The Plague-Ground – I See What You Say

I’ve noticed something odd in my Zoom calls, and maybe you have too.

It’s that they sound better when the video is Off than when it’s On. By this I mean the experience is richer and more ‘real’. This may not be as true when there are a dozen square screens of bobbing faces on my computer. But it certainly is with one-on-one calls.

I found this out yesterday when I was on a call with a client whom I’ve dealt with for years. We know each other well, so we’ve built up an informal codebook of words and gestures that we’re barely aware of but that makes our communications faster and more efficient. An eyebrow raised one-way signals “Please explain more”, and raised another means “No way.”

Since this was a ‘catch-up’ call, we both had lots of questions at the start about how our families are doing and if we’re ‘okay.’

I noticed a lag between what I was hearing, what I was seeing and what I was saying. Not just lips out-of-sync, but choppy body-gestures that made it impossible for me to ‘read’ my client’s face and what she was thinking. It felt odd waiting five seconds for her to crack a smile after I said something funny. Maybe it wasn’t funny. Naturally, I stopped saying funny things and cut short the banter because it took so much work and doubt.

We then shifted into a discussion about work. Here, it got worse because we were talking about a complex project with many moving parts and just as many people. Each of us had to repeat things just to make sure we’d made our point.

After 10 minutes of this, and with both of us feeling as if we were over-enunciating the way everyone does when they speak their native tongue to someone who doesn’t, my client said: “Bob, I have an idea. Why don’t we turn off the video on our calls and just make this a phone call?”

“Do you want to reschedule this call?”

“No, let’s keep going. But let’s ditch the video part.”

So we did.

And of course, we instantly understood each other much better.

She was right. This was like a…… phone call!

I remember those!

So what is it that makes no pictures better than slightly out-of-sync ones?

Well, for sure our brains fill in the blanks and listen harder for the underlying signals sent by our voices instead. This accounts for the enduring appeal of radio drama and of many podcasts too. Our minds’ eyes see what our eyes alone can’t.

I also found another oddity with my video turned off.

Freed from someone watching me, I moved around in my chair, fiddled with a paperclip, cleaned off my keyboard. In other words, I relaxed, which I suspect made my speaking more relaxed and easier to fathom.

This is one reason I turn my video off when I’m just hanging out on a webinar with 50 to 100 others. No one else needs to see my unshaven face and unruly head of hair. But more than that, my body doesn’t have to be on its best behaviour.

So…the next time you’re on a Zoom call, and especially one-on-one, turn the video on to say hello and establish Proof of Life, then turn it off for the rest of the call – and see how you feel.

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Get your tickets to the TWO upcoming RamsayTalks Online: May 14th  with Jared Diamond, “one of the deepest thinkers of our time,” and May 25th with Roger McNamee who believes tech is too important to operate without adult supervision.

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13 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – I See What You Say”

  1. Sounds like you have internet issues. 1. what kind of service do you subscribe to at your residences? 2.Do not use wifi. 3. Use ethernet cable connection to your pc/laptop. Look into this and you shouldn’t have these problems.

  2. Madeline Thompson

    I so agree with you Bob – I’ve done hundreds of script consulting skype calls
    and always prefer audio only. Video is distracting from what we’re dealing with
    which often involves very complex ideas over characters driving the storyline,
    juxtapositioning of scenes, action etc. etc. I think this works for almost anything
    when you working, or even chatting with loved ones. Can be so much more
    spontaneous when you’re not on a five-second delay! Also means I don’t have
    to fuss and fart around trying to hide my age.

  3. I have no intention of ever going on a zoom call…problem solved. Having said that and to extend your observation, maybe that is why a good book is so much better than the movie and a well hand written letter so much more powerful than a text, e-mail or voice message.

  4. I can’t resist telling a story about out-synch responses. I was giving a talk to a large group of people from the Mexican Institute of Petroleum. Unbeknownst to me, there was a simultaneous (well, of course, not quite simultaneous) translation going on. Without lighting focused on the front, I couldn’t see the earphones,. I couldn’t figure why my funny lines were getting no response, yet the audience was laughing at some very serious points. As I was speaking, the back part of my brain was trying to figure this out and I finally understood they were indeed laughing at the funny parts, just somewhat late, Thereafter, I incorporated pauses throughout the talk. Lack of synch can be very disconcerting!

  5. Thanks for this insight Bob! I’ve been both exhausted and frustrated by Zoom calls (in lieu of personal meetings with clients). You put your finger on it. The Zoom or Skype visual does not always correspond to the aural, like it does in a personal meeting,.and so one is working doubly hard to fully understand the speaker.
    Yesterday, I lost the visual of me on a Skype call and couldn’t figure how to get it back. The client couldn’t see me (I could see them). The result was that I thought I did a much better job of remotely (COVID-19 style) taking them through their documentation signing than I would have done if they were trying to look at me, as well as, the paperwork. I was thinking of doing future signings the same way. You have convinced me to do so.
    P.S. I always look forward to your daily message in my email.

    1. Thanks for connecting, Yeti. One of my colleagues turns the video off on our 6-person weekly calls. All that happens is that we listen to her more intently!
      So, yes, it sounds like a good idea. Jean and I have been up north for the past 7 weeks; Jean’s practising telemedicine and I’m doing the blogs and going for very VERY long walks !

    2. Lib — I can imagine the ‘delay’ between speaking and hearing. But having to deal with the double delay you describe would throw me off entirely. Thanks for connecting. Cheers. Bob

    3. Chris — I agree with you, especially about the letter which no one writes any more. Rarity breeds value!
      Cheers. Bob

    4. Ah right, the hiding your age part……I’m convinced that some of my colleagues dress up and put on extra makeup for their ZOOM appearances. Best to keep the mystery !
      Cheers. Bob

    5. Thanks for this. I”m looking into ethernet right now…..
      Believe me, we need it here.

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