The only thing worse than meetings are virtual meetings. It’s especially bad when you’re working from home, in clothes you might not normally wear to the office, in a space that might not be as clean as you’d like it to be, with kids and partners and pets and roommates claiming pieces of your attention—not to mention the coronavirus-related anxiety that we’re all experiencing right now.
I can’t help you with the anxiety (trust me, I’ve got it too) but I can help you make your video conferencing sessions a little less dreadful. I’ve been working from home full-time since 2012, so I know all the video chat secrets. These tips will also help you when it comes time to Skype with Grandma, organise a virtual happy hour with friends, or set up a FaceTime play date for your kids.
Let’s get started.
It’s all about front lighting
The best way to make your video calls look crisp and clear and professional, instead of blurry and shadowed and horrible? Get yourself some front lighting. That means “make sure there’s a light source illuminating the front of your face.”
You also want to make sure that light source is the brightest light source in the room. I live in an apartment with west-facing windows, for example, and at certain times of the day it doesn’t matter how many book lights I clip to my laptop and aim directly at my face (pro tip: clip a book light to your laptop and aim it at your face) because THE SUN WILL WIN. My laptop camera will focus on the light streaming through the windows, because it’s designed to think the brightest thing in the room is the most important one—and my face, which is actually the most important thing in the room, will go dim.
So figure out where you need to position yourself—and your laptop, phone, or tablet—to make sure the brightest light source is directly in front of you. (If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and want your video chats to look even more polished, you could set up some side lighting. But I wouldn’t bother doing that just for a Zoom call.)
Sit up straight and tilt your head slightly forward
Ideally, you’ve got your video conferencing device on a surface that is roughly desk-level; you don’t really want to take work meetings with your laptop on your lap, because that’ll make you look all schlumpy and will do weird things to the underside of your chin.
Instead, find a way to sit up straight while you video call—and then, tilt your head just slightly forward.
Why? Because that will make your face look just a bit larger, in comparison to the rest of your body. You’ve probably seen people apply this technique on Instagram; by giving your face a little more visual space on the screen, you’ll look both more attentive and more photogenic. (Not that you have to care about looking photogenic. But it’s such an easy trick that you might as well apply it.)
Wear your earbuds/headphones
Fun fact: if you don’t have your earbuds in, you might end up with the kind of video call audio loop where your boss’s voice gets picked up by your laptop microphone and then shunted back into the call as fresh audio, creating a cascade of echoes that will annoy everybody.
If you wear earbuds or headphones, your boss’s voice will go directly into your ears and your microphone won’t catch it at all—not to mention that if you’ve got noise cancellation headphones on, you’ll be less likely to catch whatever your roommates are arguing about in the other room.
Wait your turn to talk, and stay on mute when you’re not talking
While we’re on the subject of audio, be aware that some video conferencing systems don’t handle simultaneous audio streams very well. In other words: if you and a coworker are talking at the same time, the app might pick one audio stream to share with the group and, like, keep the other one silent. Which means your important contributions to the meeting will not be heard!
You can solve this problem by being careful not to talk over other people. I’ve done meetings in which we were asked to literally raise our hands if we wanted to speak; that might be a bit overkill, but at least it keeps you from crossing the audio streams.
You should also consider staying on mute when you’re not talking. Some video conferencing systems automatically mute non-talking attendees (and by “automatically” I mean “when the meeting leader chooses to enable the feature”). If you proactively mute yourself, you’ll keep everyone from having to listen to dogs barking, toilets flushing, kids arguing, the fact that you keep clicking the little button on the top of your pen out of coronavirus-related anxiety, or whatever other noises are currently permeating your home.
Those are all of the tips I’ve got to help you with your upcoming virtual meetings and video conferences; if you have other tips to share, the comment section is open. Also, if you have a funny video conferencing disaster story to share, I’d love to hear it—and I’m probably not the only one.
This article has been updated since its original publication.