Image: City Safari: Zoom Circus

Inside HigherEd.edu

I am Zoomed out. I have Zoom fatigue.

Since March of 2020 Zoom has been the emperor of public speaking venues throughout the city. In the beginning, doing the Zoom thing was a novelty. It was fun installing a small camera on my home computer and aligning it so that it picked up the best light and showed off an interesting background--the manicured tableau-- to a curious Zoom audience.  Do I really want people to see this picture on the wall or should I change it?

Some people who have fallen in love with Zoom want public speaking events like lectures and panel discussions to always have a Zoom option. They praise Zoom because they say a speaker can wear anything from the waist down—underwear, jock strap or even go nude—because Zoom viewers can’t see “down there.” These kinds of freedoms are priceless, they insist. The only dress code “requirement” in the Zoom world is from the waist up. That may work for some but it doesn’t work for me. For me, clothes-- the right clothes-- provide a psychological framework. If you dress as if you were really going to speak before an audience in real time, this can help to put you in the right frame of mind when the Zoom camera clicks on.

I’ve given about 12 Zoom talks since the start of the pandemic. Different city arts and cultural institutions have different Zoom styles. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, for instance, asks that as the Zoom speaker that you log on in advance of the program so all the sound and other technical aspects can be ironed out. During that time the host will go over your bio, discuss when the images (if any) will be displayed and when the Q and A with the audience will begin.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia has an after session where the Zoom program is reviewed and feedback exchanged between the host and presenter. As a speaker, I have found this to be extremely helpful.

Tina Brock, founder of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium and host of the popular weekly Zoom show, Into the Absurd: A Virtually Existential Dinner Conversation, also incorporates after show feedback.  Brock, in fact, has mastered the art of feedback. She is also one of the finest interviewers in the city. Her knack for making guests relax and open up, as well as her sense of humor, is what makes the weekly Existential Dinners so interesting.

One of the aggravating aspects of Zoom is when you are the featured speaker and see multiple images of the Zoom audience, a gallery of faces facing you on your computer screen like endless overlays of Warhol’s soup cans. This nerve-wracking iconography is not helpful for most speakers because what happens inside those Zoom windows can be distracting: yawning, looks of boredom, raised eyes. What’s a speaker to do in a case like this?  The standard Zoom ‘philosophy’ says not to take it personally but to remember that the audience is Zooming from their homes where there could be a zillion things going on: the postman ringing twice, an obnoxious barking dog, a person getting shot outside their house, a cantankerous screaming child.

Experience tells me that it is better for the main speaker not to see the audience faces at all except during the Q and A. But even this is far from perfect.

I gave a talk at the Franklin Inn recently on my book on religious cults. Before the lecture, I worked with the host of the event to arrange an assortment of images to go with the presentation. The image-arranging took some time, however the host let me go through the entire lecture without speaking up and asking me if I wanted to launch the slide show. Most public speaking event hosts realize that a speaker may get “lost” in his/her talk so they stand ready to save the day by interjecting the slide show before it is too late. This did not happen in this case. I was waiting for the host to suggest launching the slide show while the host was waiting for me to suggest launching the slide show.

At the show’s end, I received a harsh email from a Franklin Inn official accusing me of “wasting the host’s time” and of “using him” because I didn’t remember to say, “Launch the slide show.”  Yet why didn’t the host jump in and offer a simple reminder?  At the talk’s end he certainly could have mentioned the slide show and have suggested running through the images.  Zoom miscommunication is its own pandemic.  

Zoom talks are terrifying because they do not give the speaker a real sense of the audience. A real time public speaker is able to read faces in an audience and gage, possibly, how the talk should proceed.

There are downsides to Zoom presentations where the audience is invisible to the speaker. When the Zoom speaker sees nothing onscreen except his own face there’s the feeling of speaking into a vacuum. Did the audience leave? Is anybody there? Is anybody listening? During several talks I have been tempted to ask, “Hello, have you all gone to the moon?”

A program called Mornings Out at the William Way Community Center has an excellent Zoom system where the host gracefully “interrupts” a lecture with pertinent questions or comments. I don’t mind interruptions like this at all. In the Zoom world, straight lectures are less desirable than conversational lectures or interviews, a la Tina Brock, where there is some back and forth. Talking for 45 minutes straight without any indication that there’s an audience or anyone out there listening to you is a very creepy sensation.

Another horrible thing about Zoom: One is often sitting down when delivering a Zoom talk. Sitting down is very bad for public speaking. Sitting down cuts off valuable brain waves; it puts the body into a semi slumber whereas standing up keeps the mental nerves on edge; the stand-up position helps to keep the brain focused. So yes, I hate Zoom for its ‘sitting on your ass’ methodology, especially when trying to communicate ideas or telling a story to an audience that is also on its ass.

Everything about Zoom is horrid.

At my recent talk at the Library Company of Philadelphia, a Zoom Fireside chat session, I was not told how many people were in “attendance,” or how many people had signed up to hear the talk. Sometimes it is better not to know. The host, a gracious man, said that since I am well known it could be more than 20 or 30 which is the usual number of Zoom attendees for the Fireside chats. But being well known and often controversial doesn’t guarantee you an audience, especially in this Cancel Culture era where people with certain opinions are relegated to Siberia because they don’t fit the PC status quo. I’ve encountered this from time to time and have learned to take it on the chin.

I recall a book reading I had at Philly AIDS Thrift—I was lecturing on my book, Learn To Do a Bad Thing Well, about Philadelphia’s homeless, that garnered only one attendee. This fiasco came after I had written and published a slew of gay books, including Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia and my novellas, Walking Water. The gracious host was embarrassed for me although earlier in the day the store had received telephone calls from a person or persons threatening to demonstrate outside the bookstore because of certain pieces I had written in conservative media.

When you write and publish you learn to take the good and the bad. As I told my host at Philly AIDS Thrift at the time, when I lectured on my book Literary Philadelphia at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, I sold out the place and some people had to be turned away. At the conclusion of my talk, an old time Athenaeum member—a gentleman in a Brooks Brothers suit with white hair—stood up and said that my lecture was by far the finest he had ever heard at the Athenaeum.

When I lectured at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on my book Philadelphia Mansions, the house was packed to the gills, yet I noticed a few guys in the front row who had obviously come to snicker and make faces. My sense was that they had read my pieces in conservative magazines.

All things considered, I would rather brave the unpredictability of a live audience than deal with Zoom’s virtual ghosts and goblins.

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