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Book Bag: How to Communicate Well In A Virtual World

In her new book, The Virtual Executive, Debra Benton writes about how you can effectively present yourself, manage and lead using all of today’s communications channels — without seeming rote or detached. We asked her to talk about the book.

1) How has modern communication – cell phones, social media, email – changed the workplace?

It has measurably increased the number of ways that you can communicate which, when used well, improves the chances of being ‘heard’ and of ‘hearing’ others. With emails, texts, voicemail, posts, profiles, tweets, videos you have a variety of ways to get your message across in a manner it will best be received.

For example, the CEO might want a face-to-face meeting, a VP wants a video conference, a department manager prefers email, a new hire likes a text, and someone out there still wants a sticky note attached to her desk.  Another big plus is that technology enables you to get things done a whole lot faster, cheaper, and with less effort across time zones, geographic differences, and to a larger number of people.

2) How are connecting and impressing online and the phone different from doing it in person?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to positively differentiate yourself. Online and offline you want to be viewed as memorable, impressive, credible, genuine, trusted, liked, comfortable, competent, and confident.  People mistakenly think that can only be done face-to-face when you shake hands and look the person in the eye.

Actually in-person contact is fairly restrictive compared to other communication channels. For example, unfortunately, there is bias and stereotypes that people instantly react to when they meet someone who is young/old, skinny/heavy, short/tall, attractive/not so attractive. In an email, text, or on the phone you don’t have the instant unfair prejudice based on physical things — for or against you.

Because you aren’t distracted with the physicality of face-to-face (posturing, pacing, mirroring, matching) you can absorb the other person’s message better.

A big advantage that I like is that online you don’t have to respond in real time as you would if you were facing someone in person. You can take a moment to mull over your reactions, collect your thoughts, and be organized to position yourself however you want in a phone call, email, or voice or text message.

3) To find out what makes an impression when you’re not face to face, you talked to many CEOs. In a nutshell, what’d they say?

Times have changed due to technology but human nature remains the same.

4) What are common bad habits that people do on email, social media, texting and on the phone?

Like I said earlier when done well there are many advantages. Unfortunately when done poorly what you sent or said can go globally viral in about a nanosecond.   While there are many irritants that recipients have I think these are some of the biggest self-sabotaging actions people do.

  • In emails, when they take a tone in written form they’d never take in person: no greeting or sign-off, use poor grammar or overly short messages like a one word answer.
  • In social media, when people have hundreds of ‘friends’ they would never speak to in person.
  • When people text someone else while talking to you.
  • And when people such as staff, coworkers, friends or others feel you should be connected to your phone all the time. Unless you’re a brain surgeon on call you likely don’t need to constantly check for messages.

5) What specific advice would you give women on how to present themselves and stand out using today’s communication channels?

Effective female leaders (like male leaders) have to be skilled in using every communication tool available to them to get done what needs to get done.

Technology and electronic gadgets are just some of those tools just like the tools of: integrity, attitude, persuasiveness, preparation, ability to maintain others’ self-esteem, willingness to make decisions and solve problems, and success in truly connecting with people.  But to my fellow female professionals I add, “be intelligent, be funny, be themselves….confidence in yourself is a beautiful thing”.


  1. I bet this is really a good book. Need to include this on my list. Thanks for sharing this.

    And by the way, congrats to women for hire for making it on Forbes top 100 websites for women 2012.

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