Thursday 10 September 2020

Radically Improve Your Video Call Performances

Seriously? Do's and don's of Video Conferencing
Seriously? Do's and don'ts of Video Conferencing 

Written by Robyn T. Braley 

Video conferencing has been elevated to new levels of use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online communication has become the only way to have real-time visual and audio conversations in many situations. It has made self-isolation only slightly more bearable.

For business, it has established remote work stations as a new reality. Team meetings, client meetings, training along with consultations with professionals like doctors or accountants are a new normal.   

Like it or not, when you are onscreen, you are on stage baby! My tips in this post will help you to be an even better version of you when on camera.
Following these tips will make you look better and sound better. They will heighten your online confidence which will make you feel better about the process.

It doesn't matter whether you use Zoom, Skype, Go-to-Meeting, Blue Jean, Google Meet or any other platform. This post will help improve how you present yourself and how others like family, friends or colleagues receive the message you are communicating no matter how casual the conversation! 

I also touch on online decorum. For example, rolling your eyes while the host is speaking will be noted by the others on the call. Why? Because they are probably bored too! They will be filling time looking at each image, and what is showing behind it, of everyone on the call including you.   

A Universal Name

The most popular platform is ZOOM. The name became part of our lexicon and even used to describe other apps like Skype, Blue Jeans, Go-to-Meetings, Cisco WebEx, or Google Meet.

Zoom became a universal name much like a kleenex describes all tissues regardless of the brand name. In a previous generation, Xeroxing meant making copies whether using a Brother or Canon copier.
  • Jet Ski
  • Zamboni
  • Breathalyze
  • Crock-Pot
  • Jacuzzi

Doing the Zoom

In a few short months, video conferencing has become a big part of how we connect. Millions are now accustomed to working from home, taking online courses and having doctor, accountant, coaching, and other professional meetings.

My wife still blanches when recalling the gross photo I took of my gout stricken toe to send to my family physician for later analysis and discussion during an online appointment.

Families, companies, doctors, government, teachers, churches, community groups, mental health workers, and a host of other groups relied on video conferencing to function.
  • Zoom Call
  • Zoom Meeting
  • Do a Zoom
  • Zoom Conference
  • It's Zoomtime
'Let's meet in Zoomland Tuesday at 4:00 p.m.' is not a secret code. It means let's book a Zoom meeting for Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. 

Before COVID, this would have made no sense. Now, it makes perfect sense! I heard an elderly grandparent excitedly tell of talking to their grandchild 'on the Zoom.'

Zoom Challenged

A week into lockdown it became apparent many of us were Zoom challenged. Some, including seasoned journalists, continue to have problems navigating the world of Zoom.

Whatever your level of experience, this post is for you. Whether a novice or seasoned professional, these tips will improve your zoom experience! 

Why Details Matter

You’ve heard it a million times. First impressions are everything! Video chats are not the same as having a friendly chat in your living room or a local coffee shop.

The way you present yourself impacts the way others engage with you. Presentation not only determines the way others see you but also how your message is received.

What Can Others See?

Know what others will see on their screens. Why is this important?

We are slaves to human nature. We are nosey Normans or snoopy Susan’s. We can’t help ourselves.

If there are 10 people on a call and the person speaking is boring, the other 9 be looking at each participant and rating what they see behind them in the background of their picture.

Distracting background can affect the quality of your presentation. Poor camera positioning, clutter, sketchy lighting, bizarre clothing, or garbled sound all make negative statements about you.

Test every step of the way during setup. It’s easy.

  • Tap the selfie mode on your Ipad or phone and note what you see
  • Click the ‘test’ test function available on most meeting platforms

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Ask the question, “What devices will other people be watching me on?”

A tiny cell phone image will reveal less detail than that of a desktop monitor or giant board room screen. On a big screen, every tiny detail will be magnified many times over.

Why is this important? Overflowing garbage stacked against the wall behind you may not stand out on a phone screen but will be an eye magnet for colleagues watching you on a boardroom screen.

  • Cell phone
  • IPAD
  • Laptop computer
  • Desktop computer
  • Large boardroom screen

Choosing the Location

You want meeting participants to focus on your face. Anything behind you that is distracting robs you of focus.

Choose a location you can control. Avoid spaces where pets, spouses, children, or any other living creature can roam freely behind you. The cute dog is only cute the first time it appears dancing behind you.

A blank wall is preferable to a busy pattern or shelves piled high with – treasures. Viewers will soon be looking at them and not you.

A single art piece or a brick or textured wood surface can add warmth and feeling without distracting.

We often see bookshelves used as backgrounds. Ask the question. Which books will make me look like an inspirational thought leader or student of quality literature? Seamy novels or an endless row of “Dummies” books may not send the message you want to send. (Note to self. Move the Dummies).

  • The sunburst clock looks like a giant squid about to land on your head
  • The antique 1950s lampshade that looks like a hovering spaceship
  • The decorated vase on the bookshelf may look like an urn
  • The nude photos may not be seen as the great art that you see them as
  • The whirling ceiling fan that looks like a lethal weapon about to decapitate you when viewed filmed by an iPad placed on your desk

Some reading this are preparing to give webinars. Remove items like calendars or clocks that will stamp the time and date on your content. Online videos may have a life of many years. Don’t date yourself.

Beware the Ghost of Greenscreen's Present

Green screen technology is a wonderful thing. However, this isn't the place to extoll the virtues or many creative possibilities it offers video producers. 

Many video conferencing platforms provide a green screen, or virtual background, option. It allows you to replace what is behind you with photos or videos of your dog, ideal office, the beach, mountains or any other favourite thing. You often see corporate logos or slogans wallpapered on a white background behind the person speaking.  

The greatest challenge is that with some platforms like Zoom, the background image can be distorted by movement. Rocking from side to side or even rapid head movements can cause a hallow effect around the moving things that look like a vapour trail.  
I was recently on a call when the spouse of a person using a virtual background inadvertently walked from left to right behind him. She looked like an apparition. The distortion made her look like the ghost of green screens present. It was quite entertaining!  

As with everything, test, test, test your virtual image before your call. Choose an image that makes sense. For example, a still picture of a street showing people and cars becomes distracting when they don't move. They will become even more distracting if they do!

Again, details matter. A cool office shot will look fake if the window in the background shows a bird in the sky that doesn't move. 

This being said, if you know your colleagues well, you can choose images of giant rabbits, gorillas or raccoons about to attack you to add some entertainment value. However, the joke will be over once the serious conversation begins.

Camera Placement

When writing or speaking about filming videos I emphasize that the eyes are a window into the soul. It’s true.

When setting up, place your camera so you can look straight ahead and into the camera. If you're using a laptop, phone, or Ipad with an installed camera, set the device on a stack of books, sturdy box, or shelf. Adjust it until you and the camera lens see eye to eye.

You may have a sophisticated webcam or external video camera. I use a Logitech 4K webcam that costs around $300.00. However, a reasonably priced webcam can cost as little as $100.

Buy a cheap camera stand to sit on your desk, table, or floor. If using a phone or IPad, buy a spring-loaded clip that will attach to a stand.

Never set your device flat on a desk or table. Looking down will only emphasize your double chins, increase the size of your nose, and showcase old-growth nose hairs.

Need more? In the original 1931 Frankenstein movie, film-maker, James Whale placed the camera below the actor. Shooting up made the monster look menacing and scary.

Don’t be the person who leans back in their comfy recliner while resting their phone on their chest. I’ve seen it. It’s not a pretty picture!

If using a free-standing camera, don’t place it off to the side of your desk so that we see your side profile and entire office while you watch the thumbnail headshots on your screen. 

If you must eat, type, leave or do other activities during the meeting, mute your camera and mic. 

Camera Spacing

If using a phone or Ipad, place it horizontally (landscape) so the image will be shown full size on a monitor or TV screen. The portrait option (vertically) will leave giant black spaces on either side of your image.

Built-in cameras and webcams are wide-angle. Being too close will distort your image. A wide-angle or distended face is not a good look. Neither is marshmallow or mushroom-head.

As a rule of thumb, sit or stand about an arm's length away from your camera. Centre yourself in the middle of the screen showing only your upper chest, shoulders, and head.

Dress for the Part

As a general rule, neat, clean and tidy does it. Brush your hair and teeth. That green bit of your spinach salad on your front teeth will be distracting when you smile. 

A plain, bright, solid colour will bring out the best you. However, a bright white shirt can cause the camera lens to flare. A black or other dark color may cause the lines and detail to disappear making you look frumpy. 

In my Province of Alberta, the sign language guy wore black pants and a blue shirt during TV COVID reports by Government and Health Officials. The black pants disappeared into the black background leaving the image of an animated head and hands extending from a creepy blue shirt. 

Dress for the audience you are communicating with. Women’s or men’s suit jackets may appear too formal unless you are connecting with a formal kind of group.

In most encounters, casual business dress will do it. That definition can vary according to your audience. 

If only your shoulders and head-shot will appear, it doesn't matter what else you wear. Underwear will do. Just don't become distracted and absent-mindedly stand up and back away from the camera during the meeting. 

As a general rule, never, ever wear apparel with logos, slogans, or statement messages. Particularly political. You never know who you might offend.  Your companies fashionwear is appropriate for internal or client meetings. 

Stay away from that low-cut blouse that is ... uuhhmmm … too low-cut! Choose clothing and colours that emphasize rather than distract. 
  • Wild patterns are visually confusing, distracting and may make you disappear into a cluttered background
  • Brilliant colours may cause the camera to flare
  • Checked shirts can cause the camera to distort
  • Women’s jewelry may provide a positive accent. Oversized earrings distract.

Lighting Setup

Lighting will make or break how you look. Whatever the light source you choose, your goal is to bathe your face in consistent light.

Experiment with whichever light source you use. Test at every stage of your setup.

Adjustments can be made by moving slightly closer or further away from your source. A slight turning left or right can subtly affect lighting quality.

Natural Light  

The ideal lighting source is from indirect sunlight. It can light your entire face or, by turning slightly left or right, provide a subtle highlight and shadow effect. It lights your face as it comes through a window that is in front of you or to one side.

Direct sunlight can change dramatically during a one-hour meeting. The sun moves significantly during a short period. Or, passing clouds can momentarily obscure the sun causing a dark shadow on your face.

Depending on the angle, bright sunlight may give you raccoon eyes or cause you to squint. It can also cause harsh bright and dark shadows on your face which translates into a harsh look.

The hot sun may also cause you to perspire which is generally a bad look. The shade is often the best option for most outdoor applications.

Artificial Light

Place a lamp behind your device shining directly on your face. If possible, use LED bulbs as they are a soft white as opposed to the harsher yellow light given off by tungsten bulbs.

Never place the light above or below your face. Light from above causes unwanted shadows while light from below reveals double chins and other nasty elements on your face.

If you do online meetings on a regular basis, I recommend investing in a ring light or an led square light. Each has a version that is small enough to clip onto your phone. Bigger ones come with a floor or desk stand and range from $50.00.- $200.00  

Back Lighting

A window located behind you will provide a distracting glare. Closing your blinds or drawing the curtains will solve the problem.

Neither should you place a backlight behind you as it will cause the camera to overexpose and make you into a silhouette. If it’s a lamp, place it on the floor so it can’t be seen. Directing it onto the back wall may give you soft, people-pleasing light.

Audio - Being Heard

The first piece of advice is the most obvious. Eliminate loud fans, chiming clocks, or the sounds of noisy children or people working in the kitchen or auto-mechanic shop off to the left.

This is a huge one! Always mute the microphone when not speaking. Sniffling, snorting, sneezing, muttering comments about the boss or outright cursing sounds are to be generally avoided.

Most microphone problems are easily fixed. Fading in and out, having a gurgling ‘otherworldly sound,’ or the hollow echo making you sound as if you are in a giant aluminum wheat bin can be easily remedied.

The otherworldly sound is usually caused by using the mic and speaker of your device. The gurgling sound is caused when your mic picks up audio from your speaker and feeds it back into your mic following a millisecond delay.

The fixes are easy. At a minimum, use the earbuds/microphone that came with your device. Or, greatly improve the quality by buying better quality earbuds for about $25.

A second option is to buy a lapel mic for $40+ depending on quality. You can use earphones or earbuds for listening.

If you want to step up your game, buy a Plug & Play PC Cardioid Microphone that can sit out of sight on your desk. A Blue Snowball Ice Microphone comes with a small stand and costs around $50.00. Again, use headphones or earbuds for listening.

If using a phone or Ipad, you’ll need an IRIG adapter that will allow you to plug in a quality mic.

Performance Tips

No matter how informal your video conversation may be, never forget that this is a performance. Facial expressions are not only noted but amplified. Viewers read meaning into what your face is saying while you speak but also while you listen. Smiling is seldom wrong.

Sit up straight on a solid chair that will provide an energy base. A swivel chair will tempt you to … well … swivel!

Keep still. Every movement is amplified. Moving forward and backward or from side to side even by a few inches can make people dizzy. Your head will also appear oversized on your body.

Minimize hand gestures and slow them down. Too much movement can make them seem like puppets zooming in and out of the bottom of the screen. They can look like giant claws when moved too close. Never point, chop, or hack.

I’ve already established you must look directly into the camera. Periodically looking off-camera for a few seconds will ensure so you don’t look creepy. But, if your eyes wander flittingly around the room, you will look distracted and disinterested.

Speaking slightly louder will increase the confidence level in your voice. Slowing your speech delivery will make it easier for listeners to hear what you are saying but also increase the sound of authority in your voice.

Using pauses between important ideas will emphasize them but also signal your audience you are about to introduce a new thought or additional point.

Pausing for 2 to 3 seconds when answering questions will also help you gather your thoughts and refrain with throw always like,

I mean…

Yeah …

You know …

Well ...

So …

The End

Robyn T. Braley is a brand specialist, writer, and speaker. He is also a media commentator and Rotarian. Robyn is the President of UniMark Creative which does website design, video production, media services (editorial and advertising), and graphic design. He speaks at business conferences and also blogs about branding. More about Robyn 

Your Opinion MattersPlease share your comments below. What have I missed? What caused you to think differently? Can you share what your brand did when under attack?



Twitter: @robyntbraley

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