While there are plenty of posts on Video Meeting Etiquette out there, much of that advice is painfully obvious. (Pro tip: You know it’s painfully obvious advice if the words “you moron” perfectly complete the sentence. Like this one: “Unmute before you talk.” See what I mean?) As the pandemic wears on and it’s clear that video meetings are here to stay, it’s time to go a little deeper.
We just shot a series of commercials for Saatva via Zoom. This made sense as a) there is still no actual production here in LA and b) we set the spots in a video conference. Immersing myself in video meetings got me thinking about how to make the meetings better—perhaps in ways that don’t end with “you moron.”
1) First Do No Harm: Video is an information-rich medium. Nobody can tell when you send your “can’t talk now i’m on a plane” text from your lounge chair at the beach. Phoning the boss from the bathtub? Kinky, but also your secret if you turn off the jacuzzi jets. But in a video call, a tsunami of extra information flows to your fellow Zoomers. In fact, that’s the prime benefit of video conferencing: you go beyond voice or text to share a (nearly) full range of in-person human information transfer. All that extra visual data makes your interaction feel more like real life. You can get to know people better, and get more done.
Unfortunately, it also shows everyone how well you applied your makeup, whether or not you’ve dusted the fake books in your bookshelf, if you’re sitting eagerly or as if this is one more video meeting than you can stand. To use video’s information-rich signal right, you need to control the information you transfer.
Before your next call, do some pre-production, just like they do on a real movie. Sit in front of the computer, hit record on Zoom or Quicktime and shoot yourself talking for a full minute. I know this is awkward for everyone except actors, TV hosts, and narcissists but it’s the only way to see yourself as others will see you. When you play it back, you will see problems. But that’s good—you can now fix them! Take out the obvious mistakes and you have a shot at being remembered after your meeting for something other than having spinach in your teeth.
2) Lighting is an emotional tool: Once you’ve fixed the obvious, it’s time to level up. That so-so lighting you saw in your test shot will not magically change when the call starts. Lighting in film shows people where to look in the frame and sets a mood. Yours should too.
To make sure they see you clearly, add light from the front. Some folks buy ring lights that clip to their monitors, but dragging lamps around and opening and closing the shades works just fine with a little practice. To make sure you don’t get lost in a busy background or blend in with your greenscreen, place another light behind you and to the side. Aim it to hit the back of your head and one shoulder. This will make you pop off the background.
When you’re done, see (by recording again) how your lighting feels. Tinder dates and cocktail meetings can look a little moodier, but most business meetings call for an “open and relaxed” mood. If the shadows on your face make you dark and mysterious, add more light to fill them in. Ditto if your face looks overly red. Are you blown out and blotchy-white? Close the blinds a bit or move your light farther away.
3) Wardrobe is Character: Business or t-shirt is up to you, but remember that clothes communicate information about you. Make sure it’s what you want to say. Beyond style, look at color and mood– If you are the same color and exactly as bright as what’s behind you, you’ll look washed out and boring. Try a contrasting top.
You CAN wear pajama bottoms to a video call, but actors know that the way clothes look and feel affects your performance, even when you can’t see them in the shot. You will feel different if you dress all the way. Try it for your next important meeting– you may be surprised.
4) Backgrounds Tell Stories: On a recent call, the guy I was meeting sat in front of a bookcase. Pretty normal. Except on one shelf, next to the mystery paperback section, was an assortment of rags, cleaning supplies and bleach. I did not ask if he was a serial killer disposing of bodies, but I wanted to.
If your background is cluttered, clean it up. Or move your location for a better shot. If you can’t find something great, try a blank wall. If you don’t like the wall, try keying in a static custom background, like a wide photo of your old office. Consider what the background is saying about you before choosing, say, a moving roller coaster video.
5) Don’t Shoot Until You See the Whites of Your Eyes. Viewers look at your eyes as you speak. That’s because the muscles around your eyes show subtle emotional cues, let people know you’re listening, even help them know when to jump into the conversation. If your eyes aren’t clearly visible, move your camera closer until they are. The more face you have in the game, the more presence you have in the meeting. The more people in the meeting (and the smaller those boxes get) the truer this is. You may have to move the monitor closer than you expect. This will feel odd at first, but you’ll get used to it.
6) Know your eyeline. Here’s some terrible advice: I read an online column that recommended looking directly at your computer’s camera when you talk. First, this is nearly impossible to do without looking like a deer in the headlights unless you’re a trained TV host. Second, staring at the little green dot causes many people to lose their train of thought. Finally, you won’t see anyone’s reactions to what you’re saying. Which is the whole point of communicating via video call.
Instead, drag the video window so it’s right below your computer’s camera. Because the camera lens is very wide, it will make people feel pretty much like you’re looking right at them. It’s not perfect, but everyone’s used to it, and it’s better than blanking in mid-speech.
7) Frame up nicely. There’s no point having 3 feet of useless space over your head. Having half your face cut off on one side is a look, but is it YOUR look? Reposition your monitor until you fill the frame nicely. You do not need to be perfectly centered.
8) Don’t Mute Your Mic. Of course you should mute in a webinar, or if the trash truck suddenly shows up under your window. But it’s a last resort, not a go-to move. If you have sound issues, your go-to move is to someplace quieter. The noise-reduction in Zoom et al. will cover you for minor room tone. Muting/unmuting is an unnatural act, as you’ll learn when you’ve been talking for 20 seconds before you realize nobody can hear you.
9) Always Use an External Mic. Vocal tones impart lots of subtle information. For better presence and maximum communication, always use an external mic. Fancy USB headsets are great, but your phone earbuds will do the job. The point is: Mic close to mouth. Always. Any noise between your mouth and the computer screen gets sucked into your computer’s automatic level controls and amplified. Wind, kids, washing machine—they all mix with your voice to make you seem farther away. Nothing undercuts your brilliant point about the marketing budget like saying it in a tinny, garbled voice.
10) Have fun. Video lets you do things you can’t do on the phone, or in person. A funny background loop or a well prepared screen-share joke can break the ice. You can (for real) do the meeting from the top of a mountain or on the veranda of your farm. All these things add information, and if the information is that you’re creative with a good sense of humor, why not?
Note that pre-packaged Instagram-type masks and funny hats (and roller coasters) do not communicate creativity because they are, you know, pre-packaged. Everyone’s seen them. You are only allowed to use them a) ironically and b) among real friends. Who will still snap a screen shot to embarrass you with later, but it least they won’t cost you the deal.
Bonus Tip 11) Flip your look. If you’ve ever used the wrong hand to fix your hair during a video call, you know the camera doesn’t see you the way a mirror does. In the bathroom, when you raise your right hand, your mirror-self raises the hand opposite, on the right side of your mirror. But if you face a camera and raise your right hand, it will appear on the left side of the monitor. This is how a real human sees you face-to-face—your right hand opposite their left. I will pause here for a moment while you figure this out in your head.
This can be distracting, and distractions in a video call are, as noted, not good. Deep in the video preferences of Zoom (and others) is something called “Mirror” that flips your screen, so it’s like looking in a mirror. Distraction solved. Note though that Mirror mode also reverses writing– you may have to choose the path of least distraction if, say, you’re displaying the cover of your best-selling book.