Smell you later: tips on a successful video call
A view from Sue Unerman

Smell you later: tips on a successful video call

Cues such as scent, eye contact and micro-expressions are all lost in video calls.

Can’t smell you, can’t touch you, can’t make eye contact with you… can you still motivate me?

Director John Boorman has written that when he wanted to get the most out of a movie star during a shoot, he would make a small adjustment to their hair just before filming. He said that this was about proving his attention to detail to ensure that the actor knew he could absolutely trust that he wanted the best for them.

There are no movie shoots at the moment, of course, but the point remains that a touch to add confidence (not in a creepy #MeToo way, mind) is impossible at work now.

You can’t smell your colleagues either.

Smell is a very profound sense. People who have suffered from Covid-19 and recovered talk about how disorientating the loss of smell has been. A familiar scent can revive all kinds of memories. (It can also sell your house; top tip for showing property is to have some vanilla toasting under the grill.) It is even likely that when we feel attracted to someone it is as much to do with how they smell as how they look. Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume spins a fantasy tale of how an individual can change his impact through his scent. So, whether you recognise this consciously or not, you now can’t smell the people you are in a meeting with.

There is no eye contact. Not in the way that you have when you are in a one-to-one meeting in real life. 

And micro-expressions are much harder to read. And easy to misread – especially when poor Wi-Fi delays their impact. Less than 10% of communication is verbal and so much body language is lost on a Zoom call. Micro-expressions that are only a few seconds in total are a massive part of how we react to someone and this is now either lost or misconstrued. 

When we give our Glass Wall talks, Kathryn Jacob and I are often asked about speaking up in meetings and how to overcome nervousness. We stress that it is important to understand when you are in a meeting, people aren’t judging exactly what you say because they are mostly worried about how they are coming across themselves. Now, they are literally watching how they come across. Is there any point to seeing yourself other than vanity? Imagine how a real-life meeting would be if everyone had their own mirror to be distracted by. 

It is still possible to connect emotionally, but you need to think about it differently. In a way, it is like moving from being an actor in a small theatre to becoming a movie star. Sir Michael Caine’s masterclass on this has some lessons for us all now – six minutes in, learn how to handle a close-up.

Three tips for video calls:

  • When you need to make a connection, look into the camera, not at someone’s face. If there are six people in the meeting and you are looking at someone on the bottom left of your screen, it will look like you are not looking at them. 
  • Ask the people in your meeting lots of questions. Don’t deliver a long monologue. Most people don’t have the attention span for this in real life, let alone on a video call. You will lose some of them to admiration of their own image.
  • Tell stories – short stories – to keep people’s attention. Lee Child writes mass-market thrillers that are ultimate page-turners. How can you adopt the page-turner technique (without the violence) to ensure you sell your points? You need to think like a script writer for an unmissable US TV show where every frame delivers drama, laughter or emotional resonance. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
Picture: Getty Images