Who's Zoomin' Who? Approaching Video Calls like Improv Comedy
In 1983, my family waited in line at Disney World’s EPCOT to make dinner reservations by talking to someone on a screen. I thought the concept was amazing. A little while later, while riding Spaceship Earth (that big golf ball), there was a segment about “the future” which showed an American boy chatting with a Chinese girl on their respective TVs, complete with real-time text translation. I could not contain my excitement of the prospect of international friends in this future world, and to have them understand what I was saying blew my mind.
And here we are today, where you might have received an email this morning at 8:25am for a 9am call, with dial-in numbers for Australia, New York, Buenos Aires, and Dublin, a request to convene in your respective homes, camera turned on. You made sure the cat was in the other room, the books behind you tastefully arranged, and you put on that non-iron shirt that fits a little too snug but looks professional. Yet, you hold off on the coffee because this experience is absolute torture and makes your stomach turn, and you cannot risk dropping off for a few minutes since everyone will see you doing so. If you were in the office, this call would have just been audio. You begin to sweat. You doubt the necessity of this meeting. Your nervousness makes you look like a suspect in To Catch A Predator. You question how long you need to work from home and start missing your commute because you heard the trains were empty.
Here are some tips I learned in improv comedy that helped me be a better listener and ultimately a better lawyer, which will hopefully get you through this interim Zoom-Skype-FaceTime Era. Approach each meeting as you would if you were performing an improv sketch, and you will surely miss your webcam as soon as you go back to the office like you are missing that Shamrock Shake right now. Yes, the Shamrock Shake came and went. It will be back next year.
This is the first rule in improv, where the listener accepts what their partner says ("yes") and expands on their way of thinking ("and"). It creates a collaborative feel at the outset, but does not necessarily mean you will agree with the person throughout. It shows that you are on the same page, working towards the same objective. Recall the article about playing nice in the sandbox? Different interests, common goal.
A beat has several meanings in improv, one being "a moment's pause." A former manager of mine once told me to "learn the lay of the land before setting off bombs." I did not fully appreciate her guidance until I learned this term in improv. Observation is key. Observe your colleagues, listen to what they have to say, assess the situation, and take a breath before responding.
Add New Information
No one likes to hear someone else repeating something they just said. Worse if followed by, "That's an excellent point, Other Person!" Expand upon the initial speaker's thoughts to add color and depth to the situation. Try to avoid open-ended questions unless you are getting clarity on what was just said. Be specific with your details, and stay relevant to the current topic.
Do Not Burn
Avoid cutting down a colleague who is becoming arrogant or not holding their own by verbally berating them. Even if you do it in your head, it will likely be apparent in your facial expressions. That eyeroll is much more visible when it's 14 inches away.
Passing and receiving focus means incorporating the thoughts of the people not currently speaking. Give eye contact and ask them for their opinion. Although it may feel awkward at first, try giving eye contact by looking directly at the camera.
Okay, this is not derived specifically from improv, but it serves as best practices. You don't know when that cat is going to sneak back into the room and startle you, making you jump up from your chair.
There are many more tips and tricks that improv comedians use to help them get through a scene, although I recommend staying away from Waffling, Stealing, and definitely no Wanking.
The future is here. Not only that, we bypassed using the tube to speak to your coworkers, and fortunately Mr. Spacely cannot reach through the screen and "Burn" you. You may still be wondering where our dinner reservations were that evening in 1983 or what that lady on the screen was wearing. The lovely lady wore her best shoulder pads in a blazer, over a ruffled white blouse. We dined at the France Pavilion, which I recall had escargots, onion soup, and eclairs.