Is Video Conferencing Just Like Being There?

Last Updated May 19, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

As volcanoes, terrorists and Jo from Accounting make travel less convenient and budget-friendly it would make sense that people look to video conferencing as a replacement. But can you simply swap screen to screen for face to face and get the same results?

On the surface it would seem to have many of the advantages of person-to-person communication: you can get the visual cues that are missing from telephone conversations while engaging in real-time conversation. As science has discovered, however, what we see may not be sending the message people want.

As two researchers in Pennsylvania recently discovered, As Surinder Kahai pointed out in a blog post recently, when we watch people on a computer screen we filter the information. Basically, our brains tell us that what we are seeing is just an image, not a real person and we treat the information as we would when watching television. We pay less attention to content and more to the more superficial aspects of the speaker's demeanor (there's a Fox News joke here I won't stoop to, but you get the idea).

So does video conferencing add value at all? Well sure it does but simply replacing a live meeting with a streamed image won't give you the rich communication experience you need. Here are some tips for making video conferencing work for you:

  • Support the speaker with other visuals. Because of the way our brains work we find it hard to really listen to all the details. By adding visuals (like a clean, not too crowded PowerPoint slide) with supporting information we can absorb more of the important points.
  • When possible, allow 2-way communication. When it's one on one with someone else there are great tools that allow for 2-way video communication. Bandwidth problems can make this an expensive option, though. Consider using tools like chat and open telephone lines to encourage real time audio conversations which will be more engaging to the audience. There is a tendency for audiences to become passive when the speaker is on camera, and if your goal is input and collaboration you'd better be a good facilitator to draw that information out of your viewers.
  • Learn to use the darned camera. Simply turning a camera on a live presenter, even a good one, won't necessarily translate into a great online presentation. A common problem is that people will speak to the monitor (or the little box in the corner of their computer screen) believing they are making eye contact with the audience. The result is constantly looking down which can send a message that you're not being honest with your audience or not confident in your material. Learn to speak (at least part of the time) to the camera itself. This takes practice but it's doable and technique makes a world of difference. (I can put the obligatory MSNBC joke here to even things up if you like).
  • Video doesn't necessarily make things more interesting. If you've ever fallen asleep in front of the television you know that just because there's something onscreen doesnt' make it worth watching.
Yes, video conferencing can help make communication richer, and it's better than being stuck in an airport lounge for 8 hours, but deciding between when to use it and when to just pick up the phone is almost as important as the tool you finally decide on.

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photo by Flickr User Roo_Reynolds CC 2.0