip away without anyone noticing. 

3  Your Router is your comfort blanket (and is worth some TLC)  Many years ago, a BBC engineer gently explained to me how the new era of broadcasting (using the internet) would help me get my edited news report on air, without needing a motorbike and despatch rider to speed the tape to the newsroom 35 miles away.  “Basically, John, we get four SIM cards and shove them up the a*se of this rocket fuel router we got in from China” he advised me.   I’ve since discovered, albeit more delicately, that I too can have comfort blanket connectivity by going online and finding a rocket fuel router.  It’s been a tiny bit of hassle, but the peace of mind it gives as I deliver my workshops is worth the investment.   But … 

4  You need a Plan B (because everything can fail sometimes.)  My 54th virtual workshop last week took an unusual turn.  The clients paying me couldn’t see the news clips I was playing them via my shared screen.  My sharing screen had simply frozen.  It’s a very long story, involving a rather stressful afternoon of me testing my monitor, ethernet cable, router, adaptor, laptop, slides and videos.  I resorted to Zoom’s (excellent) customer support.   And I was mightily relieved to discover that it wasn’t my fault — clients have been reporting all sorts of problems with Macs following upgrades to the new Big Sur software.  The solution that saved me (and meant my clients got their workshop, albeit a few minutes late) was this.   Have a spare laptop if you can.  Expensive perhaps, but worth considering next time you upgrade your current one. 

5  Our virtual world is here to stay (and that’s something to celebrate.)  I am looking forward to Friday 23 April, when I am due to deliver a face to face workshop to a client and her team, within the rules, in an office-marquee she’s rigged up in her garden in Sussex.  I can’t wait to pour myself some coffee and watch participants as they reach for the biscuits in a space with chairs and name-badges laid out on a horseshoe table.  But I can also celebrate the fact that without leaving my front door this year, I’ve worked with people from Toronto to Sydney, Lima to Stockholm, Singapore to Istanbul.  That’s good for our planet, and good for my business. 

The journey we’ve all shared this past year, I think, has been the journey just beyond our comfort zones.  We’ve all been at it:  downloading and installing, comparing platforms, sharing our screens again and again and again. 

There’ll be more to learn along the way.  But I’m confident 7 April next year will be another day for a quiet celebration.  More workshops smoothly delivered to help clients smoothly deliver their messages.  Maybe I’ll replace that modest glass of wine with a larger glass of champagne.

If you’d like some to discover how to Make Your Next Virtual Meeting as Professional As A BBC News Broadcast, give me a call on 07850 188620 — or click here to find out more about my range of virtual communications workshops

I thought that would get your attention. If you haven’t yet seen the 40 second clip of a hapless lawyer stranded on Zoom with his face transformed into that of a slightly distressed kitten, you’re in a dwindling minority across the globe.  You’ll need to have seen it to make sense of my Newsroom Secret this month, though, so here it is again: 

I reckon there are a couple of quick win lessons here for us all in the world of business.

If you work in Communications … 

This is a case-study in how many of us who communicate for a living sometimes forget to ask … what’s the one thing my audience want to know here?

The coverage on BBC Radio 4’s esteemed Today programme was a case in point.  I’m a true believer in the role that programme plays in our nation’s mornings.  I’ve appeared on it myself once or twice.  But now that I’m ex-BBC, I feel able to comment with raised eyebrow about some of the BBC’s output too.  

Their coverage the following morning was, quite rightly, great fun.  But I think it missed a huge opportunity.  

Can I have been the only listener gasping to know … how did it happen, and how can I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?   This interview left me none the wiser.

I had to google it to find out that if you click on the drop down bar next to the STOP VIDEO button at the foot of the screen on Zoom, you can then CHOOSE VIDEO FILTER.  Some computers will have off-the-peg filters available, some won’t.  There are a few factors involved, it seems.  And I know all this thanks to Geoffrey A Fowler, of The Washington Post — a journalist who didn’t forget that fundamental truth when reporting: ask yourself what your audience might be asking themselves.  Here’s his article. 

So next time you’re thinking about a product you sell, or a service you provide, or a message to your staff, remember to ask yourself: what’s the one thing that my customer/client/member of staff actually needs to know here? 

If you work in PR …

This is a case-study in turning a disaster into a triumph.  You may have been puzzled to see the clear instruction that recording or broadcasting of this image was illegal.  And yet here it is, broadcast across the globe. 

That’s because the judge himself decided to release the footage.   He saw the opportunity to show a public, which may be wary of the law and its complexities, that the law has a human side, too.  He wanted people to know that we’re all fallible.  

This delights me.  I spent many hours of my BBC career observing courtroom life, quietly shocked at the disdain with which some of its staff seemed to treat some of the media and, by extension, the public, on whose behalf we were all working.  

So next time you have your head in your hands because of some perceived disaster in your own organisation, ask yourself: is this also an opportunity? 

And finally … if you’re a business leader … 

You might imagine that the lawyer in this case, Rod Ponton, would have quietly switched his phone off once the footage was released, and curled up for a couple of weeks more tightly than a kitten in a basket.  But he didn’t.  Mr Ponton himself accepted Radio 4’s invitation to appear on the programme, and have a good laugh about it.  It was one of many appearances that day, he said. 

Rod Ponton was a serious professional not taking himself too seriously. 

Within 24 hours of this story breaking, I was playing it as part of my masterclass helping businesses to look more polished on Zoom.  My initial thought was to use it simply to raise a smile and break the ice.  But I now realise it’s much more powerful than that.  

Thank goodness for broadminded judges, and professionals with a sense of humour. They chose not to hide behind a filter, and they’ve helped us all as a result. 

Want to have a go reading the news?

Click below to discover what it’s like to read the news off a moving teleprompter!


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