AI-Based Communications Coaching

The Origin Story of AI Startup Virtual Sapiens

Virtual Sapiens product screenshot.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things about how we work – especially how we collaborate. Zoom meetings became the norm (and still are at many companies), and with them, a whole new way of working together that isn’t natural to many of us. Nonverbal cues drive some 90% of the emotional impact of a message, but most professionals don’t understand how to make the most of their nonverbal communication on video.

Recognizing this problem, Virtual Sapiens provides artificial intelligence (AI)-based communication coaching for video calls. This is Virtual Sapiens’ origin story.

Entrepreneurship Informed by Ballet

Rachel Cossar, the company’s founder and CEO, used to be a professional ballerina. Although she retired in 2016 due to an injury, the knowledge and skills she developed helped prepare her for her next job in the fundraising department at Harvard University. In this “very relationship-driven role,” she noticed that a lot of what she had learned as a dancer about performance psychology kept coming up at meetings and during presentations. 

While working as a ballerina, Cossar had learned about performance psychology, being able to perform under pressure, and “really understanding the power of our physicality as humans when it comes to communicating a very complex message,” she says. “You can communicate all of the emotional nuance from the way that you move your body and the way that you use your voice.”

All of that knowledge came into play in the corporate world. “I would sit there thinking, ‘Oh, wow, this person could have done this and it would've been so much better,’” she says. “Or I wonder if the person realizes that they're sending this message with their body with the way that they're holding their posture or the way that they're not using their hands.” She quickly realized she could incorporate these insights into programming that could benefit workers in a variety of industries. Eventually, Virtual Sapiens was born.

Convenient, Video-Based Coaching

Virtual Sapiens offers what it calls a “sidekick,” a lightweight extension for the Chrome web browser that provides AI-driven feedback on a client’s body language and other aspects of their online communication. It also provides pre- and post-call communication insights. The sidekick works on all video platforms and uses algorithms verified by leading communication and behavioral science experts.

“Communication is one of the top skills for professionals, especially when it comes to getting promoted,” Cossar says. “Yet communication as a skill set, especially … including the body language component … it's usually only the special few who get that kind of training.”

Virtual Sapiens brings communications coaching to the masses. Although the idea of AI communications coaching isn’t new, Virtual Sapiens benefitted from the pandemic because it accelerated the move to virtual meetings and presentations. Without that nudge, the company would have taken a lot longer to get going, Cossar says. “I think the pandemic was an accelerator for increasing people's comfort around the convenience of video.” 

As a bonus, because clients are already on regular Zoom calls, they don’t have to record a video of themselves just for coaching purposes. “A big part of what we are trying to introduce is a more convenient way to access coaching,” she says. “We don't want to have to ask people to take time away to do these trainings. Not everyone has that luxury. Instead, we conveniently sit in on whatever call you want and give you feedback.”

"Communication is one of the top skills for professionals, especially when it comes to getting promoted."


Founder of Virtual Sapiens

Nonverbal Cues

Cossar notes that the first impression people get of you on video comes from your lighting, framing, and background. That assessment “happens the second another person sees you in your little square on video,” she says. “If your lighting is uneven, if you have a window that's on one side that's completely reflecting light off of your forehead, if you're in the darkness. You just want to be very intentional about these things.” Doing so will show that you’re “someone who has clearly prepared, who respects the time of the person on the other end, who is an updated professional, and who knows exactly how to show up in a way that represents and reflects their brand on video,” she says.

Other nonverbal cues are important as well, such as where you look during a video call. “We tend to want to be looking at the faces of the people on the call,” she says. “However, if you’re the one who's presenting, the audience wants the benefit of your direct eye contact. That means looking into the lens.” By contrast, looking at the person’s face on your screen will make it seem like you’re “talking to a completely different person,” according to Cossar. “The way that our brains work is based on visual cues when it comes to the conversations we think we're having with someone. We always have to keep the audience's perspective in mind and show them as direct a connection to ourselves” as we can.

As for whether to have your camera on during a meeting at all, Cossar says that depends on the context. Although it’s commonly believed that client meetings require cameras to be on and internal meetings don’t, that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, consider the goal of the meeting and what is needed to communicate effectively. “There's a lot of nuance in it. I think there's also a ton of opportunity to redefine best practices in this space. So I just hope people lean into that.”

What’s Next for Virtual Sapiens

Right now, Virtual Sapiens is examining how well its product fits the market. “We're looking for sales teams who are continuing to leverage video as a critical part of their communication strategy,” Cossar says. The company is also talking with universities about how it might integrate its software into its communications curricula so that students can develop better skills before they enter the workforce. 

“To me, communication will always be one of the most important tenets of a successful business,” she says. “For entrepreneurs… you're trying to influence people into seeing this new world of what's possible. If you're not able to communicate that, it's such a shame, because it means you're either leaving potential on the table or you're making your likelihood of success smaller than it would be.”

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