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Field Notes: Video Conferencing for Business Conversations

This past week saw my first experience with video conference calling – something obvious to consider in these tight economic times. Some observations –

  • I got quick feedback that my original camera position was disconcerting for the others. I had put it off to the side, which made me look “off camera”, almost in profile, while in conversation. As I thought about it, I agreed – because if I was looking at me, it would be weird / annoying. I do not like it when the person I am talking with is not looking me in the eyes.
  • On that note – when we’re in a conversation, I’m typically looking at a 6” circle around your  eyes. When on a business / working video conference, however, I’m looking at a 2 x 2 inch square picture of the speaker – because we all have other windows open, looking at documents / programs under review. It’s feels more like a “talking headsnewscast than a conversation …
  • … but you have to take the good with the bad. The ability to bring up a spreadsheet or presentation or application on a shared screen is quite powerful – participants can “see what I see”. You just need to understand that this is a multimedia conversation, and not simply a replacement for a phone call.
    • On the other hand – my family uses Skype to stay connected with our daughter away at college. When we make the call, we’ll flip the video feed to full screen – and since the web cams on our respective laptops are perched right above the screen, our eyes are focused reasonably close to the other person’s face. Simple conversational video calls, without the multitasking overhead, are reasonably effective.
  • Microphone configuration is also very important; some folks are using headsets, while I use the microphone incorporated in the video camera. I prefer this arrangement; I’m already comfortable with using a speakerphone on normal calls, and prolonged use of an earpiece gets a bit annoying. The key, however, is to get everyone to correctly configure microphone settings. Everyone’s volume was a little different, and it impacted the smooth flow of conversation.
  • We are using inexpensive web cams, not highfalutin’ conference calling hardware. In this scenario, the system does a reasonably brilliant job of flipping camera control to whoever is speaking. This seems obvious, but I noticed that when I was speaking, your remote view doesn’t bother flipping to your feed – it stays on the last speaker. This can be a tad disconcerting if that person reverts to typical conference call habits, and looks away / does a little multi-tasking.
  • I also noticed that people were much more cautious, or overly polite, about talking over one another. I assume that as we get used to holding conference calls in this format, we’ll get more comfortable with the interruptions.

Later in the week, I had a long conversation with a colleague in Germany. Here, the video call format is very effective. Typically, I prefer face-to-face conversations to phone calls – you can react when someone’s facial expressions signal a lack of agreement or comprehension. Of course, this is not practical with meine freunde in Deutschland, where language differences exacerbate the situation. The video call solves that problem immediately and effectively – I found myself communicating in face-to-face mode now, with hand gestures (ex. air quotes) and facial expressions indicate agreement, keep the conversation moving along.

Like any bit of technology, reality is not as smooth as the sales pitch makes it out to be, but still a very effective tool, and something that can be experimented with quite inexpensively.

Experimentation leads to experience, leads to effectiveness.

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