My blog posts this week are adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me?, to be published by Harvard this month.  Please consider clicking on the link below and purchasing a copy.  I provide this blog as a free resource to people who care about public speaking, neuroscience, and communications, and selling books helps to keep this blog going.  In the first part, I discussed what current research is telling us about the uses of virtual connection, specifically through social media, in the workplace. 

So, as I indicated in the first part of this post, the research shows that the use of social media can help strengthen work connections, with colleagues, on teams, with customers.  But what we’re talking about is making a bad situation just a little bit better.  Overall, the statistics on how employees feel about their companies are terrible. If you’re a top executive, you should be very, very afraid. Two-thirds of your workers are alienated.  A quarter of them are actively trying to destroy you from within.  Along with that, your customers don’t like you either – trust in brands and institutions has never been lower.  The only group that rates pretty highly are firefighters, so apparently you have to be willing to risk your life by running toward a burning building to build trust with the average person in this half-online-half-face-to-face world.

Is there any way that we can help make online connections better?  How can we turn online connections into commitments?  Is that even possible?  After all, we humans still crave commitment, a happy state that is increasingly rare in this suspicious, angry era.

One of the problems in the virtual world is that we have fewer ways to judge the reality of the commitment than in the real world. To put it simply, people are more inclined to kick the tires—with suspicion—in the digital world, because they can’t see you and judge your intent very clearly. They believe that they don’t know what they’re getting.

In the virtual world, you can’t accomplish the same kind of gut check that leads to a handshake deal in the real world. So maybe you decide to trust reluctantly and provisionally, or maybe not. It’s much harder to get closure in the virtual world, especially when the stakes are higher than, say, buying a paperback book on Amazon.

What’s the solution?  We need to stop treating online communications as if they were merely feeble face-to-face connections.  That’s fighting the last war.  We need to learn how to signal that we’re in a different environment with different concerns.  We need to figure out how to ‘up’ the transparency in order to strengthen trust.  We need to figure out how to increase the depth of the online relationship in order to make it more ‘sticky’.  We need to figure out how to personalize the impersonal feel of an online connection.  Amazon realized this early on and added third-party testimonials to its book pages, and then every other kind of page.  Now, few of us can imagine buying something without being able to see the ratings, the comments, and the opinions of a host of customers who have come before us.

Ultimately, people crave human emotional connection—in everything. We are social beings. At the end of all our efforts to insulate and isolate ourselves from human pain, inconsistency, and abandonment, both in our work and personal lives. we always come back for more. We want our virtual connections to feel the same as our in-person ones—just as real, just as satisfying, just as emotionally compelling—but they can’t fill that need.

We need news ways of connecting, that give us all the transparency, testing, and trust that we desire, in order to believe in the virtual connection.  Lacking the face-to-face reading of intent, we need to give our colleagues, our teams, and our customers much, much stronger and clearer virtual intent.

What does that look like?  Just like Amazon, we have to go the extra virtual mile in everything to do with connection.  Don’t make people google you – give them the results so that they feel you’re transparent and have nothing to hide.  Invest your connections with emotion, so that they’ll lead to commitment.  And tell stories that make your intent in all things really, really clear.  That’s how you get the virtual ball rolling.  Make it impossible for people to misunderstand your virtual intent, so that they feel you are truly trying to connect with them, and you may move them toward commitment.



  1. Nick, I’m grateful that you are talking about this topic. In my experience, many business leaders are in denial about the impact of the new norm – virutal communication. This book should be required reading at every B School. I predict it will be.

    When trust is present, the work is easy. Otherwise…not so much.

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