These days, instead of spending our days in offices, conference rooms, and courthouses, we are likely spending those days in front of laptop web-cameras, negotiating our business lives in this new medium. I have noticed that even some contacts that used to be handled by telephone, are now becoming web-conferences. I suppose, because people suddenly know how to do it. So, the result is that not just trial preparation and other business meetings, but also testimony preparation, hearings, even bench trials and appeals, are taking place in videoconferencing space. In that new setting, is it just a matter of adding a web-camera to the same communication behaviors? I suspect that anyone who has spent even a little time in these conferences knows that the answer is, “Not really.”
For one thing, it takes a little more effort and energy to communicate effectively and to be a good audience, as well. A recent article was published on BBC entitled, “The Reason Zoom Calls Drain Your Energy.” The author interviews Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Instead and Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who both focus on workplace communication, well-being, and effectiveness. The article focuses on some of the main reasons why the web-conferencing medium calls for different kinds of attention, and why it can end up sapping our energy and focus. And in the context of the present pandemic, there are other stressors as well. “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together,” Dr. Petriglieri notes. “What I’m finding is, we’re all exhausted; It doesn’t matter whether they are introverts or extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic.” In this post, I will take a look at the reasons that web-conferencing can add to that, as well as some of the steps advocates and witnesses can take to address that exhaustion.
Why Is Web-Conferencing Different?
It isn’t a matter of just putting a web-camera on our current communication habits and expectations. Instead, the experts highlight some important differences in the medium.
Web-Conferencing Requires Harder Work on Cues
The picture and the sound are not as good as live. Then there is also the presence of a timing lag that is sometimes minor, sometimes quite annoying, but never fully absent. Those differences cause us to have to work harder on attending to the verbal and nonverbal cues of those we are watching, listening to, and talking with. It takes more energy to read them. Part of it is simply the awareness of distance. Dr. Petriglieri notes, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally.”
Web-Conferencing Makes it Difficult to Deal with Pauses
When you are presenting as an advocate, and particularly when you are testifying as a witness, it is essential to pause from time to time. That silence helps both you and your audience process more effectively. But the experts in the BBC article make a good point: Silence is interpreted differently on a web conference. It can cause anxiety about the technology or the connection. Recall all the times that participants will ask something like “Can you still hear me…are you still there?” The problem is that we don’t know whether the pause is caused by the speaker or by a glitch in the technology. The BBC article cites research (Schoenenberg, Raake & Koeppe, 2014) showing that transmission delays on phone or conferencing systems can be read negatively, and even a delays of 1.2 seconds can cause listeners to perceive the speaker as less friendly and focused.
Web-Conferencing is More Obviously Performative
Participating in a web-conference can lead to individuals focusing on the performative aspects of their own presentation. Of course, speakers and witnesses are the center of attention in live settings, as well, but the on-screen technology can make that more obvious and, as a result, more distracting. Dr. Shuffler notes, “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” When we prepare speakers and witnesses, we encourage them to be aware of that attention and to be mindful of their appearance, posture, face, and gestures. But we would not encourage them to testify with a mirror in front of them, because that level of self-attention is counterproductive. The default settings in most web-conferencing platforms, however, provide that “mirror” view to the speaker on their own screen, a continual reminder of that visual performance.
How Should We Respond?
If we are conscious of not just the opportunities, but also the limitations of technology, then there are a few things that legal communicators ought to do in response to the energy-sapping challenging of web-conferences.
Check on Alternatives
The solution isn’t always going to be a camera and a computer screen. Shared documents, team sites, and chat conversations can play a role. It would be interesting to see how “oral” arguments might be improved in a text-chat mode.
Don’t push through with a long presentation, meeting, or deposition just because you want to get it over with. More than an hour and you’ve probably exhausted some capacity that you will need to rebuild. Take breaks. And if you’re testifying, then it is probably wiser to take fifteen rather than take five.
Break it Up
In your own communication, use shorter sentences, a slower pace, and maybe more repetition than you are used to. Despite the technical discomfort, you will still need to pause. It will be less exhausting for listeners and for you if you take your time.
Mask the Monitor
Once you have checked out your position and how you look, then you might consider turning off the on-screen monitor of yourself, either through the software (if it allows it), or through the old-school route of simply putting a post-it on the screen to cover your own video playback. You should continue to be mindful of how you’re presenting yourself, but you will be less distracted without that continual reminder.
Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited by the author