The rise in working from home because of COVID-19 has created the need for more research about communications and the virtual world. Much remains to be learned, but communication research dealing with the human animal can be instructive.

A New Reality

Working from home often entails group video meetings on platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. These virtual workspaces have enabled groups to remain productive and replicate something approximating their old workspaces.

These new meeting places, however, are fraught with challenges:

People are unfamiliar with new software. People have connectivity issues. People talk over each other. People face myriad distractions (pets and family members being high on the list).

The Science

So what does the science tell us about communicating in virtual spaces?

1. Trust in the source of the material is paramount.

According to the research, trust is probably assessed in the first 30 seconds or less.

Let that sink in.

If trust is withheld, communication becomes much more difficult. Because the cues for making a trust decision are largely visual, virtual meetings make those cues harder to receive and evaluate. So trust is more difficult to achieve, and virtual communication is harder.

2. Audience evaluation of the material and the circumstance affect whether people will hear, understand, and remember the material being discussed.

Research says risk evaluation (weighing the risk the information may present even if that risk is minimal) comes into play here, because perceived risk can significantly reduce the effectiveness of the communication.

3. Mental noise can reduce a person’s ability to hear, understand, and remember information by as much as 80%, especially if the information poses significant risk.

In this context, mental noise is anything that competes for your attention while you’re meeting. Mental noise is greatly magnified during virtual communication. The greatest source of such noise in virtual communication is technical difficulty. Reduction of technical interference is therefore paramount if communication is to be enhanced in a virtual setting.

Pathway Prompt: Take a few minutes and list things that bother you about virtual meetings. Did anything surface from the three items above? Using the science, what can you do to improve communications?

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication. This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.

More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.


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