Do you need a critic in your Zoom room?
I invited one into mine, and I think the feedback is helping.
“Move back from the camera!” “Look into the lens when you’re talking!” “Don’t slouch!”
Every so often, I see the clapping hands emoji pop up on my screen, a morsel of encouragement.
I’m using software called the Sidekick, from the Boston startup Virtual Sapiens. It analyzes how I look during a live videoconference and provides what the company calls “nudges” in real-time so I can look my best and communicate more effectively in the digital realm. Haven’t we all listened to enough dead-eyed, droning speakers who sit in the darkest corner of their home office?
The Sidekick was developed by Rachel Cossar, a Boston speaking coach and former dancer with the Boston Ballet. She charges $350 an hour for private sessions and often runs group training sessions that can cost several thousand dollars. But Cossar points out that even with that kind of spend, she still can’t be with you during an important presentation on Zoom or Microsoft Teams to give pointers in real-time. That’s why she and her cofounder, Neal Kaiser, developed the Sidekick; it costs $9 per month, or $85 a year, and you can run the software as often as you want — it can even be set to automatically launch when your meetings begin. There’s also a pre-check mode, where you can get feedback on things like lighting and framing before the meeting starts.
OK, why? Plenty of people have a “necessary evil” attitude toward video meetings, and just try to endure them. But Cossar is focused on people who want to connect with their audience and get their message across in an engaging way. Some of the strongest early interest in the software has come from sales teams and client service staffers, who make money or keep clients based on relationships.
One early user is Jimmy Nguyen, a Boston-based vice president at a financial services firm. Taking part in so many videoconferences “mentally wears you down over time,” he says via e-mail. “The Sidekick is an excellent reminder to be more aware of my body language and facial expressions, and be more attentive when my camera is live — especially when I’m not speaking.” Nguyen says he discovered the app late last year, and he uses it on every video meeting he has, whether personal or professional.
Right now, the Sidekick is a much better tool for people who use Macs rather than PCs. On a PC, you can only run web-based versions of videoconferencing software if you want the Sidekick to be able to critique your meetings, not the native applications, which typically run more smoothly and offer more features. It is a separate small dashboard that sits on your desktop. During a videoconference, it’s only watching you using your computer’s camera — not everyone else in the meeting — and it doesn’t record or store any video of the meeting content on Virtual Sapiens’ servers, Cossar explains. It picks about 5 frames each second to analyze, and it doesn’t just look, but also listens for intonation, volume, and “speaking share” — how much you are dominating the conversation.
It can be distracting to have one more thing to pay attention to on your desktop during a meeting, since you may also have an agenda, notes, or slides. And at first, you need to figure out the different icons that show up. A giant head with the top cut off means you need to move back from the camera. An ear means, “Show you are actively listening.” Two faces with different expressions suggest you should “stay engaged with your face,” smiling every so often or raising your eyebrows. The icons don’t have text explanations unless you hover your cursor over them, which can draw your focus away from the meeting itself. If you’re doing things right, you get the clapping hands emoji and rack up what the app calls “presence points.”
The app also delivers a kind of report card after each meeting, with kudos and tips on improving. The first time I tried the app, in a short meeting with a colleague, it congratulated me on my “first impression” — I got a high score on how I looked at the start of the call, in terms of my lighting and framing. But I got low marks for bad posture, not enough eye contact, and touching my face. (I was eating breakfast during the meeting and moving a spoon to your mouth is interpreted by the app as touching your face.) The report card comes with really helpful explanations of how you can improve, as well as short videos that Cossar recorded that provide visual reinforcement of those ideas.
Virtual Sapiens was a finalist in the MassChallenge entrepreneurship competition last year. The Sidekick app debuted in beta form in December, and just last month, the company raised its first round of capital from a group of angel investors called Vitalize Angels. Cossar plans to use that money to keep improving the app, including better integrating it with Zoom.
In a Zoom interview with Cossar, I thought her lighting could’ve been better, to be honest. (But no one is paying me $9 a month, much less $350 an hour.) I wanted to better understand how the Sidekick worked, and she explained that it behaves differently depending on whether you are speaking or listening. The instruction to look at the camera “is more aggressive as a nudge when you’re speaking,” she said. “If you’re listening, I think it’s awkward and very unnatural to have to listen into the lens.” But you do get some clap emojis — those coveted presence points — for nodding your head, or tilting it just so, when you are listening, to suggest that the speaker has piqued your interest.
Cossar touches on one idea for a future enhancement that could be problematic: if the Sidekick could analyze the video of people participating in your meeting, it could tell when they were most engaged with your message. That could be useful to anyone pitching a new idea — what aspect of it grabbed your audience? But Cossar acknowledges that disclosing to meeting participants that their reactions were being monitored would likely be a turn-off.
She said the two nudges she gets most frequently from the app are to make more consistent eye contact when she’s speaking and to vary her facial expression. “We are so used to being stone-faced on video,” she says.
During our 42-minute interview, I racked up 73 presence points. Cossar smoked me with 84, even though her Sidekick app was turned off for about 10 minutes and not monitoring her (it assumed we were having a 30-minute meeting, based on Cossar’s calendar). In the post-meeting report card, her confidence score was high; mine was low.
I got dinged for insufficient eye contact. I’d argue it’s hard to look meaningfully into the camera while taking notes during an interview.
But maybe I have just not been paying close enough attention to the digital critic on my desktop. A rematch, perhaps?
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.