When it comes to virtual communications technology, we may be looking at the future but too many of us are still stuck in the past—as if we’re playing Pong on an Atari.

We are spending our days videoconferencing using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex or similar platforms. The distance and extraordinary circumstances make us all relax a bit and become more casual in how we reach out to one another. However, the fundamentals of good communication do not change simply because there is a camera involved. Quite the contrary, the limitations of virtual communications make it even more important that we present ourselves and our insights with an additional level of thoughtfulness and care.

Unfortunately, I observe many professionals approaching video calls differently from the way they approach in-person client meetings, and that can be a costly mistake. It’s not that I’m a communications expert. After all, I am an economics major and my hobby is boxing. Unless it’s about hitting someone in the nose, I typically don’t have much to say about how well you are connecting with your target. But I have spent much of my time in the last six months sitting through so many painful video calls that I feel I should say something.

Even if the meetings we’re taking are virtual, the first impressions we’re making are very real. Covid-19 has reduced the number of leads advisors have to a third of the normal level, so advancing those scarce opportunities is even more important. Yet I am guessing many first impressions go astray.

In psychology, “thin slice” studies refer to how we form impressions based on very limited information (the thin slice) immediately upon meeting someone. We are all vaguely aware of this notion, but in fact science has demonstrated that we only need about a 30 second video clip to form a conclusion about the skills and sociability of a person, and that conclusion can define the rest of our relationships with them.

In a pioneering study, social psychologist Nalini Ambady showed future university students 30-second clips of teachers who had not yet taught them any lessons. The students were asked to predict the teachers’ skills and style, rating them on characteristics such as competence and confidence. A similar evaluation form was then filled out at the end of the semester by the same students. The results appeared to be very similar to the initial impressions formed in the beginning of the semester: The composite score compiled after only the first 30 seconds had a 76% correlation to the score compiled after months of study. That means we make up our minds very quickly about people (and perhaps quite accurately!)

In another study conducted by social psychologist Frank Bernieri, subjects watched a video of a recorded job interview. They seemed to be able to predict the outcome of the interview (whether an applicant got a job offer or not) after watching only the first 15 seconds of interaction between the candidate and the interviewer.

It also appears that our brains love reading faces and constantly do so. In fact, when shown a screen of random TV static, 34% of people still report seeing a facial pattern, according to an experiment done by Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. According to Lee, we love to read faces, and being easy to read is a huge advantage. People who are expressive, animated and communicative tend to be liked a lot more than people who are difficult to size up. In fact, research shows that people suffering from facial paralysis have a more difficult time connecting with others. To compensate, they learn to use a variety of other communicative techniques to convey information. They use more emotion words, more vocal inflection, laughter and body movement to improve their non-verbal communication.

If you were to apply all of this to virtual meetings, you should come to some easy conclusions. First, you know you should make it easier for your clients to see you. You should be expressive. As grandma says, “You never get a second chance for a first impression.” Yet we all make mistakes in this area.

Given these challenges, I would like to propose some rules for successful virtual communications. I sincerely hope that they help all of us.

1. Get the right equipment. Most advisors have very well decorated offices. Some might have even spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations and furniture. But for one reason or another, the same firms are still using a $10 camera and the cheap microphone on their laptops. A camera of poor quality may create the same kinds of problems experienced by those in the studies who had trouble reading faces.

A good microphone is vital too. So much of our communication is conveyed by the nuances of our tone of voice. Besides reading faces, our brains love reading voices and interpreting emotions. When two people talk and understand each other, their brains “synchronize,” as Psychology Today puts it. Such synchronicity would not happen with a bad microphone and a poor connection. Instead, you’ll find irritation and stress, the same as you would if listening to dissonant music rather than relaxing harmonics.

In my non-expert experience, good cameras and good microphones cost $200 to $300. For that you get a dramatic change in the quality of your images and sounds. Many webcams have built-in microphones, and that can be enough. A quick Google search will lead you to many articles on how to choose one.

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