Debra Benton explains the art of the virtual handshake

The executive coach and consultant offers tips for doing business in the digital world

Over the last couple of years whenever she gives a speech, executive coach and business consultant Debra Benton has found that the first questions she's asked afterward are "how do I do this on the telephone?" and "how do I do this online?"

Businesspeople who may do perfectly well dealing with others in person often have difficulty navigating virtual communications in particular, but also the increasing need to deal with remote employees and others over the phone. While the Internet means that many companies now have global reach, it also presents communication challenges, not the least of which is that it can be woefully easy to forget that "there's a human side of technology," Benton said in a recent interview.

Her new book, "The Virtual Executive: How to Act Like a CEO Online and Offline," offers a wealth of anecdotes to support strategies for establishing a virtual presence to effectively communicate, manage and lead, as well as dealing with telephone communications and videoconferencing. Although the book, which was published recently by McGraw-Hill, is aimed at executives, its tips -- including suggested email outlines for certain situations -- would be useful for anyone involved in business relationships that are conducted in cyberspace or by relying on other technology for communication.

The book got its start when a chief marketing officer at a Silicon Valley software company implored Benton, who was his executive coach, to put what she had been telling him into writing. They had spent an "intensive day" meeting one-on-one talking about how he could improve his interactions with colleagues, along with his leadership and management style. While he found that day of interaction useful at the end of it he said to her: "You need to write a book about what to do when you're not face to face. Put this in writing."

What to do starts with the "verbal handshake" in phone calls and the "virtual handshake" via email or other Internet-based technologies such as videoconferencing. Benton demonstrated over the telephone, from her home office in Colorado: "Right now, I'm talking to you without smiling," she said, her voice taking on a distinctly different tone than just a few seconds before. "Before, up until that point, and now again I'm talking to you with a slight smile," she continued, her voice sounding more cheerful and welcoming. "Can you hear that difference in just those few seconds?"

That demeanor also translates when it comes to typing an email, she said. "That kind of facial demeanor will come across in the selection of the words if you smile when you type," Benton said, likening the process to witnessing someone smiling when they're writing a text message and then smiling all the more when the reply comes through. "You know it's something fun" that they're texting about.

Beyond establishing that sort of positive energy around communications, Benton's book also explores more difficult scenarios, such as email communication, which can be subject to misinterpretation. One main tip she gives is to just slow down. "There's speed in technology and you might respond real quickly and say something you didn't mean to say or you just have a typo" that leads to miscommunication, she said.

It's often easier to say things in email that you'd never say in person, she added. Again, the ease and speed of the medium can lead to a kind of bravery (or bravado) that can be exacerbated by the ability to in effect hide behind the keyboard. "It's like when you get behind the wheel in a car and you honk and yell at people. You would never do that in the office or to your family, but there's that anonymity."

And the result can cause enormous conflict. "You may not immediately see the effect, if that person [who receives the email] isn't confident enough to respond, then it can fester into a big thing," she said, noting an anecdote from the book in which a CEO sent a compliment to an employee that was taken entirely the wrong way. In that instance, however, the employee quickly replied "what the hell do you mean by that?" While that response took the CEO aback, he was able to then sort out where and how his intended compliment had backfired and quickly rectified the misunderstanding.

One of the most consistently surprising things she has found over her years as a consultant is "how truly easy something can be misinterpreted and if it's misinterpreted it is negatively -- seldom is something misinterpreted optimistically. The irony is that we have so many ways to communicate and yet we still do it so poorly."

In fact, technology can be an enabler of poor communication. "Cowardly people do hide behind the monitor or the keyboard instead of finding the courage to say the difficult thing in person. If you're working in different parts of the world, you can't always say it in person, but if it is something that is so important then you better get on a plane and go correct it, especially if you're the leader," she said.

At the least, those who work in the virtual world need to pick up the telephone more often, particularly because one purpose of communication is "to ventilate," which isn't good to do using digital media, she said.

The book is full of real-life examples of communications that were handled poorly and well, as well as common-sense tips and tricks such as making sure that the background is professional and free of household clutter for a videoconference from your home. While that would seem to go without saying, people have told Benton they've seen, for instance, a bra draped over a chair and a cat's used litterbox in a videoconference.

"Everything I write about comes from conversations," Benton said. In the past, those conversations were often with older, more experienced executives and others who Benton looks to as mentors. "Now, with this last book, a lot of the mentoring I got was from people who are much younger than me who are technically brilliant. They look to me to provide a seasoned voice. I look to them to provide the technical voice."

Benton, who is 58, opened the book's introduction noting that by 2015 it is believed that the workforce will be one-third from the millennial generation, one-third from generation X and one-third from baby boomers. "It could get funky. The only digital interpersonal relationship and communication rule will be: there are no clear rules," she wrote.

One place to start, however, is by dropping the notion that the business world is not personal. Benton encourages her readers to get to know those they deal with so that even in email or over the phone there is that sort of personal connection, where people remember things about one another's lives and mention them.

"All of life is just personal relationships, and business whether online or off is personal relationships with people, with money and title attached, but the point is that it's all about humanity," she said.

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