Communication technology has completely changed the way we connect with people to conduct business. It has opened global markets and fostered the use of geographically dispersed teams – including multiple site organizations and remote or home working.
But not all technology is created equal. Lean technologies, like texts and email, offer limited social cues. When you add voice and image you employ much richer sources of communication. We were born with the innate capability to communicate through our postures, gestures, facial expressions, and vocal prosody. In fact, our brains search for and expect these most primitive and significant channels of information. According to Dr. Thomas Lewis (an expert on the psychobiology of emotions and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the university of California San Francisco), when we are denied these interpersonal cues, the brain struggles and real communication suffers.
There is no doubt that using a visual medium can be a powerful way to connect with people, but I once watched a Chief Executive Officer give an entire video presentation bent over notes on a table in front of him while the audience (his entire organization, since this was an “all hands” event) viewed the top of his head. Then, because the camera was much too close to him, when he occasionally glanced up, his eye movements looked exaggerated (making him seem agitated) and his hands kept flying in and out of frame as he gestured.
The effective use of visual technology comes with practice and experience. Here are six techniques to keep in mind for your next videoconference:
1. Get framed
- The first thing I tell a client is to understand how the camera’s distance affects the way you look to a viewer. If you position the camera too close (as the CEO did) every expression and gesture will be exaggerated. The best results come when the screen-image frame starts a little above your head and ends around waist level. When not using them to gesture, place your hands on the table or desk – 8 to 10 inches in front of your torso so that people can see them. Keep them relaxed and separated. Don’t hang onto the edge of the table, or you will look desperate. Don’t play with your pen or shuffle papers. Make sure to keep a preview window open to check how you look to the remote viewers.
2. Look at the lens
- Unless you are using a system like Cisco’s Telepresence (allowing you to maintain actual eye contact with participants), the camera and display screen will be separate components, and each time you look at the screen you shift your eye from the camera. If the camera is above the screen, you’ll always appear to be looking down. And a lack of eye contact reduces trust and viewer satisfaction with the interaction. You might have to raise (if on a laptop where the lens is below your eyes) or lower your monitor height so that the lens hits you at about eye level.
- Occasionally glancing down to read from notes is fine, but If are going to refer to them constantly, try having one set of notes on the table, and then placing sticky notes with short bullet points right below or next to the camera lens. That way you won’t be breaking eye contact so often. It’s also fine to look at the screen when others are speaking. Just remember to move your eyes back to the camera when you reply.
3. Warm up
- Research has discovered that participants in videoconferences tend to be more influenced by heuristic cues – such as how likeable they perceive the speaker to be – than they are by the quality of the arguments presented by the speaker. This is attributed to the higher cognitive demands that videoconferencing places on viewers.
- When you are the presenter, you will want to guard against looking stilted and emotionless or (as I’ve seen too often) “over-acting,” since distracting mannerisms and facial expressions will all be picked up on camera. Instead, stay relaxed and mentally picture the viewer. Doing so will help you naturally express nonverbal signals of empathy, likeability and warmth – such as leaning forward slightly, smiling, and showing the palms of your hands when you gesture.
4. Dress for success
- Cameras change the way colors and patterns appear to the viewer. Watch news reporters on television and you’ll notice that they avoid wearing white, because it catches too much light, and that they almost never wear clothing with a pattern, because it has a tendency to “jump” and “zig-zag.” Their better choices – and yours for video – are solid, pastel or bright colors. By the way: Don’t let your hair fall in your face, and don’t wear flashy jewelry.
5. Watch your posture
- Posture affects how people perceive you. Just as someone with good posture sends nonverbal signals of energy, enthusiasm, and health, a person with poor body posture appears uninterested, uncertain, or lethargic — which is not the impression that any of us want to project in a videoconference. Sit up straight, put both feet on the floor, then take a deep breath and exhale through your mouth to relax your neck and throat. The goal is to look comfortable and confident.
6. Prepare to be seen
- Above all, always remember that you are visible. (Which is not as easy as it sounds if you are used to teleconferences or online exchanges.) Give your full attention to those who are speaking, as you would if you were in the same room. Don’t be seen getting distracted by email or texts. And no snacking, grooming, or fidgeting. Be aware that your body language is constantly sending messages. One senior executive was conducting a video conference when he noticed a participant suddenly lean forward to hold his head in his hands. The executive said, “I can see you, you know. If something is bothering you, just tell me.”