The Changing Role of Visuals

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Back in the late 1980’s, presenters with live audiences had limited choices when it came to visuals. If you wanted to use a visual aid in your presentation, you were confined to props, displaying a transparency on an overhead projector, or referencing some type of visual on a large poster. Visuals were clearly supplemental and played second fiddle to the main speaker. Regardless of whether you were presenting to teach, inform, persuade, or entertain, visual aids were the secondary messenger and the speaker was primary.

For example, if a presenter claimed something should be done about the high cost of healthcare in the 1980’s, they would likely reveal a poster with a table chart depicting how health care costs have risen dramatically over the past several years. The visual would offer supporting evidence with accurate statistics from a credible source to support their claim that health care costs were rising. Then, when the presenter was ready to move to another point, the poster was covered. In other words, visuals were used to clarify points at the time the content called out for more clarity. Once the point was made, the visual was removed and the speaker became the focus of attention once more.

Flash forward to the advent of web conferencing nearly 20 years ago, where this operating principle got turned on its head. Suddenly, a constant barrage of slides became “the presenter,” while the audio commentator of speaker took the back seat. Visuals were shown at all times throughout the presentation, which also became common place with PowerPoint slide presentations as well. Slides visuals took over as the primary messenger, and the speaker’s audio became secondary. Why? Visuals simply steal the show. As John Medina in his book, Brain Rules says, “the visual sense trumps all other senses.” Unfortunately, to make matters worse, stagnant slides in the early days of web conferencing displayed for long chunks of time, while presenters often droned on with audio commentary.

The result?

Paper airplanes flying around workplace cubicles during webinars.

Today we’ve seen how dramatically web conferencing, webinars, and virtual classrooms have evolved. Yet the challenge to continually engage attendees remains as strong as ever. One shift is the improved quality and ease of video and integrated webcams. We see this adoption of streaming live video growing. In fact, some presenters stay on camera through the entire webinar presentation, in addition to subjecting viewers to continual slides. Although we’ve made improvements over the past decades in the number of slides shown, as well as shortened the amount of time they remain static, a new challenge has emerged.

When presenters leave their webcams on for the entirety of a webinar, in addition to showing multiple succession of slide visuals, viewers experience competing visual stimuli. Where to look? The disadvantage is that by focusing on the speaker’s video, for example, absorption from the content of the slide takes a hit. From what we know about research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, this type of attending and processing involves task switching, holding content in working memory, and likely, some cognitive load if the content is complex. The challenge is that viewers will likely not successfully absorb all slide content, while simultaneously watching and listening to the video of the speaker. Virtual attendees cannot attend to both and do them well.

Therefore, it is the presenter or the facilitator’s job to guide the viewer where to look. By turning off the webcam at strategic points, attendees can be directed to focus on the slides only, for example. By turning off slide display or displaying a fully colored, blank slide (explaining why it’s blank) or a slide with minimal content, attendees’ attention can be directed to the speaker’s video.

The lesson here is that just as a film director works with a cinematographer to direct where the audience should focus in a production, so also, we should carefully and thoughtfully determine when and where to best turn our webcam on and when to project slides. Video works great to introduce the presenter at the beginning, as well as during question and answer periods, for example.

Some web conferencing platforms now even allow for frames to be adjusted to consume more real estate, and then be reduced in size later. This is yet another tool at our disposal for helping communicate what the primary messenger is and what should be supplementary at any given time.

Using visuals to enhance and clarify our presentation should not be a 3-ring circus, but instead, a well crafted and directed production that considers the attendee first and foremost.

What say you?

Is Dead Air Deadly in Web Conferencing?

With the proliferation of web conferencing, more and more businesses and institutions are beginning to use webinars and web conferencing for meetings, interviews, marketing, and education and training.

I remember in 1999 when the company I worked for at the time received our first web conferencing platform. It was called Placeware, and had the capability to connect users over distance showcasing both visual slides and audio. Because VoIP was not perfected back then, we used audio bridging via the phone instead. Surprisingly, this early model offered the ability to use break-out audio rooms. But it was not simple. Attendees were required to punch a series of numbers into the phone to be “partitioned” into separate audio conference rooms and then had to punch in a different number combination to return to the virtual “main room” after discussions.

Flash forward to today where our web conferencing tools provide many more affordances. For example, facilitating break-out rooms are a breeze now comparatively. With Adobe Connect, you merely press a button to prepare participants for break-outs, attendees are automatically divided into groups, facilitators can send broadcast messages to all, facilitators can easily pop into groups by dragging their own name into a group, and break-out groups can work on white boards that display for all to see when attendees re-join the main room. With video capability now easily incorporated into platforms like WebEx, GoToWebinar, and Adobe Connect, we have the added ability to introduce our visual personalities and presence to attendees. It will be exciting to see where web conferencing takes us in the next decade!

Since web conferencing is growing, it’s fitting for us to discuss efficiencies and effectiveness with these tools. This year and last year, I’ve heard a few professionals comment that instructors and facilitators of web conferencing should never allow dead air or silence during a webinar. You may have heard that as well. They reasoned that “dead air” is deadly to viewers and can cause attendees to wonder if a connection is lost.

Do you think silence in a webinar is cause for alarm? Let’s look at this more closely.

First, let’s identify where the term “dead air” originated. This is terminology which emerged from radio. If listeners heard silence over the radio, it was seen as deadly because listeners would obviously not have the benefit of knowing the full context. As a result, listeners might turn off the radio or change the station. If the silence occurred while a listener was tuned into a station, they might wonder what happened to their connection and leave. Yet radio is very different from web conferencing. Radio employs only one sense – auditory. There is no visual anchor. Web conferencing, on the other hand, employs both visual and audio senses. So it is unfair to compare apples and oranges. Even with brief, limited moments of silence in web conferencing, attendees are still anchored to a visual connection (unless, of course, they do lose the Internet connection).

Radio listeners also interact differently than webinar attendees. They may tune in or leave a radio program at any time. Yet in the context of web conferencing, attendees usually commit to the allocated time of the webinar (1 hour or more). These viewers often attend live for the duration or listen/view the webinar’s recording later.

Additionally, if we examine webinars from a learning perspective, short stints of silence prefaced by statements of “I’ll pause briefly here so you can study this visual,” can actually be useful to learning. They allow learners to better absorb visual content in some cases. From a cognitive load and learning sciences perspective, when learners are bombarded with trying to read text on a slide and hear audio commentary at the same time, they cannot do both well. A pause to allow learners to review a slide in silence allows them to focus, be attentive, and absorb content more fully without distracting and competing audio. Does this mean facilitators should pause for every slide? Absolutely not. Pause when the learner needs time to process, study a visual before hearing the explanation, or complete a short assignment during the webinar.

That said, silence should always be prefaced with an expectation-setting statement. Say you are going to pause briefly and why, as well as explain what learners are expected to do during that time (a short assignment, write on the white board, send a message in the chat queue, study a visual, answer a brief quiz, respond to a poll question, etc.) And yes, pauses should be brief and not lengthy.

After an onslaught of constant chatter, listeners can also begin to habituate which means they start to pay less attention to the stimulus because it is no longer novel. An occasional pregnant pause offers a refreshing “breath”/break in the litany of speech–breaking the constant talking pattern and allowing some breathing room cognitively for learners.

So limited and brief periods of silence throughout web conferencing, prefaced by statements that set the expectation, “I’ll pause briefly so you can study this visual for a moment” can actually be useful.

Dead air may be deadly on radio, but in web conferencing, it may actually “give life.”

What say you?

 

Why Video Details Count

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Have you ever sold a house? If you have, you know how important it is to stage your home and present it in the best possible light. Literally. Turn on all the lights, make sure closets are lean, kitchen counters should sparkle, carefully arrange furniture, everything in working order, zero clutter . . . you get the picture.

Why? Because details count. And details, after all, leave impressions.

Imagine walls covered with nail holes, dirt smudges on the outside siding, and distracting nicks in kitchen appliances. These items will catch buyers’ attention, but obviously, not in a favorable way.

Instead, they call attention to themselves as defects and give the appearance of deficient care. Whether true or not, this can plant doubt in potential buyers’ minds about the owners’ lack of conscientiousness. The logic follows–albeit faulty–that there may be other issues wrong with the home then.

Impressions either place you in a credible light or they do the opposite.

This is also true for job interviews. We all know that a job candidate must put their best foot forward by dressing professionally and appearing well groomed. Language, demeanor, attitude, energy, professionalism, attire, and grooming all leave an impression–whether true or not. If we look professional, it creates the impression that we are professional. The logic that follows is that a professional-looking employee will contribute productively and positively to a company.

The bottom line is we create impressions. And these impressions lead us to believe other things about home owners and job candidates.

In the world of video production, impressions you create in the camera frame are created in a surprisingly similar fashion. When you present on video, you’re often selling yourself, your company, your brand, your message, your product, your services, etc. At some level, you’re selling something whether explicitly or implicitly. In doing this, you make an impression. Making a favorable impression on your video is essential because in order for viewers to choose to stay watching, you must be perceived as credible, interesting, helpful, or entertaining. To create this favorable impression, everything seen and heard in the visual frame counts.

So how can we create a positive impression on video?

As I mentioned earlier, everything counts. How you speak in the camera frame, where you look, what you wear, what your backdrop looks like, what is in the background behind you–all of these perceived visuals and auditory cues form an impression.

Viewers can get distracted looking at a video presenter’s hair if it’s not groomed well or calls attention to itself. Viewers may get distracted by a background if you’re shooting in a room unrelated to your content. For example, you wouldn’t want to shoot a professional video on how to build a firepit using the webcam on your computer in the bedroom. Also, is the baby dinosaur wallpaper in your video background competing with your video message on speaking with confidence? Perhaps shooting that video in an auditorium next to a lectern would be a better choice. Ask yourself if the background and foreground support or detract from your video message? Shaky cameras or poor audio leave a less than favorable impression. And a message that stumbles, repeats, and is full of tangents does not respect my limited time for watching video.

The simple truth is we will leave an impression whether we want to or not. So why not invest your video production time and effort to leave a favorable impression?

If it would help you, seek out a video coach or video consultant to help you come across with impact to be at your best and effectively reach your audience. Feel free to check out video coaching and consulting services at http://www.howlesassociates.com.

What video impressions are you making with viewers? What do you do to come across in favorable light?