Imagine a much anticipated business meeting. After weeks of preparation, you are about to give an important presentation to an international team of colleagues.
Although everyone recognizes that their participation in this meeting is important, some strange things are going on. Five of the twelve team members are wearing identical bags over their heads. Two members of the team refuse to identify themselves at all, and sit with their backs facing the group. One person has come to the meeting wearing his pajamas while another member of the team did not show up and nobody knows how to get in touch with her. The meeting proceeds anyway as planned, but you are left with a queasy feeling afterwards. Were they really listening to my report? Did we all agree on the next steps? Do I actually know who was there?
If this scenario seems outlandish, think again. Because what is being described is a virtual meeting - a technology enabled gathering of individuals, often from diverse cultural backgrounds, connecting up from locations all over the globe. And although the kinds of symbolic attitudes and behaviors portrayed would be bizarre and clearly counterproductive during meetings in person, they are routinely accepted and unchallenged in the world of virtual communication.
A thoughtful and deliberate approach
How did this double standard arise? My take on it is that the technical possibilities for doing business virtually have evolved much faster than agreements about how to use them. What many people don't realize is that communicating through virtual channels needs a more thoughtful and deliberate approach than meetings in person, especially when crossing cultures. Besides being able to adapt your communication style to accommodate cultural differences, there are both technical and procedural factors which contribute to optimal virtual conversations.
One of the most basic yet overlooked ways to increase the effectiveness of virtual conferencing is to establish consistent standards about how participants identify themselves. When using a conferencing platform such as Skype or Webex, deciding whether or not to indicate your name clearly and post a photo of yourself and/or use a webcam when joining a meeting is often left up to the individual. The result is a lopsided conversation where some of the voices are anchored in a clear name and image while others are abstract and elusive. You may assume that everyone knows your voice and therefore knows who you are, but virtual conversations demand extra concentration, and people are often too busy trying to follow the content to try to figure out who is speaking. Or the opposite can happen - too much attention goes to trying to understand who is speaking, which can result in missing the content of the message.
When you are involved in a virtual meeting where your primary role is that of listener, such as a presentation or a webinar, identifying yourself clearly to whomever is leading the session is not just a sign of courtesy. Don't rule out the possibility that you might want to follow up with some questions or proposals to this person, or you might have some business dealings with them the future. The fact that you know who they are but they have no idea who you are could be awkward - or worse.
Closing the gap of sensory input
Providing visual information about yourself in conversations also resonates on a neurological level. When all we have is the sound of a voice to go on, many of the signals that help us to understand each other, such as appearance, body language, mood and context, are absent. So whether you are communicating by phone, conference call or through a computer, a visual reference of a video feed or a photo serves the vital purpose of closing the gap created by physical distance and lack of sensory input.
Particularly when working with colleagues located in other parts of the world, giving a visual impression of yourself is the first step to cultural bridge-building. You may never have the opportunity to meet each other in person, so a photo or a webcam answers the basic human need to be able to connect a face to a voice.
''I look terrible on photos''
When I broach this topic during trainings, there are inevitably some small ''aha'' moments followed by a commitment to post a photo portrait and start using webcams as much as possible. There are also some understandably more reticent reactions: "I look terrible on photos",
"I don't like to see myself on camera.", "We can't dress casually if our customers can see us", or ''Nobody knows how to use the webcam on the conference equipment.", to mention a few.
While the above sentiments are real, they do reveal a basic misconception about virtual interactions: that digital distance somehow lets us off the hook when it comes to being a totally committed partner in a professional conversation. Would you really consider delivering a report to your boss in your pyjamas? Would you arrive at a customers office wearing a mask because you don't like how you look that day, and proceed to give a presentation with equipment you have never bothered to learn how to use?
So by following the rule of thumb to engage in every virtual conversation with the same degree of alertness and commitment as if it was a face to face encounter, making yourself more "digitally visible'' takes on a new kind of urgency.
If you are still on the fence about raising your visual profile, it could be useful to reflect on your role and your purpose in the conversation / presentation. What could be the advantage of providing a visual reference to yourself in terms of getting your message across, or persuading others to agree with your point of view ? What could be the costs - short term and long term - of keeping a low profile visually, making it harder to distinguish your voice from others in a discussion. To what extent could that undermine you? Is there also some benefit to you?
6 tips for optimizing your personal ID on virtual channels
Remember: what you think and what you have to say is important, so make sure you are clearly identifiable as the source. Don't be satisfied with a white silhouette against a grey background. You are more than that! Take ownership of your virtual presence and start showing your face today.
Lisa Ross-Marcus is an Executive Life Coach and Intercultural Consultant based
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.