An acoustic engineer explains why Zoom and Skype calls are so tiring – and we offer advice on what to do about it
April 22, 2020

Last Saturday Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, popped up on that interesting little final interview slot on the Today programme.

Presenter Justin Webb asked him about the effect of the sound quality of interviews conducted by Skype and Zoom on audiences.  Professor Cox explained listening on a poor quality line is hard work and not as engaging as it would be when carried out face to face because of “The robotic stuttering speech that you get and the way that the words are mangled in the communication between the microphone that someone’s recording on and the internet.”

Better virtual meetings

I think we all had an inkling this was the case but it’s good to have it confirmed by a scientist.  He went on to point out that listening on Zoom, FaceTime or Skype is “exhausting” because “we’re working so much harder,” and “having to do more,” to listen

Professor Cox went on: “If you think about a conversation, it’s not just about voice – do I sound happy or sad? It’s also about whether there’s a good moment to interrupt me or not.  [There are] clues you get that are beyond the words and they’re slightly messed up by these systems.  It’s hard to know where to leap in.”  This is a familiar experience for all of us.

These virtual meetings apps, he explained, like the telephone line reduce the frequency range of our voices to save bandwidth.  Speech becomes less fluid as the “packets” of sound arrive at different times and occasionally some of them are missing.  Depending where people are speaking echoes can be a problem as you “hear too much room.”

How to conduct meetings on Zoom

Justin Webb asked about the “nuance of language in interviews with senior politicians,” suggesting that perhaps “It’s harder to know, to put it bluntly, whether they’re telling the truth.”  It’s not just politicians, of course.  Trust and Webb’s point about lying are at the heart of any communication.  Whether it’s “Buy this,” “Do that,” “Vote for me,” or “I love you,” if we don’t trust the speaker or believe them, then it doesn’t matter what they say.  It’s game over.

“If you find it harder to decode what people are saying then you’re less likely to believe that they’re being truthful,” explained Professor Cox.  “If your politician is coming down a clearer line, you’re more likely to believe them compared to when they’re coming down a line where you’ve got that bit of robotic break up and all of those other things going on.”

He did qualify this slightly by adding: “It does have an effect on how truthful people sound but it’s only marginal.  In the end what they’re saying is what’s really important.”  True but, as we know from the work of the psychologist Albert Mehrabian, tone and manner in spoken communication are incredibly important.

Tips for virtual meetings

So, here are three ways to counter these technical problems when you’re conducting a virtual meeting.  Many of these we cover in our presentation training courses.

  1. Make your meetings on Zoom or Skype short. Start them on time and tell people when they’re going to end – and then stick to that. Be ready to take conversations offline, for example, telling colleagues, “We can discuss that later.”
  2. Speak more slowly and clearly than you would normally. You don’t have to sound as if you’re talking to an idiot but add more “light and shade” in other words more variation to your vocal delivery. Emphasise key words and phrases and keep your comments on concise.  Once you’ve said it, leave it there.
  3. Be clear on who’s going to speak when. This means having a clear agenda. It’s important to chair online meetings in a more hands-on way than you would if you were meeting face to face.  This will avoid people talking over each other – and lead to a better meeting.

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