Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

A BBC reporter on how to be a video conference rock star

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Published on May 05, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

You’ve had your whole career to learn how to interact well around a conference table. Video conferencing requires a bit of relearning.

Video conferencing has proven invaluable for the army of workers sent home to work there, but it didn’t take long for the buzz of seeing everyone on Zoom, Teams, Skype, WebEx, or Meet to wear off. Many of us who learned to perform well in person are struggling to adapt to working with others through a webcam.

“A video conference is definitely more taxing” than an in-person meeting, says Richard Taylor, who reported for the BBC for nearly 25 years before founding SuperRichMedia, a boutique video consulting and training company in San Francisco. Other experts have weighed in on the format’s inherent drain on workers’ energies.

Video meeting can also be less effective, he says, “because you’re unable to scan the room in the same way, and get the feedback from other people. You’re absolutely aware that you are performing, even when you’re not speaking. Other people can watch you without you knowing it. People feel like they have to look at that camera for 45 minutes. It’s exhausting.”

Based on his online course in effective videoconferencing, Richard gave us a bullet list of ways to make the most of the format.

Audio matters most

Richard has seen that bad video with clear audio goes over better than HD video with garbled speech. “With video, people will put up with all sorts of nonsense,” Richard has observed over the years. “But if your voice isn’t coming through clearly, you lose your audience.”

  • Find a quiet place for conferencing. You can work around the view behind you, but background noise undermines your presence much more. Air conditioners and refrigerators that you barely notice can mangle your outbound voice through a microphone.
  • Noise reduction in microphones and video apps can be good, but it can also misfire and garble you. If that happens, look for an option such as Zoom’s to turn noise reduction off. Richard, a veteran of years of shooting news from noisy places, also recommends the Krisp app for noise reduction. 
  • Wired headphones and microphones beat wireless. They have better audio quality. They don’t drop out or sputter, or run out of battery in mid-call. “Unless there’s a reason to go wireless, go wired.”
  • A low-cost USB mic will almost definitely give you more vocal presence than your computer’s built in microphone.
  • Put away your AirPods. “They have a fairly awful mic,” Richard says. “They’re just not great.” And their built-in noise canceling often garbles speakers’ voices.
  • Stay muted until it’s your turn to speak. Background noise disrupts others, and can launch you into the big window of everyone’s screen as the speaker while you’re laughing, talking to yourself, or blowing your nose. You’ve seen that guy. Don’t be that guy.

Optimize your video presence

It’s important that you appear to be looking at those you’re speaking to, and those you’re listening to. The whole point of video is to let humans see and read one another’s faces clearly. “A lot of the emotion comes from the eyes,” Richard says, something every TV reporter knows.

  • Your phone’s camera may be better than your computer’s. This USA Today article lists apps and tips for using your phone as your computer’s camera. Richard suggests getting a small tripod that plants it firmly on your desk.
  • Position your camera and onscreen participants as close to each other as possible. That way you’ll appear to be maintaining eye contact, as well as having a better peripheral view of everyone else. 
  • Place your camera at eye level. “Up your nose is not a good look,” says Richard. The underside of your chin isn’t what everyone wants to watch while you speak. You should appear to be looking at people eye to eye.
  • Frame your head and torso. Humans pick up body language from a speaker’s torso and arms as well as their head. Think podiums, or TV news anchors. 
  • Look into the lens while talking. Eye contact is important. Don’t be the person who doesn’t know which end of their phone has the camera.
  • Don’t get too close. Computer and phone cameras have wide angle lenses. This creates the “balloon head” look when your face is too close to the lens. If your camera has digital zoom, sit back for less distortion and then use the zoom to crop the view.
  • Set up lighting so that your face is lit from the front, or at least not too far to one side. Others should be able to see your face clearly, not in shadow. Natural sunshine and amber LED bulbs are best for bringing out your skin tone.
  • Virtual backgrounds: Please stop! Too many people use loud, bright, or distracting backdrops. They’re funny the first time, but can distract from your important message. Choose a neutral backdrop that lets your face be the star.

Do’s and don’ts

  • Speakers and others are watching for your visible attention, and your facial responses to what’s being said. That’s what makes video second-best to meeting in person. Even Meg Whitman complains that she can’t read a room over video, but reading people’s on-camera faces is an important benefit to the format.
  • People can tell when you’re distracted. You see it yourself: They’re typing. They’re looking at something in another window. They’re checking their phones. That’s what you look like, too.
  • Anyone can watch you full-screen anytime. Always remember this.
  • Show your facial responses as others speak. It’s a bit of acting into the camera, but remember that they can’t see you in their peripheral vision as in a conference room. It’s both effective and efficient. If speakers can tell you agree, or see you are skeptical, you’ll have given them the immediate feedback they need, rather than letting them drone on.
  • It’s OK to turn off your video. Sometimes. Going audio-only can save a lot of your energy, or maybe just let you load the dishwasher. Every videoconferencing group has its own unwritten social rules. Ask the meeting’s leader, your manager, or fellow chatters if it’s OK to take a break from being on camera for an hour straight. Generally, starting with all video at the first meeting is good manners and first impressions. Once people have seen you for an hour, they’re more likely to be OK with you dropping to audio only in future sessions.
  • Learn each meeting group’s social mores. Can you wear your jammies, or should you toss on your “Zoom jacket” for meetings? Are most of the group only on audio, or are you the conspicuous outsider? Is working during the meeting OK? Can you eat? The answer to most questions of manners is, “Sometimes.” Have an honest talk about what’s cool or not, lest they talk about you in private chats. (Oh yes, they do.)
  • Find and use the Raise Hand feature on whatever apps you use. If you’re running the meeting, let everyone know where to find it

If you manage meetings

Remember that video calls sap more of your team’s energy to do their work afterward. Richard warns, “Don’t micromanage people and pull them into meetings just because you always did it like that.” What works in the office can be exhausting and demanding via video.

  • Do we really need this meeting? “Examine what your goals are before you even host a video conference,” Richard says. Don’t just transfer your previous office meeting schedule to video. 
  • Do you need everyone on video? Sometimes yes, often no. Richard says to ask yourself, “Would an audio conference be better and less taxing?” Set the tone up front, letting others know if they can turn off video after introducing themselves. “In other situations, where you’re presenting a new idea and need to see everyone’s reactions, let them know before you start.” Video cues also let a speaker know when they’ve been talking too long, when someone wants to interject, or when their big idea isn’t going over well.
  • Create an agenda. Publish it ahead of time, and share it in the Chat sidebar of the meeting. Stick to it, keeping contributors from talking overtime. “Understand that people’s attention spans may be shorter, even with just audio.”
  • Mute all speakers at the official start of the meeting. It’s good to let them chat a bit before you get rolling, to get relaxed and adjusted. But once the meeting is in progress, don’t let accidental home noises or worse, a dry cough, launch unaware participants front and center onscreen.
  • Let speakers know when their time is up. It’s harder to tell via video when you’ve been talking too long. Send them a private message, or just jump in to ask them to wrap it up.
  • Let everyone know if audio-only is OK. Or if it’s not.
  • Someone not paying attention? Send them a private message before calling them out in the group. Many people new to the format don’t realize that gestures or actions which would be fine around a conference table can seem rude on camera.

Do this now: Test your setup with a friend

Before your next round of meetings, start a one-on-one call with a colleague. Have them evaluate the quality of your audio first, and then your video. A few minutes of private fiddling will prevent you from being the hapless newbie whom everyone has to watch fumble with their camera and sound at the start of meetings.

You’ve had your whole career to learn how to interact well around a conference table. Video conferencing requires a bit of relearning. But a few minutes of prep, keeping these guidelines in mind, will let you make the most of the format you’ll be using a lot in coming weeks—and for many of us may be our new normal.