When it comes to virtual communications technology, we may be looking at the future but too many of us are still stuck in the past—as if we’re playing Pong on an Atari.
We are spending our days videoconferencing using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex or similar platforms. The distance and extraordinary circumstances make us all relax a bit and become more casual in how we reach out to one another. However, the fundamentals of good communication do not change simply because there is a camera involved. Quite the contrary, the limitations of virtual communications make it even more important that we present ourselves and our insights with an additional level of thoughtfulness and care.
Unfortunately, I observe many professionals approaching video calls differently from the way they approach in-person client meetings, and that can be a costly mistake. It’s not that I’m a communications expert. After all, I am an economics major and my hobby is boxing. Unless it’s about hitting someone in the nose, I typically don’t have much to say about how well you are connecting with your target. But I have spent much of my time in the last six months sitting through so many painful video calls that I feel I should say something.
Even if the meetings we’re taking are virtual, the first impressions we’re making are very real. Covid-19 has reduced the number of leads advisors have to a third of the normal level, so advancing those scarce opportunities is even more important. Yet I am guessing many first impressions go astray.
In psychology, “thin slice” studies refer to how we form impressions based on very limited information (the thin slice) immediately upon meeting someone. We are all vaguely aware of this notion, but in fact science has demonstrated that we only need about a 30 second video clip to form a conclusion about the skills and sociability of a person, and that conclusion can define the rest of our relationships with them.
In a pioneering study, social psychologist Nalini Ambady showed future university students 30-second clips of teachers who had not yet taught them any lessons. The students were asked to predict the teachers’ skills and style, rating them on characteristics such as competence and confidence. A similar evaluation form was then filled out at the end of the semester by the same students. The results appeared to be very similar to the initial impressions formed in the beginning of the semester: The composite score compiled after only the first 30 seconds had a 76% correlation to the score compiled after months of study. That means we make up our minds very quickly about people (and perhaps quite accurately!)
In another study conducted by social psychologist Frank Bernieri, subjects watched a video of a recorded job interview. They seemed to be able to predict the outcome of the interview (whether an applicant got a job offer or not) after watching only the first 15 seconds of interaction between the candidate and the interviewer.
It also appears that our brains love reading faces and constantly do so. In fact, when shown a screen of random TV static, 34% of people still report seeing a facial pattern, according to an experiment done by Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. According to Lee, we love to read faces, and being easy to read is a huge advantage. People who are expressive, animated and communicative tend to be liked a lot more than people who are difficult to size up. In fact, research shows that people suffering from facial paralysis have a more difficult time connecting with others. To compensate, they learn to use a variety of other communicative techniques to convey information. They use more emotion words, more vocal inflection, laughter and body movement to improve their non-verbal communication.
If you were to apply all of this to virtual meetings, you should come to some easy conclusions. First, you know you should make it easier for your clients to see you. You should be expressive. As grandma says, “You never get a second chance for a first impression.” Yet we all make mistakes in this area.
Given these challenges, I would like to propose some rules for successful virtual communications. I sincerely hope that they help all of us.
1. Get the right equipment.
Most advisors have very well decorated offices. Some might have even spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations and furniture. But for one reason or another, the same firms are still using a $10 camera and the cheap microphone on their laptops. A camera of poor quality may create the same kinds of problems experienced by those in the studies who had trouble reading faces.
A good microphone is vital too. So much of our communication is conveyed by the nuances of our tone of voice. Besides reading faces, our brains love reading voices and interpreting emotions. When two people talk and understand each other, their brains “synchronize,” as Psychology Today puts it. Such synchronicity would not happen with a bad microphone and a poor connection. Instead, you’ll find irritation and stress, the same as you would if listening to dissonant music rather than relaxing harmonics.
In my non-expert experience, good cameras and good microphones cost $200 to $300. For that you get a dramatic change in the quality of your images and sounds. Many webcams have built-in microphones, and that can be enough. A quick Google search will lead you to many articles on how to choose one.
The advantage of external equipment is that you can better control the positions of your devices. You can set a camera to the exact angle and distance you want. The added sensitivity of a good microphone allows you to stand further away from your computer so more of you is visible and you can speak more naturally without wearing the headset of a 1-800 operator.
So get good devices for yourself. If you’re a business owner, also get good equipment for your staff, who are likely facing the same kind of space and privacy stresses while working from home.
2. Control your presence.
We forget everything we know about non-verbal communication when we turn the cameras on. We forget, for example, that it’s very frustrating and tiring to look at someone you can’t see very well. That means the actual light you use to illuminate yourself plays a role.
If you are standing in front of a window on a sunny day, you will have a halo you don’t deserve, and your client will see you as a very dark shape from a sci-fi movie. Conversely, if there is barely any light in the room where you are, the image will look like a night vision documentary on the nocturnal habits of birds.
The angle at which you are seen is also important. If you use the built-in camera on your laptop, your meeting partner will likely be looking up at you (from the open lid). The result is a rather unflattering look at your chin and the impression that you are looming over the person you are talking to.
Some articles recommend focusing the camera at about your hairline level, which allows you and the other person to be equal partners and also makes it easier for the two of you to maintain eye contact.
Views from the side are horrible, by the way. Please don’t do that. They cause you to look distracted, and it feels to viewers like they’re spying on you.
Also, think about your camera’s focus. If normal, it makes you appear about two feet away from your clients, which is way closer than you would normally stand when talking with them. The personal space of a person begins at about three feet. (That closeness might be contributing to the Zoom fatigue we’re all feeling.)
3. Stage your environment.
If you spend most of your time in virtual client meetings, you may want to make sure that you are also in a place that presents you well.
First of all, virtual backgrounds are not good for you. The background tends to blur the edges of your face. How much it does seems to vary depending on how much you move. But in any case, the blurring will tire out the person you are talking to.
The worst background I’ve seen is a picture of the snow-covered slopes of Vail, Colo. (the Back Bowls) on a bright, sunny day. In general, anything bright with a ray of light will not work well.
The second problem with backgrounds is the way we look at people when we’re talking to them. In most conversations, we maintain eye contact, but sometimes we also welcome the distractions of their environment and look away. (Communications experts suggest that we maintain eye contact 50% of the time when speaking and 70% when listening.) When meeting people in person, it’s easy to look out the window sometimes while not appearing terribly distracted. The virtual background makes it impossible to look around at your caller’s environment for relief.
I would propose that it’s best to see you in your natural environment—at your desk, in front of the wall with your pictures and diplomas, or the bookcase with the things you never read. It creates context for you and allows for a better flow of information.
One of my pet peeves is people walking or driving on camera. Watching a vibrating picture can make you literally dizzy. Watching someone drive from under the dashboard is beyond frustrating. If you can’t be in a normal environment, just make it a phone call.
4. Stay focused.
Speaking of eye contact, if you think that your partner can’t tell that you are reading your texts on your phone or reading the news while talking to you, they can.
I once attended a training session that had an exercise where you would try to speak for a minute while the other person was intentionally looking away. It is incredibly distracting and difficult to communicate when you perceive the lack of attention.
5. Be self-aware and maintain your standards.
You have to remember that when people see you on a video, they are judging your appearance and behavior the same way they would if they are meeting you in an office or coffee shop. As a result, please consider the following tips:
- Wear non-embarrassing clothing. Perhaps the kind of clothing you would wear in the office.
- Don’t eat during video calls. Only do it if everyone else is.
- Check your appearance. Don’t look like a through-hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail. Barber shops have reopened.
- Remember, we can see all the other people around you. That means we can also see your interactions with them.
- I am embarrassed to sound like a finishing school instructor, but I wish I had not experienced all of those things just this week.
6. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with a phone call.
Finally, but importantly, not every interaction has to be on video. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with phone calls. They have worked before and they still do. In fact, they have many advantages:
A phone call is much less invasive. Your partner can’t see you and you don’t have to worry about many of the problems I’ve written about. On the other hand, if your partner is on camera, you should be too. I think it is bad manners to schedule a video call and then hide yourself behind the black box.
Where a phone call can be a bit more relaxed, we are keenly aware of being watched during a video call. In fact, our face on the screen makes us even more self-aware. A phone call is less stressful that way.
For one reason or another, people say or do things online that they will never do in real life. The same seems to be true for virtual communications: We seem to focus on the virtual part and forget the communication. If we are to successfully function using virtual meetings, we need to perhaps brush up on all the old-fashioned rules of how we connect with one another.