Presenting and Teaching

Don’t Use Virtual Backgrounds!

3 Nov , 2021  

The business world is slowly emerging from the COVID lock-down. Front-line workers have been on the job throughout the pandemic, delivering packages, cooking meals and repairing engines. Managers and executives are just now going to meetings, traveling to visit customers and attending in-person discussions.

Still, it is quite clear that virtual communication will remain a big part of our world for a long time to come. Zoom and Teams aren’t going away.

So let me offer one piece of advice: show your real background.

Virtual Backgrounds

One of the most exciting parts of Zoom and other platforms is the ability to use a virtual background. It is amazing. You can have planet behind you, or a beach with gentle waves, or a camel walking in the desert. With a click of the button, you can transport yourself to a ski lodge, or a stylish Chicago apartment.

Zoom introduced a modified option in 2020, the blurred background. With this setting, items in the background are sort of visible, but blurred enough to be impossible to make out.

The Appeal

Virtual backgrounds were immediately popular and continue to enjoy heavy use. You have seen all sorts of them.

The backgrounds disguise your perhaps modest abode. It lets you do a meeting from your bed, or the bathtub since nobody can tell where you are. It can reinforce your company branding.

The blurred background feels both artsy and trendy.

The Problem

Unfortunately, virtual backgrounds are a problem. Instead of helping us strengthen our personal brand and build our influence, they do just the opposite

When you are presenting, or even just sitting in a meeting, you want to built trust and authenticity. People won’t accept your recommendation when they don’t trust you. If people think you are fake, they won’t see you as authentic and real.

A virtual background is anything but authentic. Let’s be clear what it is: a computer-generated image. People know this. It is obvious when someone is using a fake background, even with a green screen, the best technology.

With a fake background, viewers inevitably wonder, “What is actually back there? I wonder what they are hiding.” And then, “If I’m showing my actual background, what can’t they?” And perhaps, “I bet they didn’t even bother to pick up the dirty socks. They must not care much about this meeting or me as a person.”

Nothing good happens with a virtual background!

Noah Zandan and Hallie Lynch studied the impact of virtual backgrounds and published the findings in an article in the Harvard Business Review. In a research study, they gave people three background options: an actual room, a solid-color wall, and a virtual background, and asked which one conveyed different characteristics. To create an authentic impression, the room actual scored highest (65%), followed by the blank wall (31%). The virtual background had virtually no support (4%).

Results were similar for creating an expert impression, with authentic room highest (52%), then the wall (43%). Once again, the virtual background scored low (4%). Trustworthy was even more striking, with an authentic room scoring at 73%.

Recommendation

My advice is simple: don’t ever use a virtual background. You should show yourself in your real setting. Best case, show a bookcase or room, a scene that reinforces your personal brand. If you can’t do that, just use a blank wall. Either way, you will seem more authentic, trustworthy, and expert.

If you are in a meeting with a job candidate, vendor or service provider, ask them to turn off the virtual background. It might seem odd, but you will be doing them a favor, giving them a chance to appear more trustworthy and authentic.

 

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