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Virtual Contact: Not the Same as 
In-Person Contact

by Marcia Yudkin

In today's era of computer-mediated contact, what's the role of old-fashioned face-to-face, in-person business contact? Should we all get used to making sales and sealing deals over the Internet and the phone? For the sake of efficiency, should we try to maximize our tally of at-a-distance experiences?

Yale professor and award-winning author/publisher Edward Tufte specializes in ways of communicating complex, three- and four-dimensional information in two-dimensional visual formats, both on paper and on computer screens. So it was ironic that a seminar he presented got me thinking about the advantages of in-person contact.

Tufte attracted a sell-out crowd of 300, each paying $320, the day I attended. I couldn't help musing about what could have attracted so many to spend a day with him instead of or in addition to reading his books.

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Perhaps it was the chance to soak in his latest thinking, to get a painless overview of his work or to soak in the flavor of the man as one can't from the printed page. For me, two moments in the seminar stood out. He'd brought along an edition of Euclid's Geometry that had belonged to Ben 
Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary. He also showed us a first edition of Galileo's greatest work. The experience of contemplating those 400-year-old or so still-readable volumes could not have been duplicated outside that room.

As someone who's been selling my writing to publishers and magazines for 20 years, I'm accustomed to negotiating and sealing deals by mail, by phone, and more recently by fax and email. This makes me appreciate physical, real-world encounters all the more. 

When I finally meet some business contact with whom I've corresponded, I always realize some dimension has been missing. At best, my mental picture of them was partial. At worst, I'd misconstrued their age, sophistication, lifestyle, caring or attentiveness. Usually I like and trust people more after we meet. Occasionally inexplicable feelings make me back off from someone I'd gotten along with fine by email and phone.

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So as much as I appreciate the convenience of email, whenever something significant is at stake, I try to escalate communication to the telephone, which enables a better exchange of all the subtle dimensions of communication, and then where feasible to a face-to-face meeting. Misunderstandings occur less frequently this way, and a more solid foundation of trust gets laid.

Even if you feel that your web site and your brochure represent you perfectly well, recognize that others may need the missing dimensions to feel fully comfortable with you. Providing a photo, embuing your written words with personality and making yourself accessible by phone all help 
bridge the gap between fragmentary, flawed impressions and who you really are. 

Bask in the feeling of success when when remote business buddies tell you how great it is to finally meet you. As with those ancient first editions and Professor Tufte himself, physical existence can have an irresistible appeal.

Copyright 2000 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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