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Video Conferencing Best Practices – Part 2

A screen shot of my home office web session set-up.

Part 2 – Vocal & Technical Considerations & Advice 

On-Screen Voice & Speech Considerations 

Whether you are the CEO, project manager, team lead, or reporting to those members of the team, here are some things to consider regarding your vocal delivery.  We are in a time of uncertainty, and it is more important than ever to convey a sense of confidence and of being in control while at the same time communicating a sense of empathy and understanding.  The tips provided here will help you achieve that balance.

Try to avoid talking too loudly or shouting.

Volume will reveal whether you are talking to us or at us – and whether you are in control or losing it.  Leaders are distinguished by the ability to stay calm when others are not.  They are not the ones screaming, “Oh my god, the building is on fire!  We’re all going to die!”  They are the ones who take us by the hand and lead us out of the building.

Volume is also the way we signal our interest in connecting – or not – with the people we are talking to. In moments of real connection, we do not project past the listener. We speak just loudly enough to reach them. When we are louder than we need to be, we may want attention and we may want to dominate, but we do not want to connect. (Barry Nash, owner Barry Nash and Company)

  • There is much about web conferencing that feels unnatural.  The person you are speaking to will seem far away from you, and therefore you may talk louder than you need to.  If you are using headphones, you may have trouble hearing yourself and again that will lead you to raise your voice. 
  • When speaking to someone live and in-person, you modulate your voice according to how near or far you are to them.  If your conversation partner is having trouble hearing you, you would have to speak louder or move closer to them.  But when you are speaking in a web session, you must remember that your microphone is what is picking up your voice and that your listener’s speakers, or headphones, are sending the message to their ears.  You must modulate your volume in different ways.  You can speak up if needed, but when speaking at a louder volume into a microphone, your voice can become distorted and seem much less nuanced and pleasing.  Instead, if you are using an external microphone try moving the microphone closer to you.  You may also ask your conversation partner to adjust the volume on their end if they are having difficulty hearing you.
  • Most web meeting platforms also have a PREFERENCES tab.  In that tab, you can adjust the volume of your input (i.e. turn up your microphone).  Try a sample call with a colleague or family member to check your settings.  
  • Your microphone itself may have settings that allow you to increase the perceived volume.
  • More than anything, just remind yourself that you don’t need to shout.  That will save your voice, especially if you have back to back meetings, and it will allow you to have greater nuance in your delivery.

Microphone Technique.

  • You will sound better if you use an external microphone.  There are many options out there, and I recommend a few different types in the section on Equipment and Other Technical Considerations below.  Your computer’s microphone – even a Mac – is too susceptible to picking up external noise, sound waves bouncing off of hard surfaces like your desk or walls, and is generally low quality.  A simple plug-and-play microphone will definitely up your game and minimize the distraction of poor audio.
  • Most desktop microphones should be placed placed either in front of you or slightly to the side for best results. 
  • Try to keep the microphone between 6-12 inches from you.  If it is too far away, you will sound quiet.  If it is too close, your sound may get distorted or your viewer may hear too much air on sounds like /p/ and /t/.
  • A Lavalier microphone that clips to your shirt can be a great option if you will be standing or moving in your space.  These should be clipped about 6 inches below your collar.

When beginning a video conference, ask if everyone can hear.  

  • Take your time when starting a meeting.  It may take a minute or two for everyone to connect to the audio.  
  • You can typically use the chat function to provide instructions or to provide your phone number if all else fails!

Start with a little small talk.  

  • The biggest problem with web meetings and presentations is that the natural feedback loop is altered.  It is harder to establish rapport and chemistry with the participants.  Don’t forget about the tools you would use in a face-to-face meeting such as making introductions, pointing out common interests and making small talk.
  • Small talk not only establishes rapport and helps everyone get comfortable, but during a video meeting it also allows participants time to adjust their audio and/or video without interfering with the substantive portion of the conversation.   

Pitch and Rate considerations that are specific to video conferencing.  

  • When we push to be heard, we typically get louder, elevate our pitch, and talk faster.  We have already discussed volume (don’t shout) and now we turn our attention to pitch and pace.  Try to start your meeting in the mid range of your voice.  Starting off too high (which often happens when we try to sound friendly) can get you into trouble because you really don’t have any room left to raise your pitch if you want to ask a question or emphasize a point.  Hum gently from a high note to a low note before you start the call.  
  • Land your points.  This means that you should be careful of up-speak.  Up-speak is when you go up in pitch at the ends of phrases.  You may be doing this unconsciously to check in with your listener to make sure they are following along.  But up-speak is how we ask questions – an upward inflection that sounds like you are asking, not telling.  That habit when used for statements undermines your authority because you sound unsure.
  • Slow your rate of speech, especially at the beginning of the call.  Slowing down allows the listeners to adjust to what you sound like and to get used to your speech patterns.  
  • A slower rate of speech creates a sense of thoughtfulness and of being in control.  It buys you time to think and to breathe.  It projects confidence and authority.  For the listener, it allows them time to process the information you have provided.

Articulation considerations that are specific to video conferencing.  

  • Technology has made amazing advances just over the past couple of years in terms of audio quality for web conferencing.  Zoom and WebEx are particularly good.  Skype is right up there.  But they can’t account for your equipment.  If you don’t have an external microphone, you will have some “bounce of sound” which means the sound waves will go directly into the microphone, but will also continue to travel in your office, bouncing off of hard surfaces like your desk, your walls, your monitor.  They then return to the microphone and are picked up so that your listener hears an echo or a slight distortion.  You can compensate by articulating more clearly.  High frequency sounds like /s/, /f/ and /th/ can be especially problematic.  Don’t feel bad if you need to spell your name or write it out on a whiteboard (a great tool found on Zoom’s screen share options).
  • If you have the option, use your camera.  A listener can fill in lots of information about what you are saying if they have visual cues and can see your mouth moving.
  • When using a headset that has a microphone attached, position it just below your bottom lip to prevent “popping your p’s and t’s.”  Those are plosive sounds, meaning lots of air escapes the mouth.  If the microphone is positioned in the path of the air, the result is an unpleasant burst of air every time you hit one of those sounds.

Equipment & Other Technical Considerations.

Since everyone and their brother is working from home right now, many of these products are either out of stock or more expensive than usual.  If you are not able to get your hands on this equipment, make do with what you have.  The Apple headphones that connect to your computer seem to have better quality microphone capability than the AirPods.  I can’t point to research on this, but anecdotally, I find it easier to hear my clients who are wired.  

If you have to rely on your computer’s microphone, make sure you are close to it.  Don’t sit back because your sound waves scatter and are not picked up as well.

Web camera. 

Microphones.

  • I have tried several external microphones over the past few years, and they just keep getting better.  There is a wide range of investment here.  If you plan on making working from home a more permanent situation, then you may want to invest in something more substantial, including an interface that your microphone plugs into which you then plug into your USB port.
  • I’m currently using the Hyperx QuadCast microphone, and I love it.  One of my clients was using it in our sessions and I loved the sound quality so much that I ordered one for myself.  Again, test it out with a colleague or family member to decide which setting gives you the best sound (this is simple as it only has 4 settings on the back of the mic).  You can also adjust the gain on the bottom of the microphone itself to boost the signal from the microphone (as well as in your PREFERENCES in your preferred web meeting platform).
  • Here’s a picture of the one I’m using: 
  • Here are current recommendations on Amazon from PC magazine.
  • If you want some fantastic customer service and advice, check out sweetwater.com or call them at (800) 222-4700.  Their customer service is amazing (and sometimes they put candy in with your product!).  
  • If you have to move around for presentations, you may want to consider a Lavalier microphone.   Here are a few options from one of my trusted collaborators: 

To fix the audio use a Lavalier mic.  It reduces echo and, because it’s designed to be close to the source of the sound, you get a much higher quality signal.  Which one to use is the problem.  Many professional lavs require phantom power- which means they need to be plugged into a professional camera or audio recorder that will provide the power (48v).  Otherwise, they don’t work.  And is there a label on the mic that says it needs power? Of course not.  You are supposed to know that when you buy it 🙂

Also, there’s a connector issue.  Professional lavs come with 3 pin XLR connectors which only plug into a pro camera or audio recorder. 

So what is the generic answer?   I recommend these:

FOR IOS MOBILE DEVICES: 

FOR USB TYPE C DEVICES: 

FOR USB-A COMPUTERS: 

Headsets.  

  • For my work, headsets are important because I need to hear the nuance in pronunciation and tone.  My Mac has great sound which is the main reason I bought it, but for really close listening, headsets are essential for me.  They also help to cancel out background noise at home like neighbors mowing their yards or my kids screaming to each other as they run down the hall.
  • The main issue with headsets, in my opinion, is how (and if) you hear yourself.  Most headsets only let you hear the person you are talking to.  If they are over-the-ear or in-the-ear headsets, you may have trouble hearing yourself which makes you want to talk louder.  Or sometimes with in-the-ear headsets, you hear yourself in a strange way that makes you pull back too much on volume.
  • My wish list includes the brand new Cisco 700 series, but until I can get my hands on one, here are a couple of solutions: 
  1. Sidetone headsets.  Sidetone headsets pick up your voice and feed it back into the headset so you can hear yourself.  Unfortunately, some of these have a delay in the feedback so your voice echoes itself and can be distracting.
  2. Monaural headsets.  You have only one ear covered so that you can hear yourself in a more natural way.
  3. Binaural headsets with one side pushed back.  This is typically how I wear my headset.  I push one ear off so I can gauge my voice in my environment to reduce vocal strain, but when I really need to listen more deeply, I can pull that side back onto my ear again.  I felt vindicated in this practice when I saw THE Celine Dion using this technique in the recent One World concert! 

Connection Speed.  

If you’re at home, double check your connection and make sure you have enough bandwidth. To test it, you can access Speedtest.net. Keep an eye out for the upload speed. You should have at least 1 Mbps per participant for a high-quality video call. So, if you have 5 attendees, you should have 5 Mbps upload speed” (Source: Lifewire)

  • If you have the option to be on your 2G or 5G network, go with the 5G.  That means, though, that you’ll need to be close to your router.  If you have to be in a different room, like I do, you may want to try an extender to boost your signal.  For web meetings, the ideal would be to plug into your ethernet port.  If your signal really tanks, try turning off the video and just going with audio for a few minutes.  That eats up less bandwidth.

Accept and assume an assured manner with regard to the technical aspect of the conversation.  

  • Go out of your way to make everyone involved with the meeting feel comfortable with the technology.  Ask politely if everyone can hear and see well before launching into the agenda.  If they are having trouble, remain patient while they trouble shoot and offer assistance if appropriate.
  • If you are experiencing technical difficulties, remain calm and in control.  Try your best to resolve the issue quickly and in a professional manner.  There is no need to apologize or get upset.  It might be a good idea to turn off your camera and mute yourself while you troubleshoot.
  • If your conversation partner is experiencing technical difficulties, offer to help guide them and remain patient.  Never appear frustrated, impatient, or bossy.
  • If you are interrupted or need to retrieve something from another part of the room, excuse yourself and turn off your camera and microphone.  Once you are all settled back in front of your computer, turn the camera and microphone back on.
  • Please inform members of the meeting if you will be recording.

Have all supplemental resources cued up and ready to share. 

  • If you plan to share videos, decks, documents, etc. during the course of a meeting make sure you have them cued up and ready to share.  Practice accessing and launching them before the meeting so that no time is wasted once the meeting has begun.  
  • If you plan to share your screen at any time during a video conference, make sure to have closed extraneous tabs or windows that may be distracting or personal in nature.  Remember everyone in your meeting will see your wallpaper, desktop files, open tabs, etc.  Fun fact:  in most platforms, you have the option to share just a window or your entire screen.

It is important to cultivate an image of confidence and competence during this time.  It is my hope that these tips will help you achieve that goal.  Please feel free to share this resource with anyone you think it might benefit.  And, as always, feel free to reach out to me with questions.  I’d love to help you sound your best.

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