Has video killed the courtroom star?

What makes a good AV advocate? Tips on how to develop your video conference style drawn from the world of psychology. By Cameron Haden


As lockdown eased, the news that more courts were re-opening for ‘face-to-face’ hearings came as a moment of relief for some; but trepidation for others. With courts’ limited capacity to accommodate today’s social distancing requirements, remote and hybrid hearings will remain a day-to-day necessity for the foreseeable future.

In addition to concerns around access to justice, and the irritations of slow technology, loading screens, sabotaging pets and family, and the general unexpected, getting used to delivering a case over a camera has posed its own and well-documented dilemmas. Centuries of training on body language to build rapport have been rendered obsolete in remote settings and there is little – if any – existing training for the Bar on performing via telephone or video conferences.

If you’ve found it tough to adapt, you’re not alone. Research by Bos et al Being there Versus Seeing there (2001) identified that rapport building by telephone, video and email is harder than in person – due to the lack of communication cues. Argyle, Communicating by Telephone (2013) found that it is 22% harder to build rapport over video conference, 27% harder by telephone and 36% harder over email.

One of the obvious differences between an in-person and video scenario is the line of vision. Screen-frame limitations boil down appearances to a top slice of participants and their immediate background. Consequently, we lose many of the important cues and signals from body language that counsel, client, judge and jury build from in a courtroom. From the client perspective, it will take longer to build trust in the absence of the full spectrum of communication tools. Psychologists have long established that 70% of communication is non-verbal. We communicate through our body, manner, surroundings, presence and other visual or sensation cues. Within the vacuum of telephone and video conferences, these cues are absent, making communication twice as hard. Cuelessness and the Content and Style of Conversation by Kemp (1982) found that the fewer cues there are in the environment, the more the listener interprets from what is available. Anything missing is filled in by the listener’s own thoughts.

Psychologists might suggest a few techniques to help fill the communication vacuum and stimulate more than the listening section of the mind. Barristers may have already curated their resonant, ‘radio-styled’ voice which commands attention, smoothly carries over a great distance and instils warmth and confidence in the listener. In the AV context, this can also eliminate sound issues and the need to frantically hit the volume button. Vocal variety, ie adjusting sound, pitch and tone, is also important to keep conversation fresh and reduce boredom, and psychologists explain that resonance and variety can be interpreted as music by the mind. Further, careful word choice can stimulate memory generation and help elicit particular responses.

Styling your background

In remote conferences, the lawyer is in a better position to control their own space, compared to the courtroom or office. And if clients see and operate from an environment in which they feel more comfortable, this could increase their confidence and make them more open, and better able, to communicate. Some careful thought can therefore be given to your background.

The works of psychologists including Broeder et al Colour in Online Advertising (2019), Sedgewick et al Presenting your Best Self(ie) (2017), Millerson Lighting for Video (2013), Wilson et al Judging a Book by its Cover (2006), Paintings in Hospitals/ Val Huet Art and Work Related Stress (2015), Tsunetsugu et al Physiological Effects of Shinrin-yoku (2007) looked at the impact of different visual influences such as colour, camera angle, lighting, artwork and plants on building trust and rapport. Benefits of Nature by Lohr (2007) explains how indoor plants can help to calm emotions due to the intrinsic link with plants sustaining life. Color Studies in Applied Psychology and Social Sciences by Sorokowski et al (2014) reveal that colours consistent with the message being communicated make them more persuasive, while colours counter to the message do the reverse.

In summary, a plain white background including a picture and plant is probably the best set-up to build rapport. The scene is uncluttered and allows the viewer to focus on the speaker. The plant and painting help to diffuse the background, giving a sense of vibrancy, and reduce ‘technology stress’. If the plant is in flower, the aroma can help relax and focus the speaker. Natural lighting will make lawyers look fresher. Consider also ambient noise. A completely silent room can produce an uncomfortable environment, with participants feeling compelled to fill the silence. Natural sounds such as distant, infrequent bird-chirping can break up the silence but are not intrusive.

Zoomed in, eye-lined and buttoned up

The speaker’s face will dominate the screen and have a ‘larger than life’ effect, so achieving an optimum level of focus and intensity when both speaking and listening becomes much more important. You should be centrally positioned in the screen; psychologists would recommend this so that you appear fully focused on the listener. Eye line is very important and you may need to raise your laptop so that the webcam is at the same height as your eyes. Don’t forget to look at the webcam as much as possible. It is tempting to direct your gaze to the screen below the webcam, where the other participants appear, but this can make you appear distracted and more interested in something off-screen.

Pay attention to your posture. Keeping an upright seated position with an open body frame enables the body to breathe more easily, encourages blood flow, and improves the mind’s ability to send and receive signals which can produce clearer and stronger presentations (and more mentally flexible counsel). By the same token, no one wants to see counsel hunched over the screen. On telecons, you can still detect when someone is slouching through their voice and this does not elicit trust.

Clothing will also impact how the speaker is perceived and perceives themselves. A suit lends authority, creating an unconscious cue to the viewer, and business attire grounds the mind given the association with work mode. Psychologists opt for clothes which are comfortable, allowing them to think and operate clearly, with confidence. A word of caution: counsel regularly working in casual gear during lockdown may feel ‘off their game’ when the time comes to ‘suit up’, having conditioned themselves to perform in relaxed clothes.

Interestingly, psychologists would generally recommend a suit in dark blue rather than black or grey. Navy blue is associated with trust; black looks professional but can also be associated with death. Be aware also that different colours can mean different things to different cultures, eg in the Middle East and China red means success, but in Western Europe it denotes warning or compassion.

A final note: psychologists have found that prolonged exposure to technology can lead to increased worry, fatigue and reduced cognitive functions. Scientists hypothesise that as humanity has spent millennia living in forests it has yet to adapt to the technical setting, which is causing fatigue and anxiety; a genetic longing for nature. It is hard to disagree with the argument that we all need more sunshine, leisure and regular breaks from technology. Try to take advantage of this enforced change in working patterns to introduce healthier work styles.

Does good sound make video better? The internal microphone in your device is probably poor and can pick up noise and interference from your computer fan, shuffling papers, and the entire room and environment beyond. External wired headsets or earbuds with a microphone in the cable are an inexpensive but effective choice and produce better clarity of sound, through to more advanced wireless earbud solutions with noise-cancelling and boom microphones, to USB podcast mics with pop filters for even more professional sound. Similarly, consider upgrading your webcam to a dedicated external device for better picture quality and environment control. As the days grow darker and natural light diminishes, external lighting devices are worth exploring and can help you look like a webinar pro. Be aware that external devices can be challenging to set up, so look for DIY webcam and AV tips online, ask an expert or go the whole hog and consult a specialist AV and video conferencing solution provider about a bespoke set-up. Remember to give yourself regular breaks. See: ‘Why working from home Is so exhausting – and how to reinvigorate’, Forbes.com

Category: 
Issue: 
Author details: 
Cameron Haden

Cameron Haden is an accredited mediator, LPC Law court advocate and unregistered barrister. He holds an LLM in Bar Professional Training with a focus on using psychology in legal client care, which is the subject of his forthcoming book. He is also head of Aspiring Barristers, a group aimed at helping disadvantaged groups aspiring to the Bar.