WebCams: a blessing or a curse?

Dec 12 2011 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

A recent article on the CNN Money/Fortune site started me thinking about webcams. The writer was talking about virtual meetings but spent most of her time discussing about the video component. This raised the question: is video all it's cracked up to be? Because in the real world, it seems, video is both a blessing and a curse.

Obviously people are visual creatures and we all like to put faces to names. Additionally, the rapid improvements in bandwidth, and the fact that it's practically impossible now to buy a laptop or tablet that doesn't contain built-in camera, mean that it's no longer technically challenging to connect people. (It's often a bigger challenge to get your IT people to lighten the heck up and let you use it!)

The article made a couple of assumptions about camera use and the quality of the conferencing tools that I'm not sure I buy into. For example, we don't all need high-level video conferencing tools, and I'm not sure the camera should be on everyone all the time.

Here are some things to think about when planning to use webcams in your online meetings so that you're getting the results you want:

Does it need to be high-quality, or is down-and-dirty good enough? If it's a project status meeting with team members who all know each other, a $20 webcam does just fine. If it's the CEO of a client company, you're meeting with, you might want to spring for the Telepresence and decent lighting.

Does the camera need to be on everyone the whole time? Video is great, but it sucks up bandwidth, which can create problems for people on slow connections or with older computers with low memory. Additionally, once we've all seen each other, the monitors can be a bit of a drain on attention spans. Personally, I like to have the camera just on the speaker (which gives them the floor and helps people engage with what they're saying) and then turn other cameras on for Q and A.

Video can be a huge distraction - and we have enough of those. For presenters and speakers, the fact that you are on camera can distract you from the point at hand. It's hard to recall the exact numbers you need to talk about when you're distracted by that spot on your shirt. Our eyes tend to drift to the monitor, rather than to the camera lens. Paradoxically, by making eye contact with the image on the screen, you're looking away (often down) from the camera lens, which is the equivalent of your audience's eyes.

Seeing the audience is a mixed blessing at best. How necessary is it? When the audience is introducing themselves, or during Q and A, video is terrific. When one speaker has the floor, though, does it really matter if you can see them? It's easy for the audience to forget that they are on camera, and you often see some pretty bad behavior from adjusting body parts to checking blackberries. I often suggest having people choose to turn their cameras off until they're really needed.

If you're going to be on camera, remember you're on camera. Nobody cares if you're in your pajamas on a conference call. Onscreen you might want to reconsider your wardrobe. Once I was attending a webinar as an audience member and forgot I had my camera on which led to an incident involving my wife, a twisted bra strap, and a lesson about telling her in advance when I'd be on camera. That experience left a bit of a scar for both of us.

Here's the thing about video: it's like any other tool. When used for the right reasons, and used well, it's terrific. When used thoughtlessly or poorly, you might have wished you were just on the phone. So have you and your team set standards and best practices when using these tools? Just asking.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He's passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today's virtual communication technology. His books include The Long-Distance Team - Designing Your Team for Everyone's Success. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.