H OW T O S URVIVE
A V IDEOCONFERENCE
One-way video, two-way audio conferences have been used successfully for some years for formal presentations such as new product introductions or messages from top management. The presentation is made from a central location; members of the audience can ask questions but are not seen. But the real growth in corporate videoconferencing has been in full motion (two-way video and audio) conferencing.
Many North American corporations have full motion videoconferencing facilities. Although the trend to videoconferencing is neither as rapid nor as comprehensive as pundits were predicting several years ago, it's fast enough that many managers can expect to organize, or at the very least participate in, such conferences at some point in their careers.
Some people feel comfortable in a videoconference almost immediately. Others, though, break out in a cold sweat just thinking about a videoconference, as the fear of giving a speech combines with the tension of operating in an unfamiliar environment. Although most of the rules for conducting meetings and making presentations apply equally well to videoconferences, the medium makes some accommodation necessary. If a videoconference is in your future, here are some tips based on the experiences of veterans in the business.
For decision-making, two-way audio and video is almost essential because people are uncomfortable when they cannot "see" the people they are talking to.
Even the most committed proponents say that videoconferences can never substitute for those meetings in which you have to "press the flesh" because you don't know the participants or how they are likely to react. Experts warn, also, that videoconferences can fail because people do not participate fully. Any decision, therefore, is compromised by lack of consensus.
On the positive side, several videoconference veterans believe managers and technical people reach better decisions more quickly during a videoconference than when they are in a conventional meeting because they come better prepared and are aware of time constraints. Some managers believe that the speed with which decisions are made in videoconferences carries over to nonelectronic meetings, and that these meetings improve as a result.
Professionals agree that videoconferences work best for problem solving when
Creating a tight agenda is vital in videoconferences; other users may be waiting for the facilities and costs of lengthy meetings are prohibitive. Agendas should should be circulated in advance and should include an estimate of the time each item should take, the person responsible for each section of the meeting and those items on which action is expected.
If you're presenting, use as much energy as you can muster. Gestures and facial expressions that look theatrical in person look normal on a monitor, and normal gestures can look limp or tired. People expect to see movement on camera and are easily bored by a "talking head." It's especially important to use gestures when you first start to speak so that viewers at the other end won't have to depend on seeing lip movements to determine who is actually speaking. Introducing yourself the first time you speak is also helpful.
Compensate for the lack of direct eye contact. The absence of real eye contact is one of the major disadvantages of videoconferencing because it is isolating and it makes it difficult to "read" the listenersÕ reactions and adjust to indications of hostility, disinterest, or confusion. You may want to question those at another site frequently about their reactions, and if you cannot see everyone in the group, imagine them looking at you. (Television interviewers like Ted Koppel have been accused of deliberately isolating their subjects, denying them eye contact, even with a monitor.)
Although it's no longer necessary to avoid white shirts (the equipment is much more sensitive than in the early days of television), plaids, loud colors, striped ties, and large jewelry distract viewers.
Because people remember best what they both see and hear, visual aids help understanding in any presentation. In videoconferences, charts and graphs can compensate for some of the problems with the medium - shortage of time, boredom with a relatively fixed environment - by condensing complex data to emphasize relationships and by providing visual change. Beware, however, that the equipment at your site may demand production that is different from what you are accustomed to. Some videoconferencing managers provide very precise guidelines. Check with your professionals before you start making visuals.
Voice-activated systems may pick up a secondary voice. To avoid voice clipping, be careful not to interrupt a speaker or talk to another participant at your site.
If you like to doodle, keep caricatures and pithy comments about fellow participants' mental capacity out of range of an overhead camera. And in rooms with voice-activated cameras, remember than a side conversation, never a good idea in any meeting, can make you and your friend the focus of the camera's unwelcome attentions.
One last thought; a videoconference is like any meeting - only one member of the group has a funny eye. By knowing what you want to have happen and by being prepared, you will be less distracted by that one-eyed participant.
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