Act as if You’re Really There
What learning to speak remotely teaches us about how to compensate for the coming era of social distancing

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 16 March 2020

In one way, at least, I was prepared for this crisis. I’m an author of books about technology and society, and I make my living traveling around the world giving speeches to people who would rather listen than read. Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve been doing an increasing number of my speaking appearances over the internet. It’s better for the environment, there’s less wear and tear on my body, it saves money, and I don’t have to block out as many dates on my Google Calendar.

What I didn’t realize is how much my work refining the style, format, and content of these remote appearances would prepare me for the era of social distancing.

Make no mistake: Video conferencing is really no substitute for live engagement. Real, face-to-face encounters engage a host of painstakingly evolved social mechanisms for establishing rapport. Subconsciously, we register subtle cues, such as whether a person’s pupils are dilating to take us in, or if they are nodding almost imperceptibly as they agree with us. Our listeners’ breathing syncs up with our own as we establish rapport. This, in turn, activates the mirror neurons in our brain, which releases oxytocin into our bloodstream, bonding us as securely as a breastfeeding mother gazing into her infant’s eyes.

None of this happens on Skype. The person on the other side may say they agree with us, but even at 1080p we don’t get the subtle cues that say this to our bodies. Instinct tells us the person is lying to us.

Likewise, in-person appearances — whether in a local classroom or tremendous convention hall — engender a sense of physical presence that doesn’t come through in media. A person on a screen often comes across as a giant Big Brother or a blurry amateur. Worse, it feels like they couldn’t even bother to show up. It’s discomfiting, which is why many are reluctant to let us make appearances this way.

But there are easy ways to mitigate the alienating effects of telepresence.

The first thing I do for a remote talk to a real conference audience is to compensate for my physical absence with a live body. I find someone I know on-site to play “host” on stage, anchoring my disembodied presence in the space. The host serves as an embodied avatar — a portal, of sorts, from the world of the real room to the world up on the screen. The host introduces me, but more importantly “hands off” the conversation — much in the way newscasters have learned to do a bit of banter as they transition from one person’s story to another. If I can’t be somewhere in person, I always have a primary handler on site. If an event is completely virtual and there’s no onsite host at all, then I try to pivot off the online conference host, or even the last speaker. Anything to create a sense of grounding, continuity, or orientation — so I’m not just a floating head appearing out of nowhere.

Likewise, I compensate for remoteness with interactivity. I’m an old theater jock, and at in-person events, I can lecture for 60 minutes straight and hold the crowd’s attention. But a 60-minute stream of one person talking is indistinguishable from a YouTube video. So instead, I speak for just 15 minutes, varying my style at least twice along the way. I headline the talk in advance, letting the audience know what they’re going to hear. Then the stories, examples, and evidence that makes those points. After that, both to clue in those who couldn’t make the connections between the headlines and examples and to reward those who did, I explicitly tie the examples to the bigger point.

Then, I take two or three questions from the host. (If there’s no host or physical location, then I plant and pick on a friend or colleague to share the screen with in advance.) Those questions are prearranged, so I can deliver a bit more of my content in a new format. The host’s questions must also serve the purpose of grounding the talk’s subject in the here and now — ideally the here and now of the room, but at least that of the audience. Nothing conveyed via video seems quite relevant until it is made explicitly so. “I love your idea about the shift from globalization to national economies. How does that impact the pharmacy workers of Norway, who have gathered here to discuss changing trends in retail today?”

The host’s last question should be formulated to provoke audience involvement. Make it about their personal lives or the kids, such as “can people apply these warnings about online behavior to their kids’ social media use?” That always works. Then I spend the majority of the time taking questions from the crowd. When they talk, I ask them to repeat their name, where they’re from, where they work…and nod gently. I make sure they know I hear them. And then I take a moment to consider the question — as if I’m pondering this in real time — which I damn well should be. The more remote your presence, the more live and improvisational you need to be.

I don’t use slides, they’re too distracting, but if you do, don’t show them through your video platform. If it’s a live event with an audience, send your presentation in advance to the venue, and let them do live switching. It’ll look better, and feel more live. I’d do the equivalent for any totally online meeting, too. Relinquish control of those slides. Send the whole file to all the users, and let them move through the presentation themselves on their own computers. Give them some autonomy, the other human instinct these digital spaces tend to repress. Handing off your slides also gives you the freedom to connect with the faces in those little tiles on your screen. In any case, think about whether you truly need to show that slide at all. A super illustrative graph or chart has a whole lot more purpose in a long-distance conversation than a picture of the earth from space.

At the same time, don’t rob yourself of the real world visuals all around you. Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?

Video is visual, and every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities. Don’t make it messy, but don’t make it sterile, either. To that end, get a real webcam, a couple of scoop lights or clamp lamps (use one at a slight angle in front of you to light your face, the other from the side or slightly behind you for definition), and a real microphone. When connecting through technology, the tech you’re using matters. More resolution of your picture and sound means more subtlety and flavor. More of you.

Remember, this is a bit like filmmaking. Find the right distance from the camera. Think of Bernie Sanders at the debates, and how much better his big arm gestures look in a wide shot than close up. Like a movie actor, you have to learn to size your gestures for the size of shot. I think most people sit too close to the camera as if they’re afraid they won’t be seen across the interwebs. Sit back, showing your head and shoulders, at the very least, with your eyes always three-quarters high in the frame, which imitates the position of the eyes in your face. It’s better to cut off the top of your head than to leave lots of room above it.

And remember, no matter how virtual you think you are, you are still a living body. Use it. Don’t be afraid to sip a cup of coffee, jot something down, and move around within reason. Not too fast or you’ll frighten people, especially if you’re being projected on a giant screen. But if you want to come across as human, you may as well do some human things.

There’s a bunch of tricks you’ll figure out as you get used to working this way. For instance, use a microphone, not a headset, to look and feel more human. If you have a script to read, put it in text in a big font, and slide the document’s window as close to the camera as possible. Leave a bunch of blank lines at the bottom, so you can scroll down like a teleprompter and keep the text you’re reading way up at the top. But really, don’t read if you can help it. Give yourself some notes for confidence, and then just talk.

That’s the biggest takeaway, here. What remote engagements teach us, more than anything, is that we can compensate for physical distance with temporal presence. If you can’t be there now, at least be here now.