Natural, Virtual or Blurred Backgrounds?

By | July 27th, 2021|Online meetings, Online video, Personal Profile|

Our Head of Voice, Steven Maddocks, explores the various ‘background’ options at online meetings.

 

‘We can’t decide what to do about our backgrounds. What do you recommend?’

This question arose recently during an online communication workshop I was running for the senior team at a law firm.

I cast my eye across the framed faces on my screen. Most people were evidently sitting in a home office. Some, had blurred their background, so I couldn’t tell where they were. A few had opted for a virtual background: there were some tasteful interiors and a hip-looking coffee house. One person was apparently dialling in from space.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘there are three options, and we can see all three on this call. Let’s look at each in turn.’

1. NATURAL

PROS

(i) Visually, the least discordant. You are where you appear to be, in a real space.

(ii) The personal touch sets a relaxed tone and puts others at their ease.

(iii) Objects and decor stimulate small talk.

CONS

(i) Not everyone has a ‘professional’ working space at home.

(ii) If you are interrupted, you cannot cover up.

(iii) There is a lack of uniformity across a team.

2. BLURRED

PROS

(i) You can work from a convenient spot at home without doing a major makeover.

(ii) There is a degree of connection between you and your surroundings.

(iii) Others at the meeting can focus on you, not on your room.

CONS

(i) People might wonder what you are hiding.

(ii) It is rather artificial: you can appear somewhat floaty.

(iii) When you move, the blur effect ‘leaks’, so that bits of your room come in and out of focus.

3. VIRTUAL

PROS

(i) There is an opportunity to communicate a strong corporate identity.

(ii) A relevant background might stimulate conversation about the company.

(iii) A fun background could lighten the mood.

CONS

(i) Requires a green screen to work well; frequent glitches can be distracting.

(i) The artifice is usually evident, and you appear disconnected.

(iii) Can be somewhat clinical and impersonal.

 

As we weighed up the various options, the discussion opened out.

‘Clients love our old building with its traditional decor,’ one person pointed out. ‘Couldn’t we use different photos of our offices as virtual backgrounds?’

The senior partner thought for a moment. ‘I lean towards natural backgrounds, warts and all – or pets and all,’ she laughed as her cat jumped onto her lap. ‘It seems more honest.’

Another colleague joined in. ‘Yes, but consistency is important. Sorry, guys, but we are a bit of a jumble.’ Someone else agreed. ‘If we all have blurred backgrounds, the focus is on us.’

Another attendee had switched across to a virtual background, and now sat in front of the striking company logo. ‘We have such great branding. Let’s make use of it.’

At MSB Executive, we don’t believe that one size fits all. In this case, I offered a fourth option – and for this team, it seemed the best fit. I called it “Branded Natural”. Everyone on the team was to place an object carrying the company logo somewhere in their webcam view. That could be a picture hung on a wall or placed in a photo holder on the desk. It could be a standing banner somewhere in the room. They might all have exactly the same object, or all have different ones. It might not even be a logo – was there a company motto? An animal or object that represented their core values?

I’ll find out what they chose at our follow-up workshop in a few weeks. But the discussion was a reminder of how vital the visual message is. Online meetings present unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to saying who we are before we’ve said a word.

Zoomed Out? Some Top Tips To Survive The Zoom Era

By | March 31st, 2021|Online meetings, Online video, Presentation skills, Uncategorized, Video, Voice|

Among all the terms future dictionaries will inherit from COVID-19, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is certain to feature. (It applies to all video conferencing software, but ‘Microsoft Teams fatigue’ doesn’t have the same ring.) Citigroup employees are clearly fatigued: on 23 March, chief executive Jane Fraser announced ‘Zoom-free Fridays’.

But are there ways – short of a total switch-off – of making online meetings less exhausting? Considerable brain power has been applied to this question. Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University offered four remedies for Zoom fatigue. How useful are they?

1. Reduce eye contact

Bailenson notes that eye contact on Zoom, with its sea of staring faces, is unnatural. Each face fills its box, so you are seeing colleagues or clients much closer-up than you would in real life. This can put the brain into a state of heightened anxiety. Bailenson suggests reducing the size of the Zoom window to shrink the faces. He also suggests increasing the distance between you and your screen so you are literally further away from everyone.

Our opinion: This is useful advice. We work with our clients on how to ‘frame’ oneself. Giving a good view of yourself to others can be vital to a successful meeting. (We don’t just mean having some ‘clever’ books in the background!) If everyone’s view of you – and yours of them – is approximately what it would be across a boardroom table, you have got it right.

2. Turn off self-view

The constant view of ourselves we have on Zoom (Bailenson likens it to being followed around all day by someone holding a mirror) can cause negativity and stress. Bailenson suggests we ‘hide self-view’. To do this on Zoom just right click on your thumbnail and you will be given this option.

Our opinion: This advice is sound, though we would point out some of the benefits of self-view. Without it, we can only guess at what others are seeing of us. Is the bright light in the background throwing us into silhouette? Are our excellent hand gestures ‘in shot’? We say, by all means turn off self-view, but only once you are confident that you look your best. Appoint a trusted colleague to keep an eye on you and let you know (privately!) if you have spinach in your teeth.

3. Move around

A day working from home is much less mobile than a day at the office. Bailenson recommends putting distance between yourself and the camera to allow room to ‘pace and doodle.’

Our opinion: The problem is correctly identified, but the solution is incomplete. We advise a maximum of fifty minutes before a break to stretch legs. Meetings should not be back to back. Lunch breaks should be long enough for some light exercise. We recommend using a standing desk (it could just be a kitchen worktop or a music stand) for at least part of the day. Why not designate certain meetings as scrums, with everyone standing? We think you’ll notice an uplift in positivity!

4. Have ‘audio only’ breaks

Bailenson identifies a downside of Zoom that we at MSB Executive have been talking about since the beginning: effective communication online is harder work. A virtual meeting strips away the ‘nonverbals’ that flow between us when we meet in real life. These subtle (and subconscious) eye movements, twitches, gestures and electrical signals clear the path along which our words travel. Our brains naturally seek them out, but – on a Zoom call – cannot find them. This futile hunt exhausts us. Bailenson suggests taking breaks from video by switching to audio-only and turning away from the screen.

Our opinion: This advice (avoidance) is somewhat negatively framed. It is true that some meetings would be better as ‘audio only’. So leave the laptop behind altogether, go to a different room and… pick up the phone!

The absence of nonverbals increases pressure on the voice, which has to work harder. That is why we offer voice coaching sessions with plenty of practical advice for keeping the voice bright and confident throughout the day. Our clients report back that sounding good makes them feel good – just the sort of positive outcome we always drive for.

Written by Steven Maddocks, MSB Executive’s Head of Voice Coaching

Top Tips For Setting Up A Webinar

By | February 4th, 2021|Communication, Online meetings, Online video, Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking|

There were a couple of questions at the CFA UK webinar I ran yesterday (03/02/2021) about how I managed my set up for the webinar. In particular people wanted to know about how I kept eye contact with the camera while using notes. Here is a photo of my set up. You will see:

  • The platform on my desk allows me to stand up while presenting. This is useful for longer presentations. It helps the voice sound more authoritative and the body language to be more expressive.
  • Camera above the screen. Most importantly it is at eye level.
  • Notes above the camera. This has some key words or phrases to keep me on track. I don’t need to look far from the camera to check what comes next.
  • Notes at bottom of the screen. If I need to read the notes in more detail looking down for a few moments is better than looking up or to the side.
  • LED ring light: balances the natural light from my window on the right.
  • Split screens: the lap top has the videos and the small number of slides that I used ready so I can make sure everything is correct before sharing the screen.
  • Cup of tea: essential.

Do get in touch of you have any questions about getting the right set up for your online meetings and presentations.

5 ways 2020 has changed how we communicate

By | January 5th, 2021|Blog, Body Language, Communication, Online meetings, Online video|

The impact of Covid 19 transformed the world as we knew it last year. We have been reflecting on what this has meant for the way we communicate as humans. It feels that we have adapted from age-old, ingrained, means of communication to entirely different norms in a rapid period.

Here are 5 ways 2020 changed how we communicate:

1. A window into your home

‘Dress to impress’ was the adage pre-2020 to remind us that people judge the visual as much as our content in communicating. Now we must think one step further thanks to the rise in video calls. We need to ‘window dress’ our backgrounds as every video call allows a little window into our homes. This is all the more obvious when we see reporters, journalists and interviewees in their homes on TV news – sometimes it’s hard to believe that they haven’t thought more about their backgrounds because whether we like it or not, this gets judged as much as we ourselves do.

2. Interpreting communications through a mask

So much of how we communicate is nuanced in micro facial expressions but for much of this year we’ve been communicating with each other through a mask. It means that we need to work harder with both our words and our tone of voice to convey more explicitly the sentiment of what we’re saying.

3. New language adopted instantaneously

New terminology has emerged constantly that is suddenly the jargon on everybody’s lips. Furlough, pandemic, Covid, PPE and of course, festive bubbles – which until this year meant something entirely different in previous years!

4. Greetings with elbow bumps

Physical contact is a primal need. Will we return to shaking hands when the world returns to normal? People may take different approaches. Expect some awkward moments when we do go back to some face-to face meetings.

5. Gathering as groups online

Last but not least is of course, the omnipresence of video calls and meetings as working from home became the standard practice. Again, we’ve lost a lot the subtlety that body language brings into communicating. This has led to some bumpy moments on Zoom calls such as speaking over one another or where everyone has their camera turned off and you feel you are speaking into a void!

In summary

We think these changes demonstrate the incredible ability humans have in adapting to their circumstances. It will be interesting to observe in 2021 which of these new habits in communicating we keep or if we’ll revert back to old ways. Or perhaps more likely there will be a combination… transparent face masks anyone?

How video affected Prime Minister’s Questions

By | November 19th, 2020|Authority, Online meetings, Online video, Public speaking, Q&As, Video|

History was made at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday when Boris Johnson took part by video link. We were interested in how this would affect the dynamic of the exchanges, particularly with the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer.  We noticed an interesting change in status between the two speakers.  As audience members, we felt additional gravitas was afforded to Boris thanks to appearing on video call.

Why was this the case? Firstly, PMQs is usually a circus of whoops and jeers when a politician is speaking. This was still true whilst Keir Starmer was talking as he was physically in parliament and the background heckling was alive and well albeit with fewer MPs to do the shouting. This was contrasted when the camera shot switched to Boris on video where he was bathed in silence. Subconsciously, his communication carried more weight because of this.

Similarly, Boris was talking right into the camera lens, making good eye contact. It creates the impression that he is talking directly to you and comes across as more sincere. This contrasted with Starmer who was being filmed in parliament, often from above, so he rarely looked into the camera. He looked down and read his notes often which created a disconnect with the audience. This departure from the level playing field of all politicians being filmed in the same location does create a different impact on authority.

It is likely that we will enter a period where business meetings are often a hybrid of in person and video participants. The dynamics will be different to PMQs but we need to be aware of how the medium of our communications affects meetings and this will be a topic we return to over the coming months.

For more information on looking and sounding confident and authoritative at online meetings, have a look at our Online Masterclass: How to make a great impression at online meetings!

The most frequently asked question about online meetings is….

By | November 5th, 2020|Online meetings, Online video, Perception, Presentation skills, Video, Voice|

It’s fascinating to observe how the questions we get asked at workshops are evolving as a result of this transformative year. Having recently completed a series of presenting with impact and client skills workshops at a leading investment research firm, there was one question that came up time and again:

 

Can you ask a client to turn their video on?

 

The question is completely understandable. It is hugely helpful to be able to see your audience. It’s important for rapport and to gauge how your message is being received. Plus if you yourself have your camera on and are willing to be seen, surely it’s only polite for the other party to be there? You wouldn’t hide yourself if you were at a face to face meeting.

There are also all the assumptions you make when the other party hasn’t turned on their video. Maybe they are not that interested in what you have to say? Or they might have you on in the background whilst they complete a few emails? Or they might still be sat in their pyjamas?

Here’s our best response to the question but we’d equally love to hear others’ views on this.

Whilst you can’t force anyone to turn their cameras on, you can signpost early in the interaction that a ‘videos on’ meeting is what’s expected. Refer to the meeting as a video call for example. You could even include a note on the invite that a video meeting is what’s preferred. E.g. let’s attend with videos turned on where possible as it would be great to meet face to face.

If the attendee turns up with their video off then it’s probably too late to ask them to turn it on. You don’t want to cause anyone to panic if they haven’t really prepared themselves to be visible.

This is of course our take on the matter. Get in touch and let us know your own experience and thoughts!

A Perspective On Zoom Fatigue

By | June 11th, 2020|Online meetings, Online video|

As the majority of our meetings continue to be hosted online, the rise of ‘Zoom fatigue’ has become a natural occurrence. In this short video, Martyn Barmby, the Founder of MSB Executive, explains the reasons for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and some tips to avoid it.

Your Questions Answered On Making A Great Impression At Online Meetings

By | May 21st, 2020|Asset Management, Body Language, Building Confidence, Client skills, Online meetings, Online video, Video|

We were delighted to run a webinar for the CFA Society yesterday on how to make a great impression at online meetings. With nearly 100 people in attendance, it is clearly a hot topic.

There were some great questions and we thought if might be useful to share a couple for everyone.

If you have any more questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch! Or check out our comprehensive masterclass ‘How To Make A Great Impression At Online Meetings’ which covers all the techniques you will need to make a positive impact!

Is it good to lean forwards towards the screen at online meetings?

There are some who advise leaning forwards throughout online meetings to make a good impression. While we agree there are benefits to leaning into the screen, our advice is to start in a ‘neutral position’. This is where you sit up tall in the centre of your chair and imagine that there is a helium balloon attached to the top of your head pulling your spine and neck long.

Leaning in is useful if you want to show enthusiasm when you are talking. Or if you want to make it clear you would like to say something. However, we would recommend you use this position sparingly. The risk is that it can be misinterpreted as though you are ‘pleading’ in some cases or ‘overbearing’ in others.

What is the best way to take notes during a meeting?

There is nothing worse than hearing ‘thunder typing’ when you are at an online meeting – someone noisily thwacking away at the keyboard. Even if that person is making notes and concentrating on the call, it can be very distracting. So at the very least, mute your screen when you are typing.

The other danger is that people can jump to conclusions that you are not concentrating on the call.  Old fashioned pen and paper works well. It is easier for others on the call to see you are taking notes if they can see a pen in your hand.

The key point is to make it clear that you are present on the call and are not working on anything else. Even if that means slipping it into the conversation that you’ve been taking notes!

How to achieve the perfect posture at online meetings

By | April 23rd, 2020|Authority, Body Language, Online meetings, Online video, Presentation skills, Video, Voice|

The correct posture is so important at online meetings to help us not only look calm and relaxed but also to ensure we breathe well. Our Head of Voice at MSB Executive; Steven Maddocks shares his invaluable insights on how to achieve the optimal posture at online meetings.

This video is part of our series to ensure impactful communication at online meetings.

A simple guide to improving your articulation

By | April 14th, 2020|Blog, Building Confidence, Client skills, Online meetings, Online video, Presentation skills, Uncategorized, Video, Voice|

Our Head of Voice at MSB Executive; Steven Maddocks shares simple tools and techniques to improve articulation. This is another part of our series to ensure impactful communication at online meetings.

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