Debra Benton explains the art of the virtual handshake

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

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

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.

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