It has gone from being a surprising observation last spring to a daily truism at this point: Zoom fatigue is real. Now that we are engaged in regular meetings by video web-conferencing, we’ve come to fully grasp the reality that it can be exhausting, particularly to do it for more than an hour or so. As I’ve observed previously, psychologists note that online interaction makes it harder to read cues and promotes a greater degree of distracting self-awareness. In short, it can be taxing on our attention because our attention is working in different ways.
Beyond observing that the fatigue is real, it might help to get more specific about the causes. Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, writes in a current article in Technology, Mind, and Behavior (Bailenson, 2021) that the research suggests four reasons Zoom conferencing is uniquely tiring. These observations have implications for online trials and other legal applications of web-conferencing technology, of course, but I believe that they also carry relevance for understanding an audience’s comprehension and attention barriers more generally. The factors that make Zoom tough can also create a challenge for in-person jurors and others to attend to information for an extended period of time. In this post, I will take a look at Professor Bailenson’s four reasons as well as some solutions.
All Eyes on You
The video conference screen is typically a grid of faces, with the appearance that every one of those faces is looking forward at you. That isn’t what happens in a typical meeting where we all have the liberty of focusing elsewhere, and most often at the person speaking. In a videoconference, however, we seem to be the center of attention even when we are just listening. That illusion of the group’s full focus being directed at us is one element that adds stress. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” Bailenson said. “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.” In other words, it takes the stress of public speaking and applies it to all interactions during the group communication. The other way the monitor view adds to stress is the tendency for most participants to frame the camera on their face which simulates the situation of each of the meeting participants standing relatively close to us. That subconsciously feels like a violation of personal space.
While in-person audiences are not relying on monitors with close-up views, it is safe to say that they are also sensitive to heightened attention. Jurors, for example, will often say after a trial that they did not like being constantly watched. Members of trial teams, for that reason, have to be a little bit subtle and not study the jury too hard or too obviously. Voir dire, as well, can be a period of self-consciousness for potential jurors, which is why it can be very useful to gather some of the information — particularly on personal or sensitive topics — via a questionnaire rather than in open court.
A Constant Mirror
Professor Bailenson also points out the fact that, within the default web-conference settings, we can see ourselves all the time: “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that.” This issue, one that is quite unique to Zoom settings, is probably a powerful factor in contributing to greater stress and exhaustion. But it also has an easy fix: You can turn the self-view off. Alternately, experienced Zoom conferencers can work on developing the habits to use that view well (checking to make sure you are centered in the frame, well lit, and looking calm and confident) without letting that become a distraction. The key in dealing with speech anxiety is to keep your focus on your audience and your task, and not on yourself.
Anchored in Place
Think about what you do during a phone call: You might walk around the room and do other things at the same time. At home, you could be doing the laundry or making dinner. In the office (back when I worked in one), I developed the habit of putting on a headset and pacing around as I talked, particularly when I had to be creative. Movement sometimes makes it easier to focus and stay engaged. Staying in one spot, in contrast, makes it easier to lose focus and drift. As Bailenson notes, the research tends to back that up with a number of studies showing that, when moving, we are able to show better performance on cognitive tasks.
In a web-conference, we are locked down in front of a computer, not moving as we would be if on the phone, and a bit more stationary than we would be even in an in-person meeting. That situation of having to be relatively stationary while attending to information, however, parallels what we expect of jurors in-person as well; they’re also not at liberty to wander or to obviously drop their focus. The fact that it is hard for all of us trained professionals to do this for a long period of time should serve as a reminder of just how hard it is for jurors to do it as well. It is also a reminder to keep things moving and keep the content dynamic. It is hard to pay attention while being anchored in place, so at a content and a style level, attorneys and witnesses should look for opportunities to occasionally change things up in order to keep attention.
A Higher Cognitive Load
A final reason why Zoom calls seem to be uniquely taxing is that they are lower definition than real life, since we are seeing just the camera’s frame and often at a somewhat low resolution with some visual and audio glitches thrown in. In that setting, the kinds of conversational monitoring for nonverbal cues can become more difficult. Professor Bailenson explains that, even though it is still just human communication, it has been transformed into something that requires more thought and attention: “You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
The solutions for web-calls are to have shorter meetings, to take breaks, and to be willing to go with audio-only at times. For online trials, the solution is similarly to recognize and adapt to the greater workload. It will also be important to simply acknowledge to jurors that we know that this is a situation that requires heightened attention and we understand that it will be taxing. That is one of the reasons we will have more breaks, but we also need jurors to apply their best attention.
In or out of a Zoom call, a broader point is that good communicators should never take for granted that their audiences are fully engaged and attentive. That is a hard state to attain in most situations. For that reason, legal communicators should understand and guard against tasks that are more taxing, take greater amounts of attention, or make individuals more self-conscious. Zoom is a new contender in that category, but it isn’t the only one.