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Ready for PRIME TIME - Making Sure Your Subjects are Comfortable and Videoconference-Ready

August 9, 2009 | Chris Payatagool
Ready for Primetime - Making Sure Your Subjects are Comfortable and Videoconference-Ready
An AV Technology Magazine Cover Story  By Denise Harrison

Being uncomfortable "on camera" may be one of the biggest - and most human     drawbacks of videoconferencing.

Above: Dr. Janelle Barlow, co-author of the book "Smart Videoconferencing: New Habits for Virtual Meetings" believes that TV broadcast Journalism has set high expectations for videoconferencing participants.

In the 1987 movie Broadcast News, the character played by Albert Brooks is a talented yet plain-looking news correspondent who covets the anchor seat usually occupied by men with better looks but half his knowledge. One evening, he finally gets a shot as anchor, only to break out in a completely uncontrollable case of flop sweats. The water gushing down his face was seen by a nation of viewers, and thus began, and ended, his career in the anchor seat.

Broadcast News is a work of fiction, but the fear of looking the fool in front of a camera is very real. According to various sources, including Wainhouse Research, the use of corporate videoconferencing is increasing at a rate of 18 to 20 percent a year. With that kind of growth, there isn't much alternative for videophobes except to get over it.
Dr. Janelle Barlow, co-author of the book Smart Videoconferencing: New Habits for Virtual Meetings, says that "without developing the best habits, it is possible - even likely - that we will misuse the visual medium, look awful, and as a result end up missing out on one of the great technological advancements of the modem era."


Communications consultant Cindy Skalsky is no fan of videoconferencing based on several recent experiences with an organization that doesn't have it quite right. "' I thought it was great they had a system that connected all the satellite branches with the main office," she says. Expectations, however, were far greater than the reality. "There was no orientation and no agenda, so we didn't know why we were there," Skalsky says. "The time delay made it hard to know who was speaking, the grainy video was distracting, the lighting was lousy, and the moderator kept forgetting to include people outside the room. "

Such disorganization resulted in a panorama of confused looks captured on camera. Would she do it again? "If I saw the equipment was the same, my excitement about the meeting would take a nose dive. "

Skalsky's dissatisfaction is typical when some of the basic tenets of videoconferencing aren't followed. Author Barlow contends that a well run meeting is a crucial for putting participants at ease.

According to her, a well-run video conference meeting means preparations are made and equipment is tested, the meeting begins and ends on time, there is a clear, interesting, and short agenda, comfortable temperature and seating, and experienced moderators. A good video conference facilitates participation, and has a strong summation that reminds attendees what was just accomplished, thereby reinforcing the value of videoconferencing.

"We don't expect it to come across like ABC World News Tonight, " says Skalsky, but we have basic expectations. Because we're all so inundated with media, we expect quality images, decent sound, good lighting, and solid moderators at both ends. "

She is right, says Barlow. "The videoconferencing standard is broadcast journalism," she says. "As a result, in our minds, even though we know it isn't, we have the expectations associated with it. "

That expectation also applies to how well we come across on camera. Because most of us are not trained broadcasters, there's a lot that can go wrong. It therefore becomes imperative to manage expectations and train participants to look their best.


Most people are surprised the first time they hear their own voice on tape. "Is that me?" they ask, because the sound is different from their perception. Likewise, many react strongly to seeing themselves on camera. Whether shocked, pleased, or simply transfixed, it is hard for many to ignore.

"Stepping in front of a screen with self-view turned on intimidates some the first few times around," says Torkel Mellingen, Tandberg's director of design. It can make people very aware of their own appearance and of being in front of a technical device, rather than immersing themselves in the conversation. "

Even worse, a presenter who can't take his eyes off his own image will look unprofessional, amateurish, and vain.

Conspicuous cameras also add to the discomfort. "A visible camera in the environment registers with the brain, and participants tend to act differently when they know they are being filmed," says Howard S. Lichtman, president of the Human Productivity Lab. "This has been called 'the documentation's curse' and it is familiar to anyone who has tried to tape family and friends with a camcorder at a family event. "

Furthermore, in many traditional video conferences, participants watch remote speakers on the monitor, but must talk to the camera when it's their turn. We lose any semblance of eye contact because those on the listening end appear to be looking away.


Many believe the YouTube generation's relationship with video will boost the adoption of videoconferencing. That may be, but just because someone weblogs or "Skypes" doesn't mean they are ready for institutional videoconferencing. With larger screens, every move is more noticeable, amplified, and often recorded for posterity.

"Video certainly does accentuate human communication," says Bob Knauf, product marketing manager with videoconferencing vendor Polycom. "You can really pick up on people's habits; even things like saying 'um' a lot more than you might if it weren't on video. You can tell if people are nervous - they will start fidgeting. You'll see them blinking, and you11 see their eyes dart back and forth if they are stretching the truth.

I've seen people fall asleep on the far side, too. That was fairly embarrassing for that person."

Jonathan Brust, vice president of marketing at Glowpoint, insists most videoconferencing faux pas can be prevented with proper training. "'Training is essential for user comfort, " he says, "and to ensure an overall commitment to videoconferencing. I recommend training, whether it's done by our company, a company's internal team, or by any service provider."

And if you think being videoconference-savvy isn't all that important, consider this story from Janelle Barlow about a guy interviewing with a company that employs videoconferencing regularly. "He was told that VC skills would be a critical part of his job description. He was also told that he would be asked to participate in an actual videoconference as a part of his job interview process." He mistakenly believed videoconferencing would be no different from a regular meeting. "He did not prepare for the unique challenges of VC, violated most of the principles of effective oncamera work, and failed miserably. "


Barlow says we need to adapt to living in a media culture. "Winging it is simply not the way to approach a medium that has the potential to be broadcast to thousands of people, of which permanent visual records can be made, and carries with it the prestige of and automatic comparison to network lV. We must think prime time!"

She suggests, for one, participants always assume they are on camera.

"In face-to-face meetings, we have the opportunity to scratch our head, yawn, or stretch while colleagues focus on the person who is speaking," says Barlow. Not so in a videoconference. Even when the camera is not directed right at you, a wide-angle lens captures your every move nonetheless. Or your sound. "If you have not muted your microphone, the camera will expose you on the monitor the moment you blow your nose," writes Barlow.

Without powder, a bald head or a sweaty brow is detailed in high definition. In a normal meeting, levity may be welcomed, but with videoconferencing time delays, participants look foolish when quips are heard after someone else is already on another subject.
Other things to avoid: eating or drinking. If the chair swivels, don't.

Don't twirl pens or thumbs. And be cautious with colors. "Even if you look great in bright yellow; do not wear it on camera," Barlow says. "You will look like a giant canary or large banana. Your face or message will in no way be able to compete."

People who have colds should avoid such meetings. Sneezing, blowing one's nose, and coughing will dominate the meeting. Participants should be well-groomed, shaven, and with dean nails. If hair tends to fallon one's face, they should tie it back. "Even if your hair does not fall onto your face, keep your hands off your head. It suggests nervousness, " says Barlow.

Bringing a poker face is important, too. Negative emotions, such as sarcasm, resistance, arrogance, negativity, gioating, bitterness, distrust, boredom, indifference, and disappointment come across strongly on camera.


There is hope. The very evolution of videoconferencing technology is making participation less of a knee-knocker. Social anthropologist and blogger Jukka Jouhki is a researcher at Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. "There are some prerequisites to the comfortable and 'natural' use of videoconference. The two conference rooms at both ends have to be equally furnished and have similar acoustics so that the illusion of presence is not shattered by the medium. Also, the screens have to be high definition and present the participants in real size."

The Human Productivity Lab's Lichtman concurs. "The human brain has innate preferences for interpersonal communication," he says. "It's used to talking to people that are life-sized, having eye contact and clear audio quality. Your brain has developed innate expectations with respect to interpersonal communications. In a traditional videoconference, it doesn't get many of them, so it naturally objects to the experience. I believe there is kind of a dichotomy going on where the brain is trying to pay attention simultaneously to both the medium and the message. It's an unnatural experience trying to pay attention to the medium, the message, and the nonverbal cues of communication. "

Many research studies have concluded that eye contact is an essential factor in achieving real human communication.


Humans are amazingly perceptive about the gaze direction of another. A gaze direction off by even a few degrees from true eye contact is very noticeable. When conversing, we can certainly sense whether a person is not looking at us in the eye, even if he/she is looking at another part of our face. People who avoid eye contact have been shown to be greatly disadvantaged both psychologically and socially.

Studies have also shown that people who avoid eye contact are considered less intelligent, less attractive, and less credible. It's reasonable to assume that these same qualities could be attributed to a person using a videoconference system that makes them appear to be avoiding eye contact.

A 2005 eye contact study conducted by Steve McNelley, Ph.D, found that 93 percent of subjects preferred a videoconference experience where direct, true eye contact was made.

dve_telepresence.jpg[Source: Digital Video Enterprises]


To date, telepresence is the next best thing to being there. "With a telepresence session, • says Lichtman, ·you're able to more faithfully represent a traditional in-person meeting, so attention to the medium is reduced and you're able to have a much more natural experience.' He says companies using telepresence experience greater ROI from higher usage. ·You're actually keeping people off the planes, getting a time-to-market advantage, and improving productivity ."

"I agree that [traditional videoconferencing] is not generally a very comfortable experience, " says Marc Musgrove, global PR manager at Cisco. Cisco TelePresence, on the other hand, is arguably quite comfortable which is borne out in the very high usage figures we see for our TelePresence rooms (in excess of 50-70 percent utilization rates from our Cisco internal deployment)."

Telepresence rooms make it appear everyone is at the same table.

Tandberg's Mellingen says that, with Tandberg telepresence, people are sitting beside each other in life size on the screens, and cameras are set as close to eye level as possible to obtain the best possible eye contact."

Telepresence rooms, with their fixed, precise furniture and equipment installations, greatly reduce the potential for mishaps. "You don't see yourself, ever," says Polycom's Knauf. No one sees the cameras on Polycom's RPX either because they are built into the screen. "Your only clue that you're in a video conference is that you see people on the other side. "


While telepresence, especially high defInition, is a gargantuan leap forward, few believe videoconferences will ever trump faceto-face. According to Colin Buechler, senior vice president of marketing at LifeSize Communications, an Austin-TX-based vendor that specializes in high-definition (HD) videoconferencing,there will always be times when in-person meetings are valuable. ·But with telepresence, you have more choice. Immersive, high-quality video lets you hold personal meetings with customers, colleagues, and partners as if you are there with them. The bar is much higher now for getting on a plane. "

glowpoint_AV.jpg[Photo Courtesy of Glowpoint]

While telepresence brings a lot to the table, so to speak, Barlow says business decisions are frequently made based on subtle gestures such as a nod, or a grimace. ·Two people glancing at each other at a pivotal point in the meeting can result in a decision to continue the discussion, a suggestion to pursue a particular point, or a contract - or not. These sorts of subtleties can be difficult to capture electronically in a virtual meeting.·

Denise Harrison, a writer and marketing communications consultant, has managed publications in a variety of industries, including commemal and consumer audiovisual.
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