Military Ceremonies: Going Virtual
COVID-19 has created a new abnormal, but not everything is bad!
The U.S. military has a long tradition of formal ceremonies marking particular special milestones in a service member's career or as part of a larger celebration. These events include promotion to the next rank, retirement, (re)enlistment, change of command, banquets, awards or decoration presentations, and others. Given the long history, certain elements are typically included, such as singing of the National Anthem, Honor Guard presentation of the colors, special acknowledgment of distinguished guests, administration of an oath, and - of course - speeches. The more of these you attend, the more you appreciate that there's a particular rhythm to them, and you come to appreciate the occasion deviation (much to the local Military Protocol office's chagrin).
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a lot of opportunities for deviation. As General David Goldfein recently put it, "Many of us grew up in the age of Apple Orchards, MOPP [Mission Oriented Protection Posture] levels, operations with [personal protective equipment] aircraft decontamination procedures, etc. While we have not required it in recent years given our focus on the Middle East, the ability to survive and operate in a CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive] environment is in our DNA." At no point when we fight under such conditions are we able to throw down our weapons and give up; we don appropriate protective equipment, modify how we work, and keep moving our mission forward. That said, we also can't stop recognizing our personnel; we modify how we do it!
As cameras and microphones have become nearly ubiquitous across commercial electronics, a cottage industry of connective software has poured outward. Offerings from companies like Microsoft, Apple, Zoom, Google, Discord, Wickr, and others have flooded the market over the years and experienced a radical expansion since COVID-19's outbreak. They've been pivotal to helping friends and families keep in contact and have found increasing adoption among private companies interested in teleworking and growing tired of expensive dedicated video teleconference appliances. As the military continues to look at options for teleworking and keeping strong unit cohesion, installing such commercial software on personal hardware has become increasingly essential.
It also enables us to look at new ways of honoring those old traditions, like formal military ceremonies. To that end, here are some dos and don'ts for both the host and the participant. Some of these are peculiar to a formal ceremony, but many apply broadly no matter the circumstance.
Do: Mute on Entry
Many of this software allows for the host to mute participants at will or even have them muted by default. Always check and double-check once you are in the room to make sure you are muted. Having everyone able to speak at once can be fine in small groups, but at a certain point, it just becomes a wall of noise. Also, there's nothing funnier than when someone mistakenly thinks they are muted and starts throwing shade at the other participants or talking to themselves. Our inner monologues can be fascinating!
Do: Turn on Video
I know your bedroom is a mess, and you don't have a cool background, but we don't use video teleconferencing to look at a wall of grey boxes with names. Take a few moments to check out your camera before connecting; see what the other participants will (or won't) see and straighten out or remove whatever you find embarrassing. Don't get too worried! In larger groups, your window will be small, and the details behind you will be easily overlooked.
Do: Visibly Emote
Even while muted, don't be afraid to show that you're laughing at the jokes, nodding in agreement, or clapping (with your hands in the picture) at something you find agreeable. Body language is a big advantage of this format; use it purposefully and clearly.
Do: Look at the Camera
Depending on your setup, your camera may be away from your monitor. Remember that we naturally want to treat the video as a window, so when somebody is looking away from "the window," it can be distracting. If you have the choice, avoid using devices where the built-in camera is oddly placed (like next to the keyboard on a laptop). Also consider moving anything you need to reference (like a script) closer to the camera, so that you'll appear to be looking at the audience, even though you're looking at what you need.
Don't: Ask People to Stand
Attendees at military ceremonies know that there are always a lot of opportunities for applause and standing up (at attention). While many ceremonial scripts will prompt everyone to stand, I strongly recommend you remove those references. Additionally, mention at the beginning that any moments you would typically rise, you may remain seated at attention. Why? Two reasons: 1) I don't want to know if you're wearing (matching) pants, and 2) most will have their camera aimed somewhere at their chest; standing up means that you're awkwardly looking at a screen full of crotches.
Do: Arrive Early
If you're hosting, allow folks to connect early. If you're participating, join early. If you plan to speak, test out your mic with one of the other participants during this time. This time is also the exception to the Turn on Your Video rule. Once you've tested your equipment, remain connected, but turn off your video and ensure you're muted. That way, you can continue to go about your business without appearing rude, but you'll hear when things start. As soon as it's showtime, turn that camera back on!
Do: Widen the Guest List
With rare and notable exceptions, individual ceremonies are normally limited to the local personnel, with people rarely able to spare the expense and time to travel. Additionally, attending a ceremony in person can consume quite a bit of time, even when local. Driving to the location, finding parking, finding a seat, arriving early, staying for a reception... all of these slowly turn an hour-long ceremony into a three-hour affair. With a video teleconference, it's a simple walk to your computer or cell phone. Make sure to invite folks that wouldn't have otherwise been able to dedicate the time to travel (even across the base). Especially invite family members who may not ordinarily get to experience a military ceremony. Of all of my key takeaways, even when things return to some semblance of normalcy, I want to continue to offer a commercial video teleconferencing option so those families and friends can dial in.
Pandemics aren't fun, but they do present a unique opportunity to reconsider how we accomplish our tasks. In some cases, we're all finding ways that are improvements so good that they'll forever change our methods and stick with us long after COVID-19 has passed. What things have you learned to integrate pandemic-friendly advancements into your organization and its new normal? Hit me up and let me know!