Learning to Listen in the Zoom Age


Words by Danny Buckland

Agendas are now stacked with video conferencing meetings as companies attempt to knit together the strands of their remote staff into a collaborative force during the pandemic. Replacing 90 minutes in a stuffy conference room with a shorter virtual session from the comfort of a home setting can yield huge benefits, but the world of Zoom is also fraught with challenges. As the pharmaceutical industry prevails over one of the greatest healthcare crises of our time, we look at what obstacles arose and how these virtual snag points can be overcome to ensure that communication prospers and thrives.


Long periods on mute can dull the senses, leading to levels of disengagement that stifle any progress and sharing of scientific data – a critical element of the industry’s response to COVID-19. “Virtual meetings can be sterile affairs,” says Sarah Gershman, a distinguished speech coach who works with Fortune 50 company executives and government agencies. “It is very hard to get the visual clues and be clear who is going to speak and who is really engaged with proceedings,” she says. “It can feel tough to get your point across so participants spend a lot of time working out what they are going to say and when, rather than listening to others. Meetings can become unproductive with people getting on with their emails and other work while waiting for their turn to give an update.”


Zoom became one of the fastest growing tech companies in 2020 peaking at 350 million daily users last year and few companies can function without it. They have become invaluable and it is likely that most companies will retain the facility even after pandemic restrictions are lifted.


“It is a great technological tool but the important thing to consider is that it is nothing without human input,” adds Gershman, who is also President, Green Room Speakers and Adjunct Professor, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University. “In the pharma and healthcare sectors, there are the challenges of presenting scientific and technical data that can appear flat, so it is important to build a story and give it a narrative,” she says. “Without that, there is a danger that data is missed, and, in a research-based field, that can be costly because you will have to go back over information and data. A culture of thoughtful and active listening is not a question of good behaviour; it actually leads to higher productivity and efficiency.”


Active listening is not a question of good behaviour; it actually leads to higher productivity and efficiency

Gershman advocates planning meetings with clear objectives, which include elements that directly involve and encourage everyone to contribute, rather than a procession of updates. She also favours shorter, sharper meetings that can be approached like interval training with bursts of activity. “This approach sets goals and reduces the chances of distraction… But the prime asset you can bring to a meeting is the ability to be a listener because listeners connect the dots so that everyone feels heard,” she says. “You should approach a meeting with the mindset of ‘I want to hear, I want to listen, and I want to be helpful’. In the same way, facilitators should be clear on the purpose of the meeting and what value is needed so that everyone can both listen to others and contribute.”