Yesterday afternoon I ran a two-hour online training session with nine HR managers from a multinational corporation. I sat in my office in my garden in Birnam. They sat in their offices in various locations in seven different countries, from Sweden to Morocco. Only two of them were native English speakers. They were there to learn about their company’s new, more personable, tone-of-voice, and how to put it into practice when they write.
We could all hear each other, but not see each other. We could also all see the same screen which I, as the trainer, was supposed to be managing but which stubbornly refused to allow me to do so. I had to co-opt one of the invisible participants, who seemed to have the magic touch I lacked, into being my assistant and clicking through the presentation for me.
More by accident of technology than by design, it was a session about words in which words were literally the only resource available to us. There was no eye contact, no possibility of facial expression or body language or hand gestures. And there were the additional obstacles of English-as-a-foreign-language and, in some cases, soft or indistinct voices.
How did it work? Surprisingly well, in fact. To communicate in this state of semi-sensory deprivation, you have to do two things. First, pick your words extremely carefully and enunciate them very clearly. Second, invest them, or rather your voice, with as many as you can of the emotional signals that stream from all the other transmitters at your disposal in normal face-to-face contact. This might sound hard but it seems that it’s instinctive. Within a few minutes everyone had cottoned on.
In an odd, and unintended, way it was perfect – tone-of-voice training in which tone-of-voice was literally everything. It makes me think that in future writing workshops I’ll get people to speak to one another with their eyes closed. Because one way of thinking about writing is that it’s the equivalent of speaking blindfold; and yet, when it’s good, the writer can be as present as if you could see them.
The Birnam Quartet are playing a house concert in Edinburgh on Wednesday 17th March. If you’d be interested in coming to hear us, please email me as soon as you can (firstname.lastname@example.org) – numbers are very limited.