By Benjamin Perkel, J.D., Jury Consultant Advisor
Welcome to the “new frontier.”
Remote hearings, remote depositions, remote mediations/arbitrations, remote settlement conferences, remote witness preparation.[i] The list goes on and on. Remote communication is progressively replacing traditionally in-person interactions between attorneys and Judges, as well as between attorneys and their clients, co-workers and opposing counsel.
Though these types of remote activities have become much more prevalent in recent months, they have actually been available and utilized within the legal field for longer than you might think.[ii] So, while remote proceedings and interactions are not necessarily new, the fact that you are communicating remotely now more than ever, likely is. The ubiquitous use of remote communication is likely to endure, and potentially increase in the future as technology improves and institutions become more comfortable exploring additional uses for remote technology.[iii] The widespread use of remote communication is transformative and it is here to stay.
While the medium and methods of communicating may be different, the good news is that your core communication objectives remain the same and the foundations of persuasion have not changed. Accordingly, the “new frontier” requires adopting an updated persuasion paradigm and adaptive advocacy strategies to overcome the unique challenges (as well as take advantage of new opportunities) presented by remote communication. Put another way, “You can’t play today’s game with yesterday’s rules.”[iv]
In this article, I intend to (1) educate readers about why remote communication differs from in-person communication, (2) explain the SMARTTM Remote Persuasive Advocacy framework for developing, evaluating and implementing “Best Practices” for remote persuasion, and (3) provide actionable tips throughout the piece that you can implement to enhance your remote communication skills.
What makes remote communication different from in-person communication?
To understand why remote interaction is different than in-person interaction, we can look to biology, evolution, and neuroscience. As you might expect, our brains are hardwired for in-person communication[v] and our senses have evolved over thousands of years, primarily based on in-person interaction.[vi] In contrast, modern technology enabling the type of robust synchronous remote communication discussed in this article (e.g. modern videoconferencing platforms) has only been around for approximately 25 years.[vii] Consequently, our sensory and perceptual systems have had a relatively brief window of time and limited opportunities to adjust to this comparatively new form of communication.
Due to our extensive evolutionary experience with in-person interaction, it is not surprising that our brains have become accustomed to utilizing their “full nonverbal packages” available during in-person communication.[viii] Over thousands of years of relying mostly on in-person interaction, our brains evolved to convey and process information in 3-dimensional, shared environments.[ix] In contrast, remote communication occurs in physically detached, 2-dimensional settings that, by comparison, limit expressive and perceptual opportunities. Furthermore, neuroscientists have discovered and teach us that our brains respond differently to information received remotely.[x]
As we journey further into the “new frontier” it is critical for remote presenters to tailor their content, presentation style, and delivery to account for the ways remote audiences receive and process information differently than in-person audiences. Consequently, successful remote persuasion requires purposeful adjustments to how you execute your advocacy strategies.
Regardless of whether you are persuaded by science-based explanations, have personally “felt” the differences between remote communication and in-person interaction, or simply believe it “just makes sense” that communication in a shared environment is different from communicating remotely, the takeaway is the same: Remote communication is different than in-person communication, and therefore requires an updated persuasion playbook to be successful.
The SMARTTM Model of Remote Persuasive Advocacy
With a basic understanding of the underlying reasons remote communication differs from in-person communication, the next step is exploring how those differences manifest themselves and what you can do to achieve your remote persuasive objectives. To accomplish this, I developed the SMARTTM Remote Persuasive Advocacy system as a structure to explore how “doing things differently” can enhance the effectiveness of your advocacy strategies. Let’s look at each element of the SMART system.
S stands for Start with the Basics. This means beginning your trek into the “new frontier” by building upon familiar foundations of persuasion: Ethos[xi], Logos[xii], and Pathos[xiii] (and Brevity[xiv]). These concepts can be effective anchors to help you understand how your remote advocacy choices can advance (or hinder) your persuasive goals.
M stands for Modify for the Medium. This means accounting for medium-specific differences between remote communication and in-person interaction. Some examples discussed in greater detail below deal with how you make eye contact, limitations on non-verbal communication, emphasis on facial expressions, and accounting for attentional issues.
A stands for Accentuate effective information delivery tactics. This means emphasizing many of your core persuasion techniques, including strategic chunking and sequencing of information, maximizing the primacy and recency effect, and using vivid imagery to connect with remote audiences.
R stands for Review from an Audience-Focused Perspective. This means thinking about your presentation, delivery, and content based upon how they are likely to be received and perceived by a remote audience. A common theme amongst successful presenters is understanding how to meet an audience’s needs and considering the best ways to capture and maintain their attention throughout the persuasive process.
T stands for take control of Technology. This means understanding the types of technology and technological equipment at the core of remote communication and learning how to utilize them to enhance (not detract from) your remote persuasiveness.
SMART: Start with the Basics
Start with the Basics by reviewing the foundations of persuasion: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Another fundamental tool of persuasion, Brevity, is also included because of its unique importance for remote communication. Reminding ourselves of these rhetorical principles, and how they impact persuasion, provides a framework to discuss “best practices” for remote persuasion and a context to assess the potential effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of our remote communication strategies.
Ethos[xv] relates to the credibility of a presenter. Maximize ethos by:
- Being competent, trustworthy, and dynamic
- Sharing your credentials and/or relevant personal experience
- Presenting a balanced and non-coercive argument
- Citing credible sources
- Using appropriate language and grammar
- Being likable and humble
Logos[xvi] relates to the reasoning and logic of your arguments. Maximize logos by:
- Presenting factual, objective information that serves as reasons to support your arguments
- Presenting a sufficient number of relevant examples to support a proposition
- Building conclusions from known information
- Providing credible supporting material including expert testimony, definitions, statistics, and analogies
Pathos[xvii] relates to the arousal of audience emotion. Maximize pathos by:
- Using vivid language to paint word pictures for your audience
- Using figurative tools such as metaphor, similes, and personification
- Providing lay testimony that speaks to human elements
- Varying your voice, cadence, posture, and repetition
Brevity relates to expressing your arguments and supporting information as compactly as possible without sacrificing the quality of the message.[xviii] Due to attentional constraints imposed by remote communication, keeping presentations short and to the point is particularly important on the “new frontier.”[xix]
Each of these rhetorical devices (Ethos, Logos, Pathos, Brevity) can serve as conceptual anchors to guide your remote advocacy decisions and help you develop persuasive presentations that are most likely to resonate with your audience. Accordingly, keep these concepts in mind as you consider modifications required by remote communication, accentuating core persuasion principles to help overcome remote communication related challenges (and take advantage of remote communication related opportunities), reviewing your presentations from a remote audience perspective, and taking control of the technology involved in remote communication.
SMART: Modify for the Medium
Modify for the Medium by understanding and accounting for medium-specific differences between remote communication and in-person interaction. I suggest you think about the adjustments discussed below to address threshold challenges and as new opportunities to enhance your remote persuasive advocacy.
It is also important to note that remote presenters and remote audiences each face their own unique challenges and opportunities. Therefore, the challenges and opportunities discussed below are broken into four unique (but related) categories:
- Remote Presenter Challenges
- Remote Audience Challenges
- Remote Presenter Opportunities
- Remote Audience Opportunities
Unique challenges facing remote presenters
From the presenter’s perspective, challenges primarily relate to the availability, use and effectiveness of non-verbal communication tools. More specifically, a remote presenter has reduced access to non-verbal expressive tools, subject to a couple of exceptions. For example, the camera typically only captures presenters from the shoulders up. This has important implications for the types of nonverbal communication you typically should (and should not) utilize. Nonverbal signals commonly used during in-person interactions, such as hand gestures, are unlikely to be seen by the camera when presenting remotely.[xx] A related consequence of a “tight close-up” is that it tends to place increased importance on your facial expressions.[xxi] Accordingly, it is critical to be even more purposeful and careful about making sure your facial expressions are congruent and consistent with your arguments.
Additionally, how you employ certain non-verbal cues when communicating remotely can be very different than how you employ them in-person. For example, the way you make eye contact with a remote audience is significantly different than in-person eye contact. When in-person, you are likely accustomed to achieving eye contact by looking directly into another person’s eyes. Conversely, accomplishing eye contact remotely requires training your eyes to focus on the camera, not the audience’s faces as they appear on your screen.[xxii] One tip to help focus your eyes on the camera when speaking is to place a photo of a person who you like speaking with just above or beyond the camera lens to simulate an in-person experience.
Unique challenges confronting remote audiences
A remote audience’s challenges are primarily attention related. We know that remote audiences have shorter attention spans and feel fatigued faster than in-person audiences.[xxiii] Remote audiences also face a greater risk of distraction, both from their own and other participants’ physical environments. Fortunately, you can accommodate for these types of challenges by accentuating a variety of effective information delivery tactics.[xxiv]
Unique opportunities for remote presenters
Remote communication also offers opportunities that are not available when persuading in-person. First, you get to control the lighting, whereas it is largely outside of your control when presenting in-person. This may seem like a subtle detail, but how well an audience is able to see your face is really important when communicating remotely. After all, your facial expressions and eyes are your primary nonverbal expressive tools in remote communication, so it is essential to make sure your face is well lit so the audience can see the cues you want to convey.[xxv]
Additionally, remote communication allows you to choose what appears behind you, whereas the setting of in-person interactions is dictated by the location you are in, such as a courtroom, Judge’s chambers, or conference room. As remote presenters you have an opportunity to set the scene by choosing a virtual background that conveys an appropriate context and emotional tone. The key takeaway is that you have a choice and the setting you select can help provide a foundation to reinforce your persuasive communication objectives.
However, you must also be aware of some caveats for selecting virtual backgrounds. These include, but are not necessarily limited to, ensuring that the background: does not distort how you appear (e.g. over/under pixelation), does not cause green screen effect (e.g. floating head), and does not have the potential to distract from you or your presentation (e.g. a library of books with the titles visible that may distract attention from your presentation).[xxvi]
Unique opportunity for remote audiences
Because remote audiences are usually viewing a close-up of your face, it provides them a unique opportunity to see deeply into your eyes. This principle is supported by feedback from participants in a recent online mock trial demonstration conducted by the Online Courtroom Project. In that study, mock jurors reported that close-up views helped them form quicker connections with presenters, which they described as a useful tool for assessing credibility.[xxvii] Accordingly, further research on how audiences judge credibility without being in the same room as the person being assessed appears worthy of further exploration.
Bonus Tip: There is much you can learn about modifying for the medium from other disciplines that have more extensive experience utilizing remote communication technology. Take advantage of opportunities to observe, study, and emulate how other types of professionals, like actors, businesspeople, educators, news reporters, and others successfully communicate with remote audiences.
SMART: Accentuate effective information delivery tactics
Accentuate effective information delivery tactics by emphasizing and (in most cases) amplifying core persuasion techniques. Consequently, when advocating remotely, consider using more of the tactics discussed below and (in most cases) applying them at intensified levels. Put another way (in most cases), turn it “up to eleven” [xxviii] in terms of both breadth and depth when selecting and implementing the following tools for remote presentations.
Chunking & Sequencing[xxix]
How you organize, structure, and sequence your presentation is always important, regardless of whether you are live in a courtroom or interacting remotely. When presenting remotely, you must account for the fact that remote audiences looking at a screen have shorter attention spans than their in-person counterparts. To address these attentional issues effectively, your chunking and sequencing decisions take on increased importance in remote communication.
Focus on structuring remote presentations into shorter segments (i.e. more smaller chunks). In addition to helping maintain a remote audience’s attention, breaking your presentation into a greater number of smaller pieces also maximizes the positive effects of primacy and recency, as each segment offers its own opportunities to capitalize on an audience’s recollection of what they see/hear first and last.
Clarity & Simplicity[xxx]
A primary objective of presenting in any medium is to provide accessible content that is easy for your audience to understand. Due to inconsistencies in remote audience technology and the physical distance between you and your audience, remote presentations require heightened clarity and simplicity.
For example, it is unlikely that you will know the quality and specifications of every remote audience member’s technological equipment. Accordingly, rigorously apply the principles of clarity and simplicity to design remote-audience-friendly exhibits and demonstratives (e.g. checklists).
Clarity and simplicity also help to minimize potential for confusion. Due to the physical distance between you and your remote audience, you will not have the same ease of opportunities to clarify information. While clear, simple, and universally understood analogies and metaphors are essential to communicating the core elements of your arguments, they also help minimize the chances of audience misunderstanding by making the gist of your arguments readily accessible.[xxxi]
The importance of being concise serves as another reminder that remote audiences have shorter and less resilient attentional capabilities than in-person audiences. Because a remote audience is burdened with the strain of receiving your presentation through a screen, it is critical to harness as much of their cognitive energy as possible. Consequently, condensing your remote presentations as much as possible will help minimize cognitive load on remote audiences, and therefore increase the likelihood of learning. Accordingly, the more concise a remote presentation is, the more likely your audience will understand the content and be persuaded by your arguments. Some examples of ways to be concise include using images instead of words and using shorter sentences.[xxxiii]
Building connections with remote audiences may seem more difficult due to being physically separated from the presenter. However, using present tense and active voice can be powerful ways to establish important connections during remote communication. Communicating in the present tense draws an audience into the story you are showing and telling them. Providing information in active voice allows audiences to experience the story as if it were happening in real time. Guiding an audience through your story in the present tense invites them into the plot and active voice enables them to develop meaningful connections with the characters and events.
Exploiting the primacy and recency effect by strategically placing crucial information at the beginning and end of presentation segments (as well as at the beginning and end of entire presentations) should always be part of your advocacy repertoire. Research indicates that people tend to most easily remember information that appears at the beginning and end of a learning session. Given what we know about the delicate nature of remote audience attention, maximizing the primacy and recency effect can enhance the likelihood that your key points will be accurately received, properly understood, and correctly remembered.
Employing sensory words and images can help transport an audience into the world you create via your presentation. Captivating imagery is particularly useful in storytelling to help audiences empathize with the characters.
We all have some sort first-hand experience interacting with vivid imagery communicated remotely. Who amongst us hasn’t chuckled or teared-up while reading a novel or a news story? Who amongst us hasn’t felt the excitement or heartache of a TV or movie character? As an advocate you want to emulate how authors and TV/Film writers use vivid imagery to cultivate important connections with remote audiences.
Varying your cadence, inflection, intonation, and volume can send subtle, but important signals that signify importance, build suspense, evoke emotion, and attract your audience’s attention. Interacting in-person, you have broader access to nonverbal tools like hand gestures and varying physical proximity to convey those concepts than when communicating remotely. Consequently, vocal variety plays an even greater role in delivering persuasive presentations to remote audiences.
An Exception to the Rule – A Note About Repetition[xl]
I discuss repetition separately because of its special power and its special risks. If not used judiciously, too much repetition can conflict with your goal of accommodating remote audiences’ fragile and less resilient attentional capacities. However, this does not mean the underlying principles supporting the effectiveness of repetition should be abandoned. You can still consider utilizing repetition but dialing it down and delivering each repetition in different packaging.
Whenever you use repetition in a remote presentation, try to provide the content differently for each reference. One way to do this is by varying between verbal and visual representations. You can also utilize a variety of analogies and metaphors that communicate similar meaning to highlight the core claims and principles of your arguments. The key to remember is that, if you plan on utilizing repetition to persuade remotely, don’t overdo it.
SMART: Review from an Audience-Focused Perspective
Review from an Audience-Focused Perspective by undergoing a “role reversal” to explore how you and your presentation content are likely to be perceived and received by your audience.[xli] Evaluating your presenting skills and considering your arguments from the audience’s perspective are always useful tools to help you prepare persuasive presentations, and they become even more critical when preparing presentations for remote audiences.
Due to the differences between in-person and remote interactions (as well as the relative “newness” of synchronous long-distanced communication technology), it is crucial to assess remote presentations from a remote audience perspective. This means learning about how remote audience’s information-receiving needs are different than in-person audience needs and applying those lessons to your remote presentations (hopefully you’ve learned a bit about those differences and how to be a better remote communicator if you’ve made it this far into the article). It also means seeking feedback from people who observe you presenting remotely and applying what you learn to make your presentations more remote audience friendly.
If you are new to remote advocacy, remember that it, like anything you have previously mastered, comes with a learning curve. Learning and practicing new skills takes time. Even professional actors experience a learning curve when transitioning from stage to screen.[xlii] Considering remote communication from an audience-focused perspective can immediately help to guide your remote advocacy decisions as you gain more experience. Getting reliable feedback from trustworthy sources can only help accelerate your growth as a remote persuader. Even if you have been advocating remotely for years, devote some time to assessing/re-assessing your remote persuasion capabilities from a remote audience perspective. You might be surprised at what you discover.
The most valuable feedback you are likely to receive will come from unbiased strangers recruited for online focus groups. However, you may also be able to obtain useful information from colleagues, family members, or friends who you know will provide honest and constructive critiques. You can even evaluate yourself from the audience’s perspective, by watching recordings of remote presentations you have given. The usefulness of this final method, however, will vary based on how candid you can be with yourself. Whichever method suits your circumstances, spend some time in your remote audiences’ shoes to understand their needs, expectations, and concerns.
When evaluating your remote communication skills and remote presentation content, keep the following considerations in mind:
SMART: Take Control of Technology
Take Control of Technology by ensuring your technological capabilities are up to the task. Obviously, if you are not able to properly transmit your persuasive messages, the audience will have little, if any, reason to be persuaded. Perhaps less apparent is that your technological competence can impact your overall credibility. According to a phenomenon called the Halo Effect[xliii], conveying competence in one area (e.g. technology) can influence audiences to perceive you as competent in other areas, thus enhancing your credibility. On the other hand, showing a lack of competence (e.g. with technology) can spill over and have a deleterious effect on your message and your credibility. Consequently, it is critical to either achieve technological competence through practice and experience or be wise enough to seek assistance when you need it. A good place to start is by evaluating your technological equipment and comfort with operating technology as part of a Technological Capabilities Assessment.
First ask yourself (and answer) some basic questions about your equipment, such as:
While a full Technological Capabilities Assessment would likely go into further detail and depth (and include answers), this illustrates the types of questions that can help you begin determining how you can attain better control over technology.
Additionally, don’t forget about utilizing aspects of remote presentations that you cannot control in-person. Consider how you might strategically select virtual backgrounds to set the appropriate scene for different types of remote communication sessions. Many occasions will require formality; however, other situations might call for a less daunting setting. Utilize effective lighting so your audience can clearly see your eyes and facial expressions. To accomplish that, consider employing a variety of external light sources to help you look your best.[xliv]
Though technology may not always work perfectly, it is important to understand what technology can and cannot do. It is also important to recognize the aspects of technology you can and cannot control. Additionally, take advantage of new opportunities to set the scene and present yourself in the best light. Whether you tame technology all by yourself, or with some assistance, technology is an integral part of remote persuasive communication that must not be neglected. Make technology your friend. Do not let it become your foe.
Do not try to “play today’s game with yesterday’s rules.”[xlv] Utilize what you have learned in this article to update your persuasion playbook and optimize your remote advocacy strategies for the “new frontier.”
Benjamin Perkel, J.D. is a Jury Consultant Advisor to the Civil Jury Project and can be reached at SmartPersuasion@gmail.com. Ben applies his knowledge of psychology, social science research, and persuasive communication techniques to help lawyers prepare and present compelling arguments tailored to the various audiences they encounter during the litigation lifecycle.