We need to Tend to our [visual] on-line Presence

I spoke to this early in the pandemic season and need to mention it again:  it is so very important that we tend to how we are coming across in our video conference feeds for meetings and webinars – whether one-on-one or with larger groups.   It is quite important that we give this thought and careful consideration.   No doubt the comments that follow are, in part, arising out of what has amazed me of late:  the inattention that most, it seems, give to their on-line presence – that is, to how they are viewed when on line. 

Comment could perhaps be made about dress – why would we dress for an on-line meeting any differently than an in-person meeting?    And no doubt comment could also be made regarding the quality of our microphone and thus whether whatever system we are using is adequate in terms of sound, so that we are heard and we are able to be heard clearly and comfortably.  But, my focus here will be on three other variables that focus more on the visual setting or context. 

The issue is simple:   those who want to be ‘present’ to the other in a way that is open, transparent and that fosters ease of communication and the requisite levels of trust, tend to their visual presence.  They take it seriously.   What I am saying here applies to all effective communication which includes but is not limited to facial expression.   Taking visual presence seriously means that as a rule we tend to three key variables that are fundamental to our capacity to communicate effectively through a video conference feed – whether that be Zoom or Microsoft Teams or any other platform.    The three key variables are these: 

(1) Camera angle.   All communication is most fruitful when we are face-to-face – on a common level and thus not looking down at the other or up under the chin of the one to whom we are speaking.  We present our best selves and communicate as peers – as equals – when we are not below or above.  Thus the angle of the camera must be something to which we give particular attention and the ideal is that we are not bent over looking down at those with whom we are meeting with but “looking them in the eye” you might say:  as colleagues, peers . . . and, as such, essentially presenting our best “face.” 

The angle should also be such that we are not merely ‘talking heads’ – disembodied.  Put the camera far enough way that you are fully present to the other but also that you are not a disembodied head – much like you would be if you were at a board or meeting table in someone’s office – thus as much of your upper body as would be typical when you meet in person in a board room. 

Side note:  this means you are not walking around with a laptop or phone with all kinds of weird angles so that you are coming across as nothing but a disembodied voice.   If that is your choice, then connect by phone. 

(2) Lighting.   Lighting is important in all human communication – indoors or outdoors.   Can people see us and read our faces and take account of our responses and reactions, including a smile, a laugh or a frown.   Those who take communication seriously, will present themselves as “in the best light” possible:  to foster trust, transparency and clarity.   Here is what I have learned along the way:   natural light rarely works.   It inevitably creates either a strong shadow or glare.   You cannot have the natural light behind you so that you are only a dark silhouette.   You cannot have it to one side so that half your face is shining like a bare lightbulb.    The best by far is artificial light – directly in front of you – that is not a spotlight but a shaded bulb.   Your face is lit up; your background is clearly defined.  There are no strong shadows – on your face or around you.   You can be seen; you have nothing to hide.   Your presence is clear, forthright and within all the limits of a video feed, engaging. 

(3) Background.   Yes, much has been made of the carefully curated book shelves before which celebrities have chosen to conduct their interviews with daily news or late night anchors.   But there is some truth in this and I urge one and all to take the principle seriously:  locate yourself in your place, your location, the setting from which you are participating in this video engagement with another.   Your background or setting should be true and authentic – true to your location, your working space.  But avoid clutter and busyness and anything that would distract those with whom you are meeting.   Perhaps have a feature of interest – a piece of art, perhaps, or something that represents your history or story.   But keep it simple without making the setting stark.   Give your background texture as well as meaning.   When you do a zoom call you are, essentially, inviting the other person into your space.   So, tend it as though they were going to visit you in person. 

And what about the pseudo background images – beaches and mountains and Disneyesque options or a photo of your own choosing that you can select as your background?  Well, you are not in that location; that is not your space; you are not speaking from that venue.  it is pseudo.   It is a fake.   Even if those who are speaking with you know it is fake, it is still a fake.   If you are bringing a sermon or a talk . . . if you are presenting a financial report to a board . . . if you are making a presentation to a prospective donor . . .if you are in a counseling session with a person struggling with a mental health challenge . . . everything that they see needs to be consistent with what they hear.   Everything.   The video feed is artificial enough as it is; do not exacerbate the limitations of the medium with a pseudo background   Do all you can to communicate clarity, consistency and authenticity within the limitations of the medium. 

All of these variables are not a matter of vanity or self absorption; it is about clarify in your communication . . . doing all you can to foster transparency, personal engagement and consistency of messaging.   Remember:   we do not speak merely with our mouths; we communicate with our faces – with raised eyebrows, and eyes that are alive and present to the other and, of course, with a smile. 

Also, I know this is more difficult for some than for others.   Last month I was in a video conference group that included a woman in Holland who was clearly on line from her kitchen.  And I felt for her:  she likely had nowhere else to set up her lap top.   And a gentleman on this side of the Atlantic who was on line from the storage room of his house.   Again, that was likely his best option.  I get that.  But, let’s – as we are able, within the options and resources available to us – do what we can to tend our on-line visual presentation.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.