If you’re a technical writer and you’re still working, by now you’re most likely working remotely. That means there’s a good chance you’re attending some form of audio or video-based meeting via Zoom, Skype, or other video teleconferencing (VTC) application. After a month or so of these types of activities, I’ve got some observations and suggestions.
What VTCs Are Good For
Humans like to see other human faces and hear human voices. I don’t know all the science behind it, but we are more or less social creatures (even we introverts–just in a different way). Speaking for myself, I find that lacking an in-person work presence can lead to feeling disconnected from the group. And the isolation we’ve all had imposed on us due to the coronavirus has made that disconnection even more obvious.
If nothing else, VTCs allow us to see human faces and hear human voices at a time when they’re scarce around our neighborhoods.
As a work tool, I’ve noticed that VTCs are pretty useful for meetings with a certain structure, specifically ones with a specific agenda and only one person at a time is scheduled to speak but leaders/peers still want to see/hear their teams and gauge their emotional responses.
What VTCs Are Not So Good For
VTCs differ from regular in-person meetings because it’s darn near impossible to have more than one conversation at a time. And while such behavior might irritate in person, there are times where cross-chatter is useful and necessary. VTCs–or worse–voice-only telecons–are not suited to supporting multiple conversations. And while it’s been fun chatting with friends or family members at “virtual cocktail parties,” again, groups of larger than three really don’t work well because you’re stuck trying to read expressions of a whole crowd of people, accidentally talking over others, or figuring out when and if you can respond to someone else’s question or statement. I’ve seen this phenomenon called “Zoom fatigue.”
How to Employ VTCs Effectively
Find a way to enforce the one-person-speaks-at-a-time rule
This has to be my biggest pet peeve about group VTCs. Mind you, some people lack social awareness or are just plain rude–they don’t know or care if others are trying to speak and are determined to talk over everyone else. (Though, to be fair, these folks will try to dominate in-person meetings, too.) During in-person meetings, I’ve seen the “talking stick” rule applied–where you’re not allowed to speak unless you’re holding said stick. I have no idea how such things are applied in a cyberspace environment, but it’s worth considering.
If it’s “your” meeting, you might have moderator credentials that allow you to mute others until it’s time for an open question-and-answer session (does Zoom do this? I’m tempted to find out).
Another approach is to require everyone to read, learn, and abide by Robert’s Rules of Order, which can get tiresome (some folks really live for saying, “Point of order, Mr. Chairman!”). However, the rules were set up precisely to handle debates among multiple participants, such as in a parliament.
If you want to have a side conversation, do so by text
Text is not as personal as a face-to-face conversation, but might have to be the suitable substitute to interrupting the flow of the group discussion.
Maybe this could be addressed by establishing one-on-one windows, muting the rest of the group (I mean, if you’re having a one-on-one conversation, you’re not listening to the rest of the group, are you?). I’m hoping that at some point the online meeting tools will get more sophisticated and allow for you to have private conversations while a larger meeting is going on. Or maybe they are, but I’ve just never seen any that do that.
If you want to have an actual discussion, try to limit the number of participants
The most people I’ve seen a VTC work well for conversation is three. If you absolutely must have more than three people in on the discussion, you’ll need to apply some of the suggestions above.
Reduce/restrict the number of people who can speak
This is easier if you have a single speaker. You can, again, mute everyone but the speaker.
You might also ask people to submit their questions via text and then unmute the questioners one at a time so there’s only conversation happening between speaker and questioner. That, or read the questions you get via text. I’ve experienced this at a couple of AIAA lectures; however, because those meetings were time constrained, so not everyone’s question was asked. I don’t recall how they handled follow-up questions.
Keep the discussion text only
Chat rooms manage to handle multiple people “talking” at the same time in real time and allow for cross-talk to occur without grinding the mental gears trying to hear everyone at once. The downside of text, of course, is that faces, voices, and emotional subtleties are lost. This does require everyone to read everything on the screen, but assuming the conversation is saved, people can go back and reread the content. And while some of us who prefer to type rather than talk, others prefer to talk because they’re not as certain of their writing skills.
As VTCs become more common, it’s good to keep some of these thoughts in mind. Not everyone thrives in that environment, and some of us find that they actually interfere with clear communications. I realize we’re trying to get “face time” with our teams–the trick will be to make that time constructive and fulfilling for the participants…all of them.