Zip up Your Zoom

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 28, 2020
Garrett Blair offers four-week training courses to master video conferencing

Fight fatigue and pep up the popular pandemic platform

Late in April, The New York Times published an instantly popular essay called “Why Zoom is Terrible.” The piece posed that the problem with the platform is that the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces such issues as blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio, causing our brains to strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder.

Santa Barbara actor, improviser, and performance coach Garrett Blair wondered what took them so long and why they missed perhaps an even bigger issue, one that’s actually possible to address short of hiring a team of wizard coders.

“Zoom is an artifice. All video conferencing is,” Blair told me. But it’s not so much about digital issues, synthesizing and freezing as it is about a failure to adjust to a new format that differs vastly from an in-person conversation. The good news is that it’s a performance issue, not a technical one.

“Sure, the internet doesn’t stream perfectly, and we have to keep intent focus which is partly why we’re tired,” he said. “But our brains are also always trying to rectify the signals we’re getting through the screen with what we think should be a real in-person conversation. That’s a lot of cognitive dissonance. To me, that’s what brings more of the fatigue.”

The problem is that Zoom creates the sensation of speaking face-to-face in the real world, he said.

“Zoom tricks us into thinking we’re right there with each other, which makes our brains spin,” Blair said. “I figured out how to trick it back, and the key is compassion.”

Chalk up the Cues

The key is to be aware of the behavioral cues that we put forth and other people receive that we’re not even thinking about because it’s second nature to have a conversation in person.

“But on Zoom, you need to bring attention to all of those tools so you can use them intentionally – things that communicate beyond the words we say. If we can employ normal behavioral cues so that our brains can relax a little bit, we can communicate more easily with each other and create that same connection.”

Specifically, that requires using several skills, or behavioral cues, that can make a world of difference in online communication, starting with what Blair calls “Direct Address.”

“If you look directly into the camera when speaking via video chat, rather than at image(s) of the other people, it looks like, and creates the sensation, that you’re directly looking at the person,” he explained. “It’s a basic foundational thing about conversation we’ve been taught since we were kids: look ‘em in the eyes. It’s the first thing our brains are dealing with. And when you don’t, it feels disoriented instead of connected.”

Blair freely admits that talking to the camera feels weird. “It’s ungrounded and bizarre, but only because we’re not used to it. But it’s the only way that the other person gets that feeling of eye contact. We’re not doing it on Zoom if we’re not looking at the camera.”

But what about me? I can’t see you perfectly if I’m looking at the camera. So how do I get to read people’s faces and see how they react?

“Just say that. Let them know that sometimes they’re going to see you look down so you can check in with their face to get those visual cues. Just be honest about what you’re doing, communicate so they know why you are not looking at them. And keep setting context, perhaps frequently. Because otherwise when you look off to the side, I wonder why. I’m thinking maybe you’re no longer interested in me, that you’re distracted, focused on something else, and I’m not important.

Brain Food: Keep it Clear

“But if I’m honest with my brain and your brain and we know we’re using a different medium, we’re answering the brain’s questions and easing the struggle. Still, your brain is noticing that I’m not looking at you and our connection signal degrades over time. That’s why speaking into the camera matters.”

I was so mesmerized by him gazing into my eyes – or so it seemed – that I almost forgot to inquire about the other rules of engagement on Zoom. But then he said that recognizing the limited canvas on the virtual space is another important concept.

“It’s vital that we recognize that this is our frame,” Blair said, drawing a virtual rectangle with his hands that served as the edges of my view of him on my screen. It’s just the size of the monitor, maybe fifteen to thirty degrees off my center on either side. That’s the entire space. To maintain the pretend face-to-face conversation and stay connected, everything has to remain in this zone. Otherwise we don’t connect. I have to think in the Zoom space, where we can stay connected.”

That also goes for moving forward and, especially, back, minimizing the size of your image.

“Don’t stray too far in any direction, and especially not for too long.”

Getting Creative with Limited Frames

More advanced is the idea of not only staying within your screen partner’s visible space, but also creating space – using your gaze and gestures to create specific spaces in which you place events or information. “In real life, we act out with our hands, and directions as if something is there. You create a void, an image of something happening in space, where your brain then inherently feels that space with your imagination. It forces people to invest because they are engaged,” he explained.

“It’s the same idea on Zoom – you manipulate the space in the screen,” Blair said, his hands all aflutter defining boxes and shapes. “As humans we are visual and spatial machines. That’s what our brains are meant to do. So you organize the info by creating pretend spaces on the screen, which helps people you talk to organize the material spatially. Otherwise, asking for your brain to do more work, to categorize, is exhausting. If I create it for you, your brain can relax into something it understands.”

In other words, more compassionate communication.    

Tell a Story with a Glance

Still more advanced is employing the concept of Two-Party Dialogue: using opposite gazes to suggest two people engaged in conversation. 

“Just like what’s done on film where they shoot dialogue over one person’s shoulder,” Blair explained. “One person’s focus is to one side of the cameras, within the frame, and the other is on the other side because that’s how it is on film. And then when narrating you come back to Direct Address. But you have to be sure to keep the spatial relationship correct.”

If that seems like too much to remember while still trying to stay alert in the conversation, that’s where practice, correction and repetition can help – and why Blair is offering “When the Camera is the Public,” his deep dive live online training to help participants create a captivating conferencing platform presence. A new four-week session begins in June.

“I spent a lot of time recording myself on Zoom to figure this stuff out,” he said. “I try to see why something doesn’t look or feel right. I look at what feels natural when the space is looking back at me. People need to know their own individual quirks, things they use to ground themselves that might be getting in the way of connection.”

Thinking about the other guy – the online version of The Golden Rule – is the key to keeping that connection, Blair said.

“When the cues get skewed by the interface, the connection disintegrates. But compassion – the act of thinking about someone else in the situation – that’s what fixes it. Looking into the camera, defining your space, all those tools – those are the compassionate acts. That’s what makes it easier for the other guy, and better for you.”



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