Send my avatar! A deaf technophobe's guide to Zoom's deeper mysteries

Ever found yourself fuming on Zoom? ‘Where did the key person’s video suddenly go to?’. ‘How come there’s no option to re-copy my invitation to that meeting I set up?’ And, ‘Where did those dratted black boxes over my beautiful slides come from?’

With these new platforms, there’s no handbook. Fast smiley videos, yes, and FAQs. But have you noticed that for some reason your question never seems to be ‘frequently asked’ (at least in Zoom world) and an answer is elusive?

I have experienced all this and (much) more. Add the fact I am: usually the only deaf participant on Zoom calls, someone who needs a human support worker (lipspeaker) to operate optimally, that my work is people focused – public speaking, coaching and training – and the past year of working entirely online has amounted to an intensive education by trial and error.

I am a self-confessed technophobe; I just can’t quite trust technology. Were you a fly on my office wall, you would regularly hear me telling the computer off. (Not an approach I recommend, but psychologically satisfying). More seriously, the greater vulnerability I feel as a deaf person makes my hyper-vigilant. I have not just to ‘know how’ to make a particular thing happen on Zoom, I need to practise it several times to believe it will happen and also to understand why it happens that way. I view Zoom and most technology a bit like a wayward guest – I appreciate things about them, but can never be sure they won’t cause embarrassment at the party.

I have had my fair share of baptisms in fire. Last year, only a few weeks after lockdown, I co-facilitated a whole-day workshop with senior officials on erm Skype (don’t ask) but could only access my support workers by getting them to simultaneously call me on FaceTime. To be able to watch both the participants and the lipspeaker, I then had prop up my phone on our cats’ climbing frame so it was at eye level (much to the cats’ chagrin). When the connection dropped and one support worker’s face started to pixelate, a bit like a latter-day Terminator, it took all my wherewithal not to weep. Nearing the festive season in 2020, I ended up appearing on a Labour Business committee panel as the only way to get access to my support worker – rather than remaining an anonymous participant in a large crowd. (I resisted the temptation to try to whisper to Ed Milliband who randomly appeared on the screen next to me ‘Oy, Ed – a word about your bruv' rubber stamping the FCO's HR decision in 2009 – Out of order mate!’)

I decided that there may be others out there who would like an old-fashioned explanation of what the heck is happening on Zoom and how to feel more in control. Please note – these are observations drawn from experience and are related to meetings rather than large webinars.

JC is my avatar; she seems to be deaf too!

JC is my avatar; she seems to be deaf too!

Where did they go? The amazing shrinking and disappearing videos – and how to stop it happening.

We have all been there. One moment we are happily watching a ‘room’ full of listeners or colleagues, we pin the person we need, then the next that the row of ‘thumbnail’ small videos at the top of the screen suddenly consists of people’s initials. The humans are nowhere to be seen.

Or how about when the host shares some beautiful slides and everyone you need to watch slips off the screen, except ‘ET’ who you have never heard of (it’s not the real ET)? There seems to be a special rule that the very person you most need to see will be the first to disappear. 

What to do

You can ‘pin’ any video by hovering the mouse in the top right corner of the relevant video, clicking on the 3 dots to bring up the menu, then clicking on ‘Pin video’.

When you choose ‘Speaker mode’ by clicking this option via the top right ‘View’ icon, your pinned video will always appear. Unless there is a shared screen, the selected video should be large and easily visible.

If you need to follow more than 1 speaker in a larger video format, ask the host to ‘allow to Multi-pin’. They do this by clicking on Participants, your video (top right) then selecting this option. You should then see that you have an option to ‘Add pin’ on other videos. If Multi-pinning is not enabled, you will only be able to pin one video at a time. So when you request another, it will offer to only ‘Replace pin’). If you are the host, you have Multi-pinning as an automatic option.

The order in which thumbnail (small) videos appear at the top or side of your screen seems to be random, though it may be based on when people speak. The only reliable ways to consistently get the videos you need remaining on your screen seem to be:

a) Multi-pin your chosen participant videos (as above). Or:

b) If you are the lucky owner of more than one device and screen, invite your avatar to join the real you at the meeting e.g. use your personal Zoom account if you normally use an organisation’s, or a friend or family member’s if they permit you. You will then be able to organise the two screens differently – keeping the ‘Gallery view’ of as many participants as possible on one, and your selected ‘pinned videos’ on another.

As a lipreader, this is invaluable as I can choose to have the lipspeaker’s video on Speaker view in large format on my PC, then keep the main participants on the other screen so I can e.g. easily see who is speaking.

Teeny tiny videos?

When the host shares their screen, your pinned video will automatically shrink to a ‘thumbnail’. If you are relying on this video for communication, this is disconcerting. The thumbnail size is usually too small to be useful to lipread or follow easily.

What to do

Look for a fine grey vertical line on the right of the shared screen  – between that screen and the participant videos. Hover your mouse on this, click and move the mouse and it will let you change the proportions of the two images. By moving the line to the left, you can make the shared screen smaller and the pinned video larger, or to the right – it’s vice versa. 

I hope you have found this useful. The next blog will be aimed at helping you when you are presenting and using slides on a shared screen. I  will reveal where the famous black boxes which seem to haunt some of us come from  - and what you can do about them.

If you would like to know more about my story, why not head over there or to my coaching page, or just drop me a line?

Good luck on Zoom folks!


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