Medium 9781576751923

Smart Videoconferencing

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Smart Videoconferencing is the first book to show people how to participate effectively in videoconferences, rather than just how to set them up. The authors show that just like traditional meetings, mastering a few tricks and simple skills can mean the difference between a successful videoconference and an unsuccessful one.

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48 Chapters

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1. Videoconferencing: A Twenty-First Century Business Tool



For many, it was the highlight of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. People waited in the heat in long lines at the AT&T Pavilion to talk with—and see at the same time—a stranger from another fair location. The Bell Labs’ Picturephone was, more or less, successfully demonstrated to the public. People were excited. Many were convinced—or told—the future had arrived.

Videoconferencing had actually been around for decades. It was first demonstrated by Bell Labs technicians who displayed a crude link between Washington, D.C. and New York City in the 1920s. Those in the know hoped this visionary medium would soon realize its potential. It did not. Even after the 1964 World’s Fair excitement, videoconferencing failed to have broad usage for another thirty years.

Now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, VC technology has dramatically improved, and bandwidth continues to be more affordable. Futurist and columnist for, Terry Brock, sees even bigger changes on the horizon: “Telephone lines will go the way of the dinosaur. All communication will eventually go over the Internet, and we will definitely see videoconferencing ease-of-use that equals personal computing today.”3


2. Why New Habits Are Needed



We have come a long way from simply being excited about seeing people who are far away while talking with them to turning the technology into a necessary business communication tool.

Without developing the best habits, however, it is possible—even likely—we will completely misuse this visual medium, look awful, and be perceived in a negative way. And because videoconferences are easily recorded, any mishaps can be watched hundreds of times.

Jay Koenigsberg, founder and CEO of Vexcorp, Inc., a private IP (Internet protocol) network of videoconference services, has set up a network of branch locations across the United States. Jay points out, “The videoconferencing experience is either good or bad. There are no in-betweens.”11 In addition to providing centralized scheduling, and top-notch easy-to-use VC equipment, Vexcorp adds value by paying attention to what Koenigsberg calls the “total videoconference experience.” Vexcorp has experimented with paint colors on his studio walls and settled on a deep blue that is best projected across the public Internet. Chairs do not rock or swivel. Lighting is soft. All of the locations have their city site listed with the Vexcorp logo. This enables participants to easily identify the location of each speaker. These are small details, but they matter. Koenigsberg describes one of his competitors who set up a VC studio in a strip mall next to a Virginia beach. Everyone could see people walking by in bathing suits through the glass window positioned directly in the camera’s view.


3. Limitations of Videoconferences



No one believes or even suggests that videoconferences will replace face-to-face meetings. In fact, some people even doubt that this medium will be as widely accepted as we may first think. Their voices need to be heard in order for us to understand exactly how videoconferencing can add value to the mix of communication tools we currently use. The negative viewpoints will help us to think more clearly about maximizing the effective use of videoconferencing.

A common point of view is that videoconferencing will add value by supplementing telephone and written communication when more human connectivity is desired or required and in-person meetings are not possible or are too time consuming or expensive. Videoconferencing will sit between telephone and in-person meetings as another communication tool available to businesspeople.

Chuck House with Intel, for example, suggests that substituting a videoconference for an in-person meeting might be worse than skipping some meetings altogether. “Consistent remote attendance heightens frustration, builds alienation, and serves to segregate more often than integrate the remote attendee.”12 House’s point is worth considering.


4. Should Your Meeting Be a Videoconference?



Meetings can be called for different purposes: brainstorming, listening to a speech, covering an agenda step by step, meeting the legal requirements of an annual board meeting, training, problem solving, collaborating on a medical decision, strategic planning, team building, introducing new people, reporting and updating, or selling.

Of course, not all meetings work well as videoconferences. For example, technical training seems to work very well in many virtual meetings, whereas staff motivation does not work nearly so well in a virtual meeting. Shared brainstorming among five different people across a huge geographical area is a clumsy use of VC, unless they go off-line to brainstorm and then come back to share ideas.

If this is your first foray into VC, give yourself time to learn from your own experiences. As you become more acquainted with videoconferencing, you can adjust and fine-tune your use of the medium. You will definitely go through a learning curve. Let every videoconference in which you participate be your teacher.


5. The Demands of Videoconferences



One can definitely hold both informal and formal VC meetings. But generally speaking, VC meetings have a sense of formality attached to them as compared to a telephone call and even some face-to-face meetings. For this reason, videoconferences are great for formal speech and media presentation events, especially when involving multiple sites. These types of formal presentations require a great deal of preparation to be impactful.

Videoconferences between customers and suppliers require planning. Whenever you virtually meet customers, make sure your VC style matches your brand image. If you are at your desk computer, make sure that the video broadcast area is neat. Imagine the customers coming right into your office. What would they be able to see? What would you want them to see?

Multisite meetings that replace in-person working meetings also require a great deal of planning if they are to be an effective use of everyone’s time. When you start to hold multisite meetings, get into the good habit of structuring them, especially when you know other participants have never taken part in a videoconference. One bad videoconference experience will create a negative impression that is difficult to shake.


6. Videoconference or Face-to-Face Meeting?



7. Videoconference or Teleconference?



A lot of people think of the medium of television as shallow. As a result, many senior-level businesspeople have a fear of dealing with the news media. They know that many of their messages are simply too complex to explain effectively in ten-second sound bites. They correctly believe that their remarks can be easily distorted. They do not know how to be authentic while on camera. They suspect they do not have good on-camera habits.

While no one easy solution to these legitimate concerns exists, we need to accept the fact that we live in a media culture and understand that one effective way to meet the demands of that culture is to be well prepared. “Winging it” or improvising is simply not the way to approach a medium that has the potential to be broadcast to thousands of people, of which permanent visual records can easily be made, and which carries with it the prestige of and automatic comparison to network television. We must think prime time!

Preparation also requires respecting the limits of human communication. Vin D’Agostino, president of BNS Solutions, a consulting group in Walpole, Massachusetts, points out that when we have all our senses available to us (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) we tend to get sloppy in our communication patterns precisely because we have so much information available to us.17 Since videoconferencing comes closest to duplicating the senses we normally experience with in-person communication, D’Agostino notes that when videoconferencing, people tend to assume the same sensory conditions exist as in person. Obviously they do not, and as a result messages frequently do not come across in a videoconference. Avoiding the potential missteps of this assumption requires thinking your communication requirements through before beginning your video-conference.


8. Preparation



In order to hold a successful videoconference, you need to know the answers to a set of preparatory questions. Get into the habit of asking these questions before every videoconference except the most casual or informal.


Whenever a new technology is introduced, it is easy to oversell it. This is especially true of videoconferencing, which has a certain sex appeal or cachet about it that creates a level of excitement that fax machines or e-mail have never had.

Because of its attributes, most people's vision of videoconferencing is that its quality should be akin to broadcast television. That is probably not going to be the case—at least for a number of years.

We know of a company in Australia that rolled out its videoconferencing system with such fanfare it could not possibly meet the high expectations that were set. After the first few feeble attempts at using it, the multimillion dollar system lies dormant—a clear case of unreasonable expectations.

Most of our clients who have VC capacity have told us of another type of expectation that must be managed. When they first introduce videoconference systems, their staff will claim they need round-the-clock VC capacity. Staff members do not want to share videoconferencing service. They want dedicated capacity—even if they rarely use it. After all, who wants to share a telephone line? The same is true with video. Without managing these expectations, people may not use your expensive videoconference system.


9. Interesting Agendas



If the view never changes, watching a monitor can quickly become boring. Unfortunately, this occurs in many videoconference meetings. People do not understand that virtual meetings are not nearly as compelling as in-person meetings. The most frequent complaint we hear about virtual meetings is “Borrrring!” Because of boredom, when participants are off-camera, there is a good chance they are multi-tasking—both watching and working on something else.

Business videoconferences are not like television, where images change about every seven seconds and splashy graphics are flashed on the screen to grab attention. Television producers do this because they know that viewer attention easily wanders, creating the itch to change channels.

Boredom will occur in your videoconference meetings unless you keep everyone focused. Here are some suggestions.


A certain Nobel laureate and quantum physicist participated in a videoconference that was broadcast to numerous sites.

He treated his audience like a group of students. He scribbled indecipherable notes on a white board. He mumbled. He was dressed as if he were ready to sit down in front of a fire with a book and a cup of tea on a cold winter’s night rather than make a public presentation.


10. Setting Personal Agendas



Before every videoconference, set an agenda for yourself. As a former executive with Ameritech advised us, “Leverage your time carefully when in a videoconference.”18 Set your own goals whether you are the initiator of the meeting or not. What do you want to accomplish? Would it be useful for you to be in control of the camera console?

Other success-oriented people who are participating in the videoconference with you will undoubtedly have their own personal goals. Without your own goals, you create a vacuum that will allow others to dominate the session.

Make a list of the three to five tasks you want to accomplish as a result of the videoconference. Make sure your list includes at least some items that are specifically related to the medium of videoconferencing and could not be accomplished through e-mail or the telephone. For example, making a strong visual impression on your team at another location is a reasonable goal that is related specifically to videoconferencing. Putting names to faces is another.


11. Getting a Great Start



Think of the beginning of your videoconference as if it were a person-to-person meeting—but with greater demands. When you first walk into a VC studio, your remote site or sites may have already called in, and you will be on camera. This can be clumsy because you cannot shake hands as you would in person. One group has attempted to ease this problem by playing music at the main site until people are seated and the meeting is scheduled to begin. Then people start to greet each other at distant locations.

Here are some ways to get a videoconference off to a great start:


Former Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot had built up his running mate. He maintained that James Stockdale would defeat the other two 1992 vice presidential candidates in their nationally televised debate—with one hand tied behind his back.

Apparently Stockdale did not get that message. His opening remarks were two self-deprecating questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

Unfortunately, the questions did not create a strong introduction. He spent the rest of the evening attempting to recover from one of the weakest openings ever. Those questions have become almost as famous as actor Sally Field’s statement when she won a repeat Oscar: “You like me. You like me. You really like me.” She, like Stockdale, has lived with those lines ever since. In fact, she recently starred in a commercial where she mocked herself by using those very comments.


12. Moderators



Moderators can make a multisite or heavily attended two-way videoconference enjoyable—even funny. They can set a tone and establish a theme. On the other hand, if they only enforce rules, they can create boredom. Nonetheless, a moderator must work from guidelines. Here are a few suggestions:

The moderator should spell out ground rules at the beginning of the videoconference. These should cover topics such as


It was clear from the beginning of the virtual meeting that no moderator was present. No one was in charge of making sure the videoconference went smoothly for this major technology company.

After a warm-up speech (which was not broadcast to the off-site locations),two panel discussions were scheduled for transmission. The panel discussions proceeded smoothly enough, though they were dominated by two people. These long-winded panelists spoke so long past their allotted time that no one else had an opportunity to ask questions.

Finally, an excited senior executive introduced the closing speaker of the morning. A lot of money had been paid to hire this speaker, an industry expert, and he was being broadcast to six locations around the United States. His message was to be the key event of the video-conference.


13. Question Handling



The best-phrased answer may be meaningless if everyone has not heard the question. The person who answers a question has obviously heard it, but that does not mean everyone has, especially in a multisite videoconference.

Repeat questions that are posed, unless you are absolutely certain that everyone can hear them. In an international videoconference, repeating questions can be particularly important because of the difficulty in understanding accents and translations.

If you are receiving questions on a computer screen, sent through e-mail, have a person assigned to gather them, group the related ones, and eliminate duplicates. (There will be duplicates, depending upon the size of your audience.)

If you display the e-mails on the screen, have someone clean up spelling mistakes. The person posing the question is probably writing in great haste and would be mortified to see his or her glaring errors projected around the world.

When someone poses a question in a hostile manner, the best way to handle it is simply to repeat the question, minus the hostility—and without any comment. If possible, approach hostile questioners during your next break and remind them that their behavior is being broadcast around the organization and no doubt everyone is now discussing it.


14. Importance of Participation



Without participation, you run the risk of your off-site video viewers watching something so dull that they will stop paying attention.

On-site audiences will more easily maintain their attention because they are watching a live event, not a broadcast. The off-site viewers are the ones on whom to focus the following tips.


A few years ago, a well-known Australian news anchor hosted a major internal videoconference for a large multinational electronics company. The subject matter was more than a little technical. Two of the senior participants became completely engrossed in their discussion, challenging each other on the specifications of data interface standards. The camera was locked on the two protagonists.

Twenty long minutes later, one of the participants turned to the news anchor and asked him to make a comment. When a picture of the news anchor flashed on the screen, he was seen slumped in his chair, sound asleep with his mouth hanging open.

A similar situation happened to a second Australian company that organized a multisite videoconference. The moderator was located at a distant site. When the camera flashed to him, he too was sound asleep. No one could awaken him. Someone had to call the off-site location and ask for someone to go into the studio to wake up the moderator.


15. Watching Your Time



Everything takes longer in a videoconference. On many occasions, participants do not understand until they are in the thick of their conference that communication moves more slowly than when meeting face-to-face.

The spontaneity of a quick remark from one person to another sitting across the table is very difficult to duplicate in a videoconference. Not only is spontaneity lost, but the timing required to communicate naturally is compromised. Because of the lack of spontaneity and the slower conversation speed, boredom is also more likely.

Because communication will take longer, be careful with your timing. If you are to deliver a report or make a presentation, find out how much time you have. Then cut your remarks in half. And then cut them again. They will still probably take you twice as long as you anticipate.

Be scrupulous about sticking to the allotted time. Use a time keeper if you need to, and make sure everyone understands the time signals. This is particularly important if participants are using VC systems that may be scheduled for someone else’s meeting later.


16. International Videoconferences



It is easy to offend someone from your own cultural group—when you intend to offend. It is even easier to offend someone outside your cultural group—without ever knowing you did so. Here are some ways to avoid this problem.


One American businessman has a strong habit of making the “okay” symbol with his hand (the thumb and forefinger forming the letter O) whenever he agrees with something. When he is on the telephone, this habit doesn’t matter. However, in many parts of the world, that gesture is a rude one, in fact, among the rudest.

This particular businessman developed a strong, supportive relationship over the telephone with one of his Brazilian female colleagues. They made a great team, she sourcing manufacturers and he defining product requirements and quality standards.

Then this distribution company got a videoconferencing system.

Now the woman could see her colleague’s habitual “nasty” gestures. Because of her unwillingness to say what was upsetting her, it took quite a while to sort out their subsequent miscommunication. The problem slowed down a project the two were working on, and to this day they don’t feel as good about each other as they once did.


17. Strong Closings



While the advice we have to offer here is reminiscent of the closing advice we would give any meeting planner, some differences for videoconferences are useful to highlight.


Everything was in place for a prestigious financial institution’s multisite videoconference. The meeting opened with an overview by the moderator. An excellent panel delineated the issues that the group needed to consider. The distant locations seemed to be integrated into the virtual meeting. An appropriate process was even selected for identifying the challenges and solutions the multisite group faced. Unfortunately, not enough time was allocated to finish the sharing after the breakout groups did their work.

The facilitator of the process had to be at another event. He left abruptly at 11:45 A.M. The moderator, who was part of the group, could have picked up the process and completed it for the facilitator, but lunch was waiting outside, and we all know how important it is to eat lunch exactly when it arrives.


18. Following Up



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