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Joe Fattorini: Zoom Rhetorica

Published:  29 June, 2020

Aristotle would have been great on a Zoom call. And he’d have spent the last few months bickering his wine merchant for old wooden cases too.

Aristotle knew the importance of inspiring trust in your audience. He called it “ethos”. That’s why we wear a smart dress or a suit to give a big presentation. We speak soberly. And the audience sit in designated seats and look to the lectern. Or at least we did until March this year. Then all those meetings, presentations and talks moved online.

In those early days Aristotle would have been the first to make sure he popped his laptop on a wine case. This is to lift the inbuilt camera to eye-level. This won’t have just reduced Aristotle’s chin count. It will have stopped him looking down his nose at everyone, as well as opening his eyes and making him appear more approachable and natural. He’d have swallowed his pride and bought a ring light too (the sort beloved of Instagram influencers). To make sure his face was well-lit and visible. He’d have spent time thinking what’s behind him as much as what’s in front as well. In the last three months you have swapped the neutral background of your office for... well, your broom cupboard, your fuscia bedroom or a kitchen complete with unwashed plates and a “Smash the State” poster (I’ve been making notes). Each backdrop sends subtle signals about who you are and what you believe. Or not so subtle. And whether you like it or not, you’re being judged.

Senior executives in banks and hedge funds have been the first to recognise the new normal online. Russ Lindsay of The Talent Bank - a social media agency for TV talent - is doing a roaring trade in creating “office studios” for CEO’s. His team install cameras, lights, a microphone and “curate” your backdrop as well as changing your Zoom settings. All for the cost of a tailor-made suit. The sort of suit executive’s justified as they needed to “convey the right impression” in meetings. He’ll even give discreet advice on makeup. (If you’re bald I recommend M·A·C Matte mattifying cream to deal with head-glare.)

He also advises firms to start claiming corporate Zoom numbers. My colleagues and I all share Zoom numbers in the format 501 501 xxxx. Just like phone numbers. Making your Zoom numbers consistent, memorable and professional.

Investing a bit of time, effort, even money in your Zoom technique is worth it. Because we’re going to be using it for a while. And that’s a good thing. The carbon emissions of a virtual meeting are a fraction of those where half of you crawled along the M62 or M4 to get there.

The swearing emissions from being fouled up in a tailback off the North Circular so you miss the first hour are a fraction of those in a virtual meeting too.

Virtual meetings can be almost as effective too. Studies are beginning to find that we gain as much from virtual meetings as face-to-face ones. A study in The Lancet this week found virtual Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (eCBT) “is at least as effective as face to face CBT, thus eCBT should be offered if preferred by patients and therapists.”

And for some people, virtual meetings are even better. We’ve long known that traditional meetings tend to have a bias in favour of those who are... well, talk, talkative and testicular. Men, extroverts and tall people tend to dominate meetings. Unconsciously (or consciously) overlooking contributions from women, quieter team members and shorter people.

At Nudgestock - a behavioural science conference - in June, speakers explained how virtual meetings are a leveller. On a Zoom call everyone is five feet 10. Nobody can see your height. And the equal screen sizes in the gallery view subconsciously appear to invite equal comments from attendees. And there’s a benefit from the limitations of the technology. Limited bandwidth means the software can only carry one voice at a time. Men often dominate real meetings by talking over women. But in Zoom the software cancels both voices out. There’s no benefit from talking over someone. And there’s evidence this has already led to greater and more equitable turn-taking.

We’re going to need everyone’s good ideas to work through a challenging time for the wine business. We need all the good ideas we can get. Aristotle would approve.