In pandemic times, engaging students is more critical than ever. Could bringing drama to Zoom help? What can teachers learn from the dramatic arts about engaging students and avoiding Zoombie experiences?
University of Sydney Business School colleagues and I were lucky to attend a National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) workshop on engaging a virtual room. Here are a few communication techniques I learned.
Let’s start with the obvious. Give yourself time before meetings to ready yourself. Check your equipment, lighting and background. The video below and the DIY Kits: Media Making Made Easy post has more tips.
Set up your camera, so you’re looking straight at your camera when you talk. Even if it feels a bit strange to speak to a lens; it’s far more engaging. Build-in questions to your presentation so your audience can contribute, and you can use that time to let your eyes wander to the gallery and faces.
Tension is Your Enemy
Too much Zooming can be tiring (Fauville et al., 2021). Some argue that being on video is a performative and stressful experience. It may be part of The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. Teachers may also feel the pressure of being entertainers (Wong & Chiu, 2019). While teachers are not actors, performance inevitably plays a part in most presentations.
We learnt that energy levels tell a story. Stress is communicated through our bodies, as well as our words. If I am slumped at the screen, people will disengage. On-screen and in Zoom, we need to bring more energy to speaking than we do in real life. Even if energy levels are flagging, we can become more aware of what our body is communicating. We can still maintain an “economic” level of neutral and professional energy if aware of our body language.
Deep Breaths Now
Finding a neutral body with a calm, open presence helps to engage an online audience. We learned to pause, breathe, and think about how to use voice for effective speaker presence. Pausing for breath creates space to vary the pitch, pace, and emphasis. We also practised using our hands for emphasis or to illustrate a point. We lost tension in our abdominal muscles with an exercise in SPLAT – Speakers Lose Abdominal Tension. It was a helpful reminder that breathing deeply from the abdomen rather than the chest can soothe nerves and fuel voice.
Bringing drama to a zoom room also means building rapport with an “audience”. Murphy et al., (2012) identified how important it is to recognise individuals to build rapport in distance or remote education and pay attention to the tone of interactions and non-academic conversation.
Another simple technique to build rapport comes from dramatic improvisation techniques. The idea is to extend the discussion by receiving and responding to others. Instead of “blocking” suggestions, we practised saying “Yes, and…”; avoiding an outright “No” or a “Yes, but” (Garrett, 2006). Where appropriate, this could be a linguistic cue to accept students’ suggestions and add to their conversation. It means being receptive to catching student comments and suggestions and trying to keep that dialogue ball in the air. As a result, students are more likely to contribute ideas and play along. Improvising conversation is a skill to practice and enjoy.
Communicate with people, not technology
Web conferencing is a different medium and experience, and so is presenting and zooming online. We can enhance or increase our presence and credibility on screen with a few tricks. However, research tells us to keep it relatively informal for students (Murphy et al., 2012). Learning online during COVID is about humans and communication, not technology. So, where possible, have a bit of fun when zooming. Ham it up even. Virtual filters, anybody?
We can all become more adept at online communication and re-think commonly accepted attitudes to social interaction. For example, Professor Stokoe questions the way we judge communication and asks: Is communicating in person the “gold standard”? You’re asking the wrong question.
My overall takeaway from this excellent workshop? I can improve my screen presence and connection with others by being more conscious of how I communicate in Zoom.
Do you agree? Can bringing drama to Zoom help? Or are we doomed to Zoombiedom?