Perception is (Still) Reality in Our Virtual World

Data shows that with face-to-face interactions, there are more opportunities at our disposal to make good first impressions, but what are we to do about digital interactions? Let's address digital communication from the AV perspective.
Perception is (Still) Reality in Our Virtual World

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I just completed an article on the “Dangers” of Digital Communication. The “danger” I wrote about was the total immersion into the digital world at the reduction and/or exclusion (and cost) of face-to-face human interaction. I began by researching the psychodynamics of human interaction and communication. At the risk of oversimplification, this complex topic boils down to what we see and hear, what we don’t (what’s missing), and most of all, what we perceive from the other end of the conversation. The key variable that can be addressed from several angles is in the way and what we perceive. 

Research and both qualitative and quantitative data shows that face to face is simply “better” in the sense of more clear and complete communication.  However, for the reasons we all know (time sensitivity, ease of use, inclusivity, productivity, etc.), virtual communication is here to stay. It provides information anytime, anywhere, and on any device, and will continue to grow. We can’t stave off the inevitability of migration to a virtual world (nor should we) but what we do need to consider is how to make that virtual interaction and exchange as close to face to face as we can. 

The fact is that whether it is face to face or digital, the way we perceive things is through the senses of sight, sound, smell, plus the environment, as well as a key ingredient psychologists frame as emotional intelligence. These elements establish our personal reality. In other words, how we feel and what we think. This begs the question of how to affect others’ perceptions and promote a positive perception at both ends of a conversation.  

The genesis of personal interaction and perception came with the iconic admonition that “you only get one time to create a first impression”. The follow-up and admonition to the iconic phrase is the need “to make the most of the first impression”. Data shows that with face-to-face interactions there are more opportunities and elements at our disposal to make that initial impression, but what are we to do about digital interactions? At the core we must all ask ourselves how we wish to be perceived face to face or virtually. You can read my article and others on the benefits of face to face but let’s turn our attention to digital and see what can be done to improve that “first impression” and beyond. 

I must throw in just a bit of history on first impressions in business. In the early 1970s, Thomas J. Watson, during his tenure at IBM, implemented strict guidelines for employees, encompassing a dress code stipulating dark suits, white shirts, and striped ties.  He wanted customers to know a person was from IBM at first glance. They took this to what we might call extremes today and had rules of behavior to go along with a strict dress code. The goal was to control the impression. In 1975 John T. Molloy wrote Dress for Success. This was focused on men, but in 1977 he followed it up with a women’s version. What set that apart from other opinion-based books on the impact (i.e. perception) of appearance was that it was research and data driven. It was based on extensive research in how people perceived others on seeing the way a person was dressed. There are elements of this that still ring true and apply virtually today.

We will address digital communication from the AV perspective. File this under the concept of what people see and hear is what they receive, and how this plays into the concept of perception on both ends of the digital conversation.  This encapsulates how you look and sound as well as how others appear and sound on their end. Keep top of mind that perceptions are a two-way street. 

The “look” side of perception is multi-faceted. Going way back to Dress for Success, the way you dress is still important. On a virtual call you see how someone presents themselves assuming they have the camera turned on. Business attire has evolved from the IBM era of mandatory suits and ties, but a person’s appearance still affects people’s perception. You need to come across as serious and professional and as fashionistas tell us you need to look “put together”. Ask yourself what “look” you want to present to the outside world and act accordingly. Grunge is okay if that is how you wish to be perceived. If not… consider other options. 

There are also technical aspects to the “look” part of perception. The major components are the camera and lighting. Think in broadcast terms and how carefully broadcasts are designed. Cameras need to be high quality and lenses need to accurately capture the “scene” you wish to portray to the audience on the other end. This may call for a zoom lens to get it just right. If the camera shot is for multiple people on one end it may call for a wide angle zoom or a pan tilt zoom (PTZ) camera. You want to see all participants and as much body language as possible. I need to throw in camera angles at this point. Way too many Zoom or Teams calls show images at an acute angle distorting how a person looks. Yes, it may well require using something other than the camera on your laptop, but the effort is well worth it in the perception you send and receive. 

Lighting is the other big technical issue in the “look” category.  Again, think about extremes. If the lighting is too bright or too dim or from one angle over another then the image/scene is not “broadcast worthy”. Be honest and think about how others look and then reflect on how you want to present yourself. A haphazard approach gives haphazard results and in this business climate you simply can’t afford that. 

The other major segment to consider is audio. Research shows that poor audio negates the benefits of good video. You can appear fine on camera but if the audio is poor then the viewer or participants mentally turn you off. This is where proper audio design comes into the picture (pun intended). There are three major issues to consider:

  1. The first is microphone quality and no, the microphone in your laptop is not sufficient. A “good quality” mic for podcasting and Zoom/ Teams is a necessity. In most cases a microphone arm is also something to consider positioning the mic appropriately. Think in terms of mic type, sensitivity, and pickup pattern.
  2. The second issue is space or room acoustics. Good audio is all about the ability to hear and speak loud enough to be heard, intelligibility with clarity, and doing so without echo or other audio imperfections. 
  3. The third issue is speaker placement to avoid echo and feedback. This is a matter of placing the speakers outside of the boundaries of the microphone pickup patterns. 

Of course, there is the 800-pound gorilla to deal with in digital communication. Yes, good old bandwidth and network (aka internet) connectivity and stability. Few things are as upsetting as being in the middle of a Teams or Zoom conference and having the network just drop out. This is all digital. Unlike analog, it is either on or off. The only things you can do is to prepare your system and your call. This means employing the best modem and internet service provider available plus shutting down Outlook or other network connectivity that may interfere or impede a good connection. That’s all you can do.

There are a couple of overriding things to consider in digital communication. First is how you want to be perceived (seen and heard) and second the elimination of distractions that interfere with or impede the objectives you set forth. Distractions in audio, video, and network connectivity both personal and technical are the enemies of good and effective communication. Distractions can be defined as anything that gets in the way of your intentions and the way you come across. The biggest problem with distractions is the amount of time it takes from the onset of a distraction to get back on track.  Research shows it takes from 20 to 30 minutes to fully “recover” from a distraction.  In that recovery time information is lost or at best de-emphasized. Distractions may be the way you look, the way you sound, or the network connection. Of course, distractions can come in other forms such as the makeup of the agenda, content, length of a meeting and even the list of participants/invitee but we will leave those issues for another article. No matter the source, distractions are to be foreseen as much as possible and avoided.

There you have it. There is no doubt that face-to-face personal interaction is clearer and more complete, but virtual (or digital if you prefer) is here and will grow. After researching this from several subject matter experts’ points of view, the message is clear. Don’t overdo virtual to the exclusion of face-to-face and purposefully plan and “design” your digital interactions to portray the way you wish to be perceived. Just think about this for a moment and you will know from past experience those that get it right and those that don’t. Which group are you in? Perception is reality.  

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Go to the profile of Md sadek Hossain
4 months ago

Good think about  audio 

Go to the profile of Jay Cubberly
about 2 months ago

Are you concerned about the use of AI at the component level (camera, and many more layers) to analyze and document for now and future actions peoples normal human behavior. How long was sam away from his desk to visit the bathroom today's, how about last week, last month.  AI and the prolifiration of camera's in rooms out of sight therefore out of mind. (i.e. smart TV or Clock)