This week brings the much-anticipated annual meeting of my professional association, MEDA (Michigan Economic Developers Association).  I’m looking forward to seeing friends from around the state for the first time in well over a year, and there will be several new leaders in attendance that I need to meet for personal and professional reasons.  The event will be held in person, and masks are required for all participants.  But how do you network wearing a mask?

I resorted to SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) for some answers and found some very good advice from Dustin York, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate and Graduate Communications at Maryville University, on how to build rapport while wearing a mask.

Practice Your Mask Voice 

The quality of your voice makes a big difference in how people respond emotionally to what you say, and this is true in both personal and professional interactions. Even if we say the exact same things but in different tones, people respond differently. When we wear masks, our voices must play an even bigger role than usual.  Dustin calls it using our “mask voice,” and uses the acronym PAVE to help people remember four key elements: pauseaccentuatevolume and emotion.

  • Pause: Normally, visual cues of the mouth help us to see when a speaker is pausing for a response. Since we can’t see that now, make a conscious effort to noticeably pause here and there to give people opportunities to jump in or respond. This also breaks up your message into digestible chunks.
  • Accentuate: Avoid monotony by accentuating key phrases and information, but don’t always accentuate in the same way. Use different intonation.
  • Volume: Masks have a slight muffling effect, so speak up.
  • Emotion: In appropriate moments, try to make your voice more expressive by conveying positive emotions like excitement, awe, gratitude, and sympathy. Do this in moderation since you don’t want to come across as if you’re performing Shakespeare.

Practice Active Listening 

Now that you’ve adjusted your voice, you can also adjust the actual words you use. This starts with active listening. When your conversation partner is speaking, show interest by periodically nodding and making sounds of understanding like “Mm hmm.” If the speaker pauses but isn’t finished talking, you can again affirm understanding or interest with phrases like “I’m listening” or “And then what happened?” If the speaker expresses emotions, especially negative ones (e.g., frustration or disappointment), paraphrasing can be a powerful way to affirm their feelings. You can start with a phrase like, “So do you mean…” or “What I hear you saying is…” and then say what you think they’re feeling with your own words instead of just parroting what they said. This kind of active listening and paraphrasing helps build rapport and increases your perceived likeability.

Use Gestures and Body Language

Let’s move on to body language. Try to make full use of gestures while speaking to convey meaning and emotion—a little more than usual wouldn’t hurt. Obviously, you don’t want to overdo it to the point where it distracts your audience or you look like a mime.

Keep the Two T’s Aligned

The “Two T’s” stands for the “toes and torso.” During interactions, your feet have a natural tendency to reveal what’s really going on in your mind. So, if you’re in a meeting but are hungry, your toes might start pointing in the direction of the door. This can be subconsciously interpreted as a lack of interest so keep your toes and torso aligned and facing the person or people with whom you’re interacting.

Smile with Your Eyes

Smiling is an extremely important form of nonverbal communication in business as well as in socializing. Research shows that smiles with eyes that look angry, fearful, sad, or neutral are perceived as not happy and, therefore, not indicative of the friendliness we associate with happy smiles. When we’re wearing masks, it is therefore even more important to “smile with your eyes” — or “smize” as model Tyra Banks calls it — if you want to create positive feelings.

Simply put, when you smile there’s a wrinkling that occurs at the outer edges of your eyes. This happens more naturally and noticeably for some people than others, so Dustin recommends intentionally wrinkling your eyes when you’re wearing your mask, even if it feels awkward at first. To get it right, practice in front of a mirror with your mask on. As long as you’re actually smiling with your mouth when you do this, it should look natural.

Masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future. But the time and effort you put into internalizing these tips won’t just pay off during the pandemic. They’ll continue to help you communicate more effectively when we’re all able to show our full faces again.