What Scientists Know About Virtual Meetings

Experience has shown us that video meetings and face2face meetings are not interchangeable. Videoconference meetings, while very appealing in ways too numerous to list, nevertheless come with some noticeable drawbacks.

Video meetings are often a little stilted and sometimes borderline awkward. Participants can have trouble signing on. Wavering WiFi signals will cause one or two people to drop out for a couple of minutes, leaving them to struggle to reconnect, maybe by walking to another part of the room in search of a better signal.

Still, video meetings are great for remote team check-ins and board or committee meetings. We are social creatures and enjoy being able to see who we’re talking to. But as the meeting progresses it becomes clear that communication does not flow nearly as well as in our face2face meetings.

On top of access and connectivity issues that interrupt the meeting pace, normal conversation rhythm is also stymied, because video signals are slightly delayed. We try to compensate for unnatural pauses that cause people to talk over one another by waiting (usually too long) to respond.

Scientists who study human perception say that aside from the technical annoyances, the big problem with video is that it disrupts normal eye contact, especially how long and how often we look at each other. In a study led by Isabelle Mareschal, PhD, Psychology Department Chair at Queen Mary University in London, and her colleagues at their visual perception lab asked experiment subjects to watch a video of a face that turned to look directly at them. Study subjects initially found the gaze enjoyable, but after as little as three seconds most found the gaze to be unsettling.

Now consider the protocol at a virtual meeting—- we are expected to maintain unbroken eye contact with the speaker or risk being considered inattentive, if not rude. It’s just that our brain is uncomfortable with this practice. No wonder we find more than one videoconference per day to be draining.

Videoconferencing also disrupts what is known as synchrony, the unconscious call and response speaking rhythm that we lapse into when communicating face2face. Synchrony also persuades us to unwittingly mimic the body language and posture of the person we’re speaking with.

So we smile when we receive cues that our conversation partner will respond favorably if we do, or we’ll put on a serious facial expression when people in the room look worried or upset. “People start to synchronize their laughter and facial expressions over time,” says Paula Niedenthal, PhD, a psychologist and expert in the science of emotion at the University of Wisconsin/ Madison. She continues, “That’s really useful because it helps us predict what’s coming next.”

The ability to unconsciously and accurately predict our conversation partner’s emotional state is crucial to feeling connected, research shows. The problem with videoconferencing is that so many facial expressions—-that sparkle or cloud in the eyes, or subtle posture and hand gestures—-are obscured. We cannot consistently predict and validate the nonverbal cues of virtual meeting participants. We become vulnerable to feeling awkward and eventually, alienated.

Andrew S. Franklin, PhD, a psychologist at Norfolk State University in VA, says the first problem with Zoom is that the platform is programmed to continually show the user an image of him/herself, “So you’re trying to get out of the habit of staring at yourself.” That fascination, or discomfort, breaks the participant’s attention, drawing it away from the speaker and disrupting the transmission of whatever facial and body language cues one might otherwise pick up. Worse, that Brady Bunch Zoom meeting line-up, whether shown in a horizontal or vertical configuration on your device, brings in too many pairs of eyes to confront.

Daniel Nguyen, PhD, a scientist and director of (the global consulting firm) Accenture Lab in Shenzhen, China, investigated how people bonded (or not) while videoconferencing. For the experiment, Nguyen and his team divided study subjects into pairs: some conversing pairs used a video set- up that showed only faces; another video pairing set- up displayed face and upper body; the third conversation design was an in-person chat. As revealed in observations, the in- person pairs developed the strongest bonds and the face and torso set- up elicited bonding that was fully twice that of the face only set- up.

Furthermore, Nguyen prefers the vertical screen view on our phones over the horizontal screen view that desk models, laptops and tablets give us because the vertical view showcases more of the body and less background scenery.

Guided by the results of their experiment, Nguyen and his co-authors now sit a few feet away from their keyboards when in video meetings, so that their upper body will be visible. Providing your videoconference partners with a more expansive view of you helps them achieve synchrony with you and the potential for mutual bonding will be enhanced.

Nguyen and colleagues also have recommendations for your videoconference vocal style. “Ramp up the words that you’re saying,” he advised, “and exaggerate the way you say it.” To be honest, I don’t know how to interpret that bit of stage direction. How about we just avoid speaking in a monotone and add a little energy to our speech, taking care to speak a little more slowly and remembering to enunciate clearly?

Probably the most formidable obstacle of videoconference communication is how to develop trust when doing business. It’s not easy to build bonds, to truly get to know someone and develop lasting rapport through online encounters, even when you see who you’re talking to. Nguyen said his research found that, “In a videoconferencing situation, trust is quite fragile.” He and his team demonstrated that in video, “Trust is diminished overall.” Nguyen suggested that when building trust is critical, opportunities to meet in person at least some of the time will help build bonds that make remote collaboration more successful.

Elena Rocco, PhD, in a 1998 study at the University of Michigan Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work, demonstrated that groups that connect solely online (in her study email was the online format) do not collaborate effectively. But when her study subjects were able to meet face2face for brief periods, their willingness to cooperate and collaborate rose dramatically. Face2face meetings make a difference and opportunities to allow in person meet- ups should be made, even when online communication is more convenient.

I feel that although working from home is all the rage now, in two or three years companies will move to reverse the trend and bring employees back to the office, at least for part of the week. Without reading any studies, I knew that virtual meetings can never adequately replace face2face interactions.

Ben Waber, President and co-founder of Humanyze, a company that creates software that allows organizations to map internal communications, understands very well how employees communicate and how their communication correlates to their company’s health.

Waber suspects that in the long run, a company’s culture and creativity risk declining in a heavily remote-working structure. Employees can’t get to know one another as well when they don’t regularly interact face2face. He predicts that profitable companies will initially continue to be profitable despite their significant dependence on virtual communication but damage will become evident a year or two down the line, when the quality of new ideas become less bold and innovative. He concludes, “I think we’re going to see this general degradation of the health of organizations.”

Thanks for reading,


Photograph: Kim Clark. Doorway of the original location of the Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children.

Optimize Online Multimedia

Because the February-March session sold out,  I have been invited to reprise my three-part workshop  “Become Your Own Boss: Effective Business Plan Writing”  at Boston Center for Adult Education 122 Arlington Street Boston MA on three Mondays,  May 9, 16 & 23 from 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM.  For more information or to register please visit http://bit.ly/becomeyourown59  or call 617.267.4430.

A picture is worth 1,000 words and a good online multimedia presentation can help prospective clients connect the dots on why it’s smart to bring you in.  To that end,  many Freelancers,  small business owners  and countless other organizations and individuals have added video to their websites or posted online. 

Unfortunately,  many presentations do not achieve the expected objectives.  It’s necessary to think strategically about how online multimedia might draw in prospects and promote business and additionally,  determine what aspect of your talents or services will do the trick.

What can you say and do in three minutes or less that will persuade prospects to follow up?  Should you demonstrate a product or discuss a service,  show yourself in action as you conduct a workshop or give 3-4 pieces of advice that will validate your understanding of client needs?

Whatever you decide,  deliver a simple,  uncomplicated experience for viewers to ensure that your message is understood.  Produce a presentation that focuses on what’s in it for the customer and you’ll have their attention.  Be aware that a little multimedia goes a long way.  In other words,  use audio,  visual and animation effects judiciously and always in service of your business strategy and customer priorities.  Make sure your content delivers what prospects want to know.

Hire a professional videographer to ensure presentation quality.  Expect to pay $500.00 – $1500.00,  depending on what you do and who you work with.  Get references and see examples of their work before signing a contract.  You want expert production,  lighting that flatters and flawless editing.  Remember to confirm that your website has the bandwidth necessary to support video.

Location,  location  Place the video link on your website home page at eye level,  so those with smaller screens will not need to scroll down to find the link.

Control  Give website visitors the choice to opt in to your multimedia.  Avoid presentations that play automatically.  Indicate the length of the video and include play,  pause and stop buttons.  Make the viewing experience interactive and easy.

Context  Let potential viewers know what they’ll learn from your video clip before they click “play”.  Do not leave it to your audience to figure out its purpose and how they will benefit from taking the time to have a look and listen.

Short & sweet  Produce a video that runs no longer than three minutes.  The clip is an hors d’oeuvre and not a banquet.  Your objective is to whet the appetite for more of what you know and do.  Keep your message clear and easy to absorb as you demonstrate a core capability or service and spell out what’s in it for the viewer when they work with you.

Call to action  Tell viewers to take the action that you want them to take.  As you close the presentation,  advise viewers to contact you for more information.  Tell them how to leave a comment,   order your book or sign up for your newsletter.

Distribution deals  Upload your video at Tube Mogul http://tubemogul.com , a free site that will not only send your link to a wide range of social media and other hosting sites,  but will also allow you to track the number of views,  clicks and comments received.

Thanks for reading,


Making Use of Online Video

Because the February-March session sold out,  I’ve been invited to reprise my three-part workshop  “Become Your Own Boss: Effective Business Plan Writing”  at Boston Center for Adult Education 122 Arlington Street Boston MA on three Mondays,  May 9, 16 & 23 from 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM.  For more information or to register,  please visit http://bit.ly/becomeyourown59  or call 617.267.4430.

Communicating with prospective clients (and others) by way of video has become an accepted practice and the phenomenon continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  Digital media tracker ComScore reports that YouTube had 12.2 billion videos viewed by 129 million unique visitors in November 2010 and growth shows no sign of abating.

In addition to adding a video clip to one’s own website or posting video on YouTube,  nearly all major social media sites provide the option to add either photos or video content.  So maybe you’re sorting through a decision tree,  trying to figure out your place in the multimedia revolution?  Here are four ways that video can make sense for your business:

Demo a new product or service

Create a video to demonstrate a new product or introduce your new service—or make a  personalized case for what you’ve been doing all along.  The video will allow you to show how your product works or explain how and why your services bring important advantages to your target market. 

Initiate a conversation with prospects as you tell a story that illustrates when and why it is wise to use your product or service.  Describe key features and benefits and demonstrate how they will make life or work less complicated and expensive or more effective and rewarding.  Define your target audience by describing who will benefit most by using the product or service.  Differentiate your video from traditional advertising by including a viewer comments feature and making the video about sharing relevant information and not a sales pitch.


Maybe you wrote a book,  or perhaps you gave the keynote address at a prestigious conference?  Can you obtain the footage from the ceremony when you stepped on stage to accept a coveted award and make a speech?

Or maybe you’d like to share your business acumen and offer prospective clients three or four pieces of valuable advice that will stoke their appetite for more of your expertise?  The right video will present you as the go-to guy or girl who knows how to solve problems and get the job done.

Promote an event

Use a video promo to create excitement around and build the audience for an important event that will showcase you,  whether it’s a book signing for your latest tome or the seminar that you’ll conduct.  Include highlights from a previous event,  with testimonials from those who attended.  Tape the proceedings of this year’s event to provide juicy content for the following year.

Create buzz

The best online videos avoid an overt sales pitch.  A clever video can do wonders for your reputation and your business,  especially if it goes viral.  At the very least,  a well-conceived and produced video clip will raise your profile and create good word-of-mouth for your new service,  your expertise or your upcoming event.  Next week,  we’ll get into video best practices.

Thanks for reading,