Primitive, soulless and uninspiring: No, online conferences are not the way of the future

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You might have seen the movie Yesterday, in which battling muso Jack Malik finds global fame because he ends up in a world where the Beatles never existed, yet he can remember their tunes.

He spends a lot of time Googling Beatles stuff. Nothing.

The world at the moment feels a lot like that movie, except instead of the Beatles not existing, it’s sport.

It’s like it never existed. When entire chunks of life that people take for granted just disappear, you learn interesting things. Now we’ll find out if sport, along with many other parts of our lives, is necessary. And in what form.

I’m not much of a sports watcher, but I’m a big Formula One fan, as much for its complex layers of business intrigue as the actual races. Many of the drivers are now racing in electronic form, and the visuals are amazing, nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

Could they just save a tonne of money, travel and city disruption by just moving the whole sport online permanently, as part of our ongoing evolution toward humans just sitting in the one place their entire life, wired up to their choice of digital stimulus, being fed through tubes?

God, I really hope not.

The primitive brain knows eSports are crap

Electronic sports offer a crap spectator experience. We know it at an instinctive level.*

Because there’s nothing at stake when digital competitors push to the limits. Unless you’re male and fourteen, it’s hard to care about someone sitting in a chair, staring down the worst-case scenario of… having to reboot their console.

In actual Formula One, crashes have serious implications. And our primitive brains crave that sort of danger, even if it’s being braved by others. That’s why Russian dash-cam videos are so popular.

In business and elsewhere, it’s risky to disregard that primitive brain.

Presenting to no audience is hell

I did an interview with mixed martial arts World Cup winner, cancer survivor and pro-public speaker Nadine Champion last week. We discussed how she first came to speaking. It was when she got up in front of 2,500 people at the Sydney Opera House to do a TEDx talk.

She was coming out of her cancer treatment, and was so weak she couldn’t open a water bottle.

At the end, to see if she still had her old martial arts skills, she broke a wooden board in half. It was an incredibly emotional speech. Watch the video and see her in tears at the end.

“I was in tears because the front three rows of the audience were all in tears,” she said.

After the interview, we sat in the empty studio and spoke of the blank-stare, soul-crushing feeling of talking to a camera rather than an audience. It sucks more than watching eSports. You get nothing back.

So your presentation is pretty lame, no matter how much effort and energy you think you’re putting in. Your pauses are the wrong length. You don’t move your head around, or smile as much. All these things are organic reactions to faces in the audience.

You get no applause.

And afterwards, my god, you miss the post-analysis. You finish the presentation, and you’re on an adrenaline high. You want feedback on how it went. You want to joke with other panellists about that stupid question that guy asked. You want people to come up to you and say: ‘That was a good talk.’

None of that for you in 2020. You get teleported straight to digital outer Siberia with a blank white Game Over screen.

Zoom conference is over, no human touch from the audience

You get up, put the kettle on and check your emails like an absolute loser who has no friends at all.

Like none of it ever happened.

Turns out that a live audience is a massive part of your performance, even when they’re silent.

Tech disruptors miss the point

Yet any tech executive will tell you digital meetings are a 100% effective replacement for being there in person.

And yes, for everyday catchups, they’re fine, partly because those meetings were never such a great experience anyway (which is why the Zoom 40-minute time limit is its best feature).

But when you have to inspire people, virtual meetings are crap.

When you have to create a lasting impression, they’re crap.

For establishing trust, yep, crap.

For reasons that are invisible to people who spend their days thinking about code.

Do you want to be a vending machine?

Almost every disruptive tech idea of the last decade is based on the idea that the human touch is a dispensable waste of time and money.

Obviously lots of them are good ideas bringing convenience unimaginable 10 years ago. But their overall effect has been to turn a lot of businesses into vending machines, with a correspondingly brutal lack of customer loyalty.

Now we’re finding out what near-zero human touch feels like, and as a species, we’re freaking out.

And it’s still early days.

So here’s something to think about while you’ve got some time. Treat this lockdown as a grand experiment to help you discover what’s really important to your customers (and staff), things people only realise they miss when they’re gone.

So you can focus on those things and deliver more of them when things open up again.

I’m not saying ignore tech. Quite the opposite. But it’s important to understand how people actually behave, and build your tech around that.

And use the human touch to make the experience better, so that customer feels that you’re the only ones who get it.

Consider Apple. Sure their products are nice, but so much of that loyalty comes from their massive investment in all those stores full of helpful people. The primitive brain goes, when I buy a tech thing and I can’t get it working, Apple will always be there to help me out.

What do people really get from your product?

Is the real benefit of your cafe that you only do espresso or regular milk, so all your customers sit around feeling like cool members of the Purist Coffee Gang? And they casually name-check your cafe in conversations all day because it’s a badge of honour for them.

Is the main benefit of your small business not price, location, product range or whatever, but just the comfortable feeling of knowing they can call you personally to resolve issues and frustrations?

Do people like your business because they’re lazy, and you have the commercial sense to help them be lazy, while having the good manners to never let on that you know how lazy they are? So they can schedule a 2pm Friday meeting at your office which is conveniently not far from their house. It would be kinda pointless to go all the way back to the office now, wouldn’t it?

Do people come to your store because they’re lonely and your staff are the only sympathetic ear they have in their lives?

Primitive brain laws apply to staff too

And don’t just think about customers. How will this change the way you deal with your staff?

Is it possible the real purpose of your office is a place to talk to people face-to-face and get a realistic sense of how they’re feeling and what’s on their mind? So in 2021, you might stop sending them so many electronic memos from three desks away.

There are a lot of assumptions around why people make job choices that simply aren’t true, because people are strange.

At least one industry I know offers feudal management techniques and long hours for terrible pay, yet it is a strangely sought-after career. Because it offers a prestige brand on your CV, free drinks and the opportunity for a lot of casual… uh… interactions with co-workers. Tough times for them at the moment.

There will be a lot of great staff available when all this is over. Think hard about what it is they really want, and they can be yours.

I’m thinking the office Christmas parties this year are going to be the HR department’s worst nightmare. Human nature can only be suppressed for so long.

*Yeah I know the massive numbers on Twitch et cetera but any activity that only involves rapid finger movement is no more of a sport than piano concerts.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.

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