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Talk to the screen, the face ain't listening

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Times have changed. We're now in a world of online meetings and events. For many of us, the times when we met face to face are a distant memory.

Luckily, we have cameras so we can still see each other online. This leads me to my question, why, why why doesn't everyone switch them on? Time is something that we can never get back. Not switching your camera on makes virtual meetings less effective. You’ll waste time. In this post I’ll share the impact that I see when cameras are not switched on.

Why is it good to switch your camera on?

Here’s what it means to me if you switch your camera on. It means we’re a team. We’re all committed to using our different skills, knowledge and abilities to achieve, or even exceed, the outcome that we’re after.

We encourage each other to think well and share our different ideas and points of view. When everyone pays us attention and listens to what we’re saying, we think well. If your camera is on I can see you looking at me and taking an interest. This means I think deeply.

I often facilitate workshops and run training courses. I hold myself accountable for making sure that the time is used effectively. Part of this involves keeping everyone engaged and interested. I’m not perfect and sometimes people don’t understand what I’m explaining. I try to have interactive sessions where people can ask questions and get clarity. Sometimes people assume everyone else understands so are wary of asking a “stupid question”.

If I can see people’s faces, and body language, I can tell if they’re confused or losing focus. This means I can adjust what I’m doing. I might run exercises and find out what needs clarification or what’s most useful for people to do next. I adapt to make sure the session is effective.

To make interactive sessions work, I need to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to contribute. Something I’m aware of is that some people are introverts and some extroverts. Extroverts are generally more comfortable to answer questions quickly. Introverts tend to think and analyse information before answering which means there’s a pause before they say anything. I need to make sure that the extroverts don’t dominate and the introverts have the opportunity to think and contribute.

I’ll ask a question and extroverts will answer first. That’s fine and it’s great to get the ball rolling. If cameras are on I can look at people’s faces to see if they’re still thinking about the question. If they’re looking upwards or into the distance it’s likely that they’re thinking. If they’re looking at the screen, they’re ready to move on. I wait until everyone’s looking at their screens before moving on.

What happens if I switch my camera off?

If you switch your camera off, I assume you’re distracted doing some other work. I assume you don’t think the meeting is worth your time. I assume you wish you didn’t have to come along. I assume I’m not running things well.

I hope I create an environment where people can let me know if a meeting, a workshop or training course isn’t working for them. People often find it difficult to challenge how things are going during the session. If only I could see your face, I’d have a chance of spotting when things aren’t quite working so I can make changes.

What if I’ve got other things that I need to do during the meeting?

If you’re under pressure to get work done and that’s equally, or more, important than the meeting, you might be tempted to turn your camera off so that you can do both. Multitasking always works, right? What about everyone else in the meeting? If they assume you’re not concentrating it means they might also assume that you don’t value their input. In which case, why should they bother to spend their energy thinking up ideas?

In my opinion it’s disruptive to come to a meeting if you’re multitasking. It affects everyone else in the meeting. Why not have the courage to say no to the invite? Why not work with the facilitator beforehand to adapt the content or reduce the time it’ll take?

Like I said, we never get the time back. If a meeting is really going to be valuable we all need to focus.

What if there’s a reason I can’t have my camera on?

This happens. It happened to me recently. My internet was playing up while I was running a training course. In this case there was no way I could switch on my camera. There may be other situations where you feel you have to switch off your camera. Maybe your kids come in and need a hand. Maybe you’ve got decorators in and they’re painting a wall behind you which might distract everyone.

Funnily enough when this happens, as long as you let everyone know, it has less impact than you choosing to switch your camera off. I won’t assume that you’re not interested in the topic. You haven’t chosen to have your camera off, it’s something outside your control.

It does mean no one else can see your facial expression and body language so the session won’t be as effective as it could have been but the impact is reduced.

Having shared my experiences of people not switching their cameras on in meetings, workshops and training courses, I'll leave you with a question to ponder on:

Imagine you’re in a meeting, looking to achieve an outcome that really matters, and three out of eight people don’t switch their cameras on, how do you feel?

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