We have all experienced the glitches and minor delays that come with videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom. No matter how good the internet connection, they are inevitable. In fact, they are so common that attorneys might overlook the effect that such glitches or delays have on the participants in the conference. Research shows that the impact is more profound than many might expect and should give attorneys pause as depositions, court hearings, and even trials have shifted to Zoom in order to prevent our justice system from coming to a grinding halt during the pandemic.
Over the past few decades, telecommunications labs from around the world have closely examined the impact of these glitches and delays in conferencing technology on participants’ perceptions of the quality of the communication as well as their general perceptions of the other party involved in the communication. The results have been fascinating and shed some insight into how the use of Zoom in litigation might uniquely impact trial participants and jurors.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researcher Joseph Walther conducted a 2002 study on communication problems in virtual groups and found that people tend to attribute communication problems in a virtual setting to the other person involved rather than to the situation. In fact, this study even found that people often misattribute their own failures to adapt to virtual communication to the “dispositional attributes” of their communication partner.
In a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the Telekom Innovation Laboratories (TIL), it was found that “the same speaker was rated to be less friendly, less active, less cheerful, less self-efficient, less achievement striving, and less self-disciplined” when there was a transmission delay in the virtual communication than when there was no delay at all. In fact, the researchers tested varying lengths of the delays and found that differences in perceptions of the speaker occurred at even the shortest delays of only 1-2 seconds.
Notably, the TIL researchers also found that participant-induced disruptions to the communication process also had a negative effect on perceptions of the participant responsible for the disruption. Specifically, the research found that participants develop strong, negative views of participants who constantly interrupt others. While this is also true of in-person communication, the research showed that the negative effect was much more pronounced when it happened while using conferencing technology. It is also easier for this to happen while using conferencing technology like Zoom since it can sometimes be harder to know when someone else is done speaking and it is your turn to talk.
Finally, the TIL researchers found that the speakers’ self-ratings did not correlate with participants’ ratings of those speakers. In other words, the speakers failed to recognize when disruptions such as transmission delays and interruptions by the speaker led to negative perceptions of them. They tended to believe these issues had little no impact on perceptions of them at all.
The natural question that readers might have at this point is, what can I possibly do about this? After all, glitches and delays are an inevitable reality of conferencing technology like Zoom. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, this is just one more on a list of communication barriers and pitfalls that should be considered, particularly when clients are trying to decide whether or not to proceed with a remote trial rather than wait out the pandemic, as discussed in last week’s blog. In other words, this is just one more reason why attorneys have an even greater burden to go above and beyond in order to efficiently and effectively engage jurors in remote trials. It is so important to adapt to the technology and find new and interesting ways to engage jurors with the hope that these engagement strategies can overcome or at least offset the negative effects that come with technical glitches.
Second, attorneys need to take a close look at the quality of their technology. This will not cure every minor problem that happens over Zoom, but it sure will help quite a bit. If Zoom has become an important part of your litigation practice due to the pandemic, it is time to invest both the money and the time in getting top-quality technology (i.e. cameras, microphones, laptops with more RAM and processing power, etc.) and also putting in the time to really learn to use the technology to ensure you are receiving the top quality that you invested in. In short, you need to practice, practice, and practice. This is not as easy as it sounds as most litigators are buried in work and many are naturally-born procrastinators. Practice is always the victim of procrastination. However, as this research shows, these old habits will no longer cut it and may become a detriment to how judges, jurors, and perhaps even your clients perceive you.