Why things get lost in translation over Zoom – and how to fix it writes Lydia Smith

It’s no surprise that video conferencing apps have experienced a huge boom this year. Until March, when a nationwide lockdown was introduced, few people relied on using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms to host meetings — and we met over coffee in office rooms instead.

Zoom, in particular, has seen staggering growth in 2020. Last December, there were approximately 10 million users participating in meetings on the app. Fast-forward to March, and 200 million were logging on to the software.

Video conferencing apps have been integral to many employees working from home during the pandemic. But this new way of communicating has led to embarrassing interruptions, misinterpretations and other “netiquette” issues. So why is it so easy to miscommunicate when video calling — and what can we do about it?

When we meet face-to-face, much of the information being conveyed is expressed non-verbally. Our body language, movements, facial expressions and even the way we hold ourselves tells other people a lot about what we are thinking and how we feel.

These non-verbal cues are a lot harder to read over a video call, which can be tiring and stressful. Throw a dodgy WiFi connection in the mix — and the issue of having to use unfamiliar new technology — and it creates a challenging environment with which to communicate with others. And the more people in your Zoom call, the harder it can be.

Make yourself comfortable with the mute button

There are few things more annoying than sitting in a meeting with someone who doesn’t know how to mute themselves. Every time they cough or shift in their chair, the video switches to them — and you lose your train of thought. Getting used to Zoom, Teams, Skype or whatever app you use is key to avoiding miscommunication and disruptions. 

“Take time to set up. The more comfortable and confident you feel, the less anxious you will be. And always acquaint yourself with the mute button,” says Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centres across London. “Extraneous and unexpected noise is much more likely at home than in the office so mute your microphone when you are not speaking to avoid embarrassing attention shifts.”

group of people sitting while using laptop computer

You might also want to consider how you sound, including your distance from the microphone. Switching from a laptop’s built-in microphone to a headphone microphone can help. “You might want to record yourself on a call in advance and listen back so you can hear how you sound,” McLaren adds. “If you were sharing a room with someone, you might modulate the sound of your voice, so you may want to experiment with that.”

Think about your body language

It’s easy to slump back in your chair or balance your laptop on your knees on the sofa, but think about what everyone else can see. If you’re far away from your screen, it can be harder to see your facial expressions. But if you’re sat too close to your computer, people will have a close-up of your face — and won’t be able to see hand gestures that can help with communication.

READ MORE: How to stop feeling awkward and self-conscious on Zoom

“If you think about what would happen in a live meeting — you would usually look at the speaker, look around the room when you are speaking and scan the room at intervals,” McLaren says. “That is not done naturally with video-conferencing, therefore it is worth developing a kind of technique for doing so that still makes you look comfortable.”

A video call isn’t just about logging on and speaking in turn, although this can help avoid awkward interruptions. The meeting requires everyone to listen, participate, be present and speak clearly. Something as small as leaning forward and nodding shows you’re taking in what other people are saying.

rectangular brown wooden table with six chairs and silver MacBook on top

Slow down

When we’re talking to our colleagues in person, we can usually tell when it’s your turn to speak. However, that timing is out of whack in a video call because of audio and video time lags, particularly if the internet connection is weak or if you are trying to conference call at a busy time.

Be patient when it comes to speaking. It can seem unnatural, but raising your hand can help. There’s also a feature on Zoom which allows you to raise your hand virtually, although this signal can be missed by others. Try not to rush and speak clearly without shouting. And remember, if things do go wrong, you’re not alone — you can always just pick up the phone.

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