Once upon a time, I used to enjoy a variety of futuristic science fiction shows. In truth, I still enjoy them. My point being, that when I watched these various offerings to the entertainment media, I saw people communicating across great distances by face to face communication. Perhaps some of you remember these shows as well. The epitome of the advanced society seemed to be the live interaction with the large or small screens set in walls or tables for the purpose of information exchange.
I can remember never being able to imagine that this sort of thing could be real. It was the far future… or so I thought.
Look around. The future is here. Webcams, Skype, Polycom, Netmeeting, videochat, FaceTime. The list keeps going. That futuristic communication method of space adventurers and other worlds is here. It is as close as the computer on which I am typing and the smartphone in my holster. Not only can we have face to face communication with loved ones at a distance, telemedicine has been using video conferencing to provide services to remote populations for over a decade.
This is not just a trip down memory lane or a wistful look at how the world has changed; at least not exactly. In all the years since I entered the job market, the usual dance has been done by submitting my application or resume to a potential employer followed by a phone call and hopefully an appointment to go in for a face to face interview. Sometimes, this ritual of the hiring practice has involved travel, occasionally quite a distance. Today, the job of job-hunting can be quite a costly. With gas prices ever climbing, long distance interviewing is not in the budget for hirer or hire-e. Even after the interviewing and hiring process is completed, many companies have gladly embraced alternatives to travel expenses for workers and executives attending remote meetings with customers or business offices.
Technology to the rescue! Today, interviews and meetings can be conducted by phone, conference call, or various videoconferencing options. For today’s modern business market, people can put faces with voices and names across oceans and continents. It provides an opportunity for connection and personal interaction for telecommuters as well. The advent and spread of video technology combined with improved speed of transmission and connectivity have made face to face communication possible no matter the degree of separation.
Sounds great, right? However, as with any innovations, there are some pitfalls to consider and guard against. Here are some thing to keep in mind for teleconferences (voice or video):
Camera position. Nothing really earth shattering, I know, but just think for a moment. It may not seem like it, but the position of the camera into which you are looking to communicate can possibly put a tone on your interaction that you never intended. Try to keep the camera at a natural level for a straight forward gaze. Your web cam should be placed where you will be looking towards it when you are viewing the display screen showing your conversational companion. Elevate the camera by placing laptops on platforms or removable cameras at higher levels. This is partially for comfort, but it also avoids the awkwardness of appearing to look up to or down at your audience.
Appropriate background. Honestly, I feel like this should be unnecessary but given the number of internet “selfie fails” I have seen, it is apparent that not everyone considers what a viewer might be able to observe within the frame of your webcam. Keep the background clear of clutter, unprofessional items, or distracting activity. The last thing you need in a Skype interview is a photobomb of the half-dressed roommate running from the bathroom to their own room. While this is especially true for the face to face via camera interactions, it goes for voice only conferences too. Try to keep background noise to a minimum. Go somewhere private where noise levels can be managed to the best extent.
Dress the part. Telecommuters have said that one of the best parts of working from home is the ability to work in your pajamas if you want. That’s fine. I will suggest that this be an exception rather than a rule, though. For video interviews and meetings, it might not be technically necessary to dress in a three-piece suit, but it is a good practice for professionalism to at least dress, and it doesn’t hurt to put on something that resembles work attire. The whole proverb about “people who look nice, act nice” is true. Dressing up or at least getting dressed for work has a psychological impact. You may find that your demeanor is more professional when you are dressed for the part. Even if there is not a camera pointed in your direction, there is a change in the tone and language from that psychological preparation of dressing for success.
Mute buttons and headsets are your friends. Background noise can be a distraction in any conversation, and depending on the noise in question, it may give the perception of unprofessional conduct or chaotic work environment. When you do not have the “floor” so to speak, the mute button can be the best friend you can have. Aside from the background noises of your environment, it can prevent the inadvertent heaving breathing episodes or deafening listeners with an unexpected sneeze or cough. If privacy is not always available by means of a door or other enclosure, invest in a noise canceling headset. It will make your words clearer and help others understand you better.
Behave professionally. Just because the person isn’t in the room doesn’t mean you shouldn’t conduct yourself professionally and with decorum. Watch your body language, grimaces, use of vernacular, and tone of voice. You may think that if the conference or interview is not on camera, it shouldn’t matter; but I can assure you that certain non-verbal language can impact your tone and pronunciation in a way that others may be able to perceive. Additionally, if you are not careful about these behavioral cues, you may subsequently forget to guard against them when in vivo. Additionally, in video conferences and interviews, try to avoid excessive use of hand motions (unless, of course, you are actually signing for communication… as in American Sign Language or other manual languages). If you are not actually signing, excessive motion can be distracting or appear restless.
Pay attention. Too many people in the world today fail to listen. Most of you will say, “But I do listen!” I suspect that some of you make an effort to do so, but how many of you, when you truly examine your own listening are only listening to prepare a response? This is something into which I have recently put a lot of thought. Instead of hearing what the person has actually said and means, when one is listening merely to construct an argument, you miss not only the meaning, but you may read into their statements something that was never intended. It is especially easy to fall into this trap when communication is telephonic. Humans are programmed to look for meaning. When the visual and non-verbal cues are absent (because the communication is voice only or even text only), many people will insert additional context or content that was never intended by the speaker or writer. So, pay attention to what is actually said. The information gained from what is actually there is potentially ten times more valuable than any imagined meaning gleaned from between the lines.
Wait your turn. This goes hand in hand with the previous tip, and it is possibly the most difficult thing to do in a phone interview or conference call. I have been witness to so many people talking over each other, everyone desperate to get in their two cents, that no one actually heard with the other was saying. With time constraints and ignited passions, it is super difficult to keep the reins on the spoken word dying to pour from the throats of all participants, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to try. Listen for the natural breaks and pauses in the conversation. I know that there are times when interruptions may be unavoidable, but when necessary, apologize. Give the other person the opportunity to continue their own statement. Generally, you will find that by your manners, you will insure your own “turn” to follow. Again, listen closely to others in the conversation. You may find that you do not need to make a statement that may only be a restatement of something that someone else has already said. In video formats, you will have more non-verbal cues to observe for the natural breaks, but it still may not be quite as apparent as the in person interaction. Remember to use good manners and excuse interruptions.
As we continue to increase our technological adaptations for business and personal communication, I foresee face to face (via technology) interaction becoming as common as phone calls are today. Personally, I am thrilled (mostly because I was a big enough geek to love all those science fiction stories and shows), but it does take some accommodation and “getting used to”. I do not by any means believe I have addressed every pitfall or obstacle, but hopefully this short list of tips will help make those distance conferences go a little more smoothly and successfully. Happy face-timing!