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Setting the Scene in the Age of Zoom

by on June 30, 2020 5:00 AM


One thing many of us are accepting in these strange pandemic times is the meteoric rise in the use of video-chat software. Although Skype, Facetime, GoToMeeting, Zoom and other programs have been in existence for many years, this forced isolation has caused our use of these tools to increase exponentially – and many of us are becoming video-chat experts. In the last few months I have been on countless more video conference calls than I had ever been in my entire life, and most everyone I know feels the same.

When using these apps with friends and family they are mostly informal and relaxed conversations. Everybody has been up close and personal with everyone else, lived with them or been in their homes, and seen the good, the bad and the ugly of each other. There is minimal pretense and even less politically-correct verbal editing. In short, they can be done any time of the day or night, from anywhere, with a moment’s notice, and all parties concerned are absolutely fine with those parameters.

But now we are being asked to, or are deciding to, participate in more and more meetings, discussions and events that are planned in advance and include many people we may know only casually, or from business, or may have never met — all from inside our homes or apartments, via technology that gives the outside world a glimpse into a part of our life we might not wish to share.

Which means we now have to think about how we present ourselves on camera.

This includes what we’ll wear, how we’ll look, what camera angle we’ll use, the lighting we choose and, last but certainly not least, what we’ll have in the background of our “shot.” 

My favorite part of this presentation conundrum is what is in the background. What can I learn about people now that they have allowed me into, in many cases, a portion of the inner sanctum of their lives – their home. And as I ask around apparently I’m not alone in this pursuit of personality knowledge.

As we watch others on video chat we look to see what surrounds their head and upper body. Is it just a wall with some photos or framed art? A shelf or two with mementos, books, photos, awards? Or do we get a camera angle that shows a bit more of the space? Do we see their desk, work materials and furniture? Or do we get a wider-angle shot and see even more of the space - windows, doorways, architectural motif, paint colors, maybe even outside to a patio or yard? All these things give us a clue into the lives of others that we might otherwise never see.

Or has the person taken the fun out of this little game and used a “Virtual Background” or no background at all?

In business settings I can certainly understand the choice of no background – especially if there might be movement within the camera frame. But I’m conflicted when people choose a virtual background. If the image chosen is clearly not real – a cartoon, logo, or fantasy image – I feel as if they’re telling me something about themselves; they're just not giving me as much to work with as I want. But for those who purposely choose a realistic setting to create the impression they’re somewhere they’re not, I’m a little annoyed because it feels as if they are trying to deceive me.

However, there is one excellent bonus to this virtual background technology. If you are unlucky enough to be on a video-chat that will last several hours, you can use this technology to your benefit when nature inevitably calls and your presence won’t be missed. Rather than getting up and leaving a blank seat in your screen, or worse yet shutting off your video feed, you can insert a placeholder picture. At the beginning of the video chat use the camera function of your device to take a photo of yourself. Save it, and then when you need to leave your seat upload it as your “Virtual Background”. Unless someone looks closely it will appear as if you are sitting there. When you return simply remove it and all is well.

Since the background of video-chats are my favorite part of this technology, and anyone on one with me now knows I’ll be studying their background, it’s only fair that I offer a photo of what is in the background of the “shot” of me in my office.

Should you be interested in analyzing this in a bit more detail, I’ll make it easy for you – below is a description of what you’ll see:

A brown-and-tan mini Amish quilt on the back wall. Conveniently the room is painted brown.

On the top of the two visible shelves in the “shot” are two framed photographs – one of my daughter and me in Magic Kingdom, and one of my wife and me with our son on Memorial Field. Also on that shelf is my Nittany Lion for being chairman of the Residence Hall Advisory Board from 1980-81.

On the shelf below that are a number of books. From left-to-right they are:

  • A photo album of youthful pictures from college and the years soon after. There’s an old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” There’s a good size novel in that album.

  • The Underground History of American Education,” by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and taught in the New York City public school system for almost 30 years. He was the New York City Teacher of the Year three times and New York State Teacher of the Year once. If you live in an educational town and haven’t at least perused this, then you’re not really trying.

  • A gameday program from the Sept. 30, 1972 football game in Beaver Stadium, my first Penn State game. 

  • About 9 inches of “Calvin and Hobbes” comic books. Every one ever published. Because the author, Bill Watterson (who in real-life resembles the Dad in the strip), famously refused to license his characters, there is no lasting legacy of “stuff” by which to remember Calvin and Hobbes. Except these books. If there was ever a time to re-read them, now is it.

  • Four titles from the “Bloom County” comic strip series. If you want social and political commentary that never ages – even though it’s over 30 years old – read a few of these.

  • John Stossel’s “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity.” An ironically humorous read.

  • “Paterno By The Book.” For my money the best management book ever written. Oh, you thought it was a sports book?

  • Suze Orman’s “The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom.” A reminder that most everybody who writes these types of books gets everything out there in the first one. 

  • “The Seven-Day Weekend,” by Ricardo Semler. The second-best management book ever written.

  • “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoff. Was there ever any doubt that Pooh is the most insightful thing alive?

  • “Who’s Sorry Now” by Joe Pantoliano. So you want to be Italian, huh?!  

  • Bill Murray’s “Cinderella Story.” If you play golf as badly as I do you’ll enjoy it. 

  • Jay Paterno’s and Joe Battista’s books. Homages to two guys I am honored and lucky enough to call fellow columnists. 

  • “A Here Comes Snoopy” comic book first published in 1955 by Charles M. Schulz. An interesting look at the characters early in their development, both graphically and socially. Also timeless.

  • Two miniature pocket books – each measures 3 ½” x 2 ½”. One titled “The United States Constitution,” and the other “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” by Dr. Seuss. I use both primarily for reference material so it’s helpful that they are easy to carry around.

The last item on the right side of that shelf is my archaic bill-paying system. Thirty years in use and still going strong.

And there you have it. The inner sanctum of my office that will live on forever in the electronic world. In fact, now that I think about it, I might just do some spring-cleaning on that background. Happy video-chatting!


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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