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Video Conferencing Best Practices – Part 1

Video Conferencing Best Practices 

Part 1 – Physical and Visual Considerations & Advice 

The Set-Up 

Voice and speech Coach Jenni Steck in front of her home office web cam
A screen shot of my home office web session set-up.

Use a distraction-free, quiet place. 

  • Set up a dedicated web conferencing location in your home that is free of visual and auditory distractions.  Find a place that is quiet, and that other people or pets won’t be wandering through. 

Consider your background.  

  • Be conscientious about what appears in the background of the image you are sending. 
  • You want the background to be:
  1. Simple:  not too busy or distracting.
  2. Visually pleasing:  something more than a flat blank wall, with a little color and textural variety, that is well-balanced.  Think about composing the background of your image as if you were taking a nice picture of yourself or your house to post somewhere.
  3. Thoughtfully representative of you:  understand that everything that can be seen will influence how you are perceived.  So, give some thought to what appears behind you.  Is there a book case and painting behind you or a bike and an exercise machine?  Which is most appropriate to the image you wish to present of yourself.  Also, for work, if possible, consider placing a logo somewhere in your background.  I have placed a framed copy of my logo on top of a short bookcase in the near background of my new virtual office (which was our guest room until a week ago!).

Keep the entry to the room off camera.  

  • If possible, ensure that the door to the room you are in is off camera.  That way if someone comes in by mistake, they will not appear in the image.   

Get your camera at eye level.  

  • It is best to position your computer in relation to your face (or your face in relation to the computer) so that your computer’s camera is at your eye level.  You will look your best at this angle.  Looking up too far into a camera that is too high will make you look small.  Looking down into a camera that is angled up at you, which happens when using a laptop, is not a flattering angle from which to be photographed.  
  • It is best when using a laptop to place your computer on top of a stack of books, or anything else sturdy and convenient that will raise the camera to your eye level.  If you are shorter and using a desk top computer, you may find yourself peering up into the camera.  If this is the case raise your chair, if it is adjustable, or sit on a cushion or pillows.  

Position yourself well in the screen.  

  • Position yourself so that your face, shoulders, and upper torso fill most of the screen.  You want your face to be the focus of the image your conversation partner is seeing.  If you sit too far away from your computer you will look small and everything around you on the screen will steal focus from what you are communicating.
  • Also, when you shift back in your chair and away from the screen, you look disengaged and uninterested in the conversation.  Leaning in toward and looking into the camera signals you are engaged and attentive.  However, if you sit too close to the computer’s camera you will look strange and may make your conversation partner feel uncomfortable, as if you are invading their space.  
  • The area, or space, between the top of your head and the edge of the screen is called headroom.  You always want to maintain an inch or two of headroom depending on the size of your screen.  Don’t move so close that the screen cuts off the top of your head.  Making sure your face dominates the screen space is especially important in a video conference that involves multiple participants all in different locations, for in such situations your screen’s image will be one of several smaller images on each participant’s screen. 

Lighting.  

  • You want lighting that looks flattering and natural, as well as warm and inviting.  This is best achieved with moderate ambient lighting: light the whole room in a natural way, – either by conventional overhead lighting or using windows – and place an additional “warm” (incandescent) and “soft” (lampshaded) light source as close to directly behind the camera as possible.  If this light is coming at you from too sharp an angle (high above or from the side) you will cast dramatic looking shadows across your face.  
  • Additionally, if you have a well placed primary light source, but the rest of the room is dark, you will look strangely dramatic and unnatural, like a face floating in a dark room.  You can get by fine in a room lit nicely by sunlight without any additional lighting, if the windows are behind your computer and the sunlight is filtered through a shade and not shining directly in your face.  
  • Avoid back-lighting.  You must arrange your space so that you do not have any light source visible behind you.  A light shining into the screen from a lamp or window may cause your face to go dark, and if it is very bright it will be uncomfortable for your video conferencing partner to look at.  
  • In my home office, I have sunlight coming through closed blinds, and a ceiling lamp providing ambient light.  I have also placed two small matching lamps behind my computer on either side of my desk.  This works really well.  However, any general ambient light coupled with one lamp placed directly above and behind your computer screen will suffice.

On-Screen Non-Verbal & Physical Communication 

Wardrobe, hair, and make up.

  • For the most part you should dress, groom your hair, and wear make-up as you would if were you going to an in-office meeting.  While you obviously need to pay greater attention to what will be seen in the camera’s frame, I do not recommend, as the work-from-home jokes go, wearing a blazer with boxer shorts or PJ bottoms.  This is for two reasons.  One – how you dress affects how you feel and behave.  Being dressed professionally will make you feel professional, which in turn will make you behave and speak professionally.  Dressing down could lead you to conduct yourself in a manner that is less professional and too casual.  Additionally, there is always a possibility that you may have to get up unexpectedly during the course of a video meeting.  How embarrassing would it be to be caught wearing something inappropriate when you have to get up to retrieve a document you forgot or remove a pet that snuck into the room?
  • Additional considerations to keep in mind with regard to dressing for on-camera meetings.  
  1. Avoid wearing tops that are too busy – with patterns, stripes, or checks – as they will look very distracting on camera.  
  2. Don’t wear bright, white shirts as white bounces light and appears glaring on camera.  Keep that advice in mind when wearing a shirt and tie, and go for a light blue, cream, or beige, colored shirt, rather than white.  
  3. Beware of strapless tops or anything similar that may leave you looking naked if only the tops of your bare shoulders are seen.  
  4. Be mindful of jewelry, as necklaces and earrings will feature prominently in an image restricted to your upper torso and face.  A tastefully chosen necklace and/or earrings will lend personality and variety to your image, but be careful with pieces that are large or dangly as they will be amplified on screen and can become distracting.  
  5. Anything at all jangly will likely interfere with the meeting’s audio and sound annoying to those listening on the other end.  
  6. With regard to makeup it could be advantageous to wear a little more than you normally would for an in-person meeting, as the camera tends to wash people out.  Also, anyone that does not normally wear make-up may wish to consider a little, especially powder if you find yourself looking shiny. 
  7. If you wear glasses, make sure that your lighting isn’t reflecting off of the lenses which hides your eyes.  Also check to make sure that the light isn’t causing a shadow – lighting from above is usually the culprit.  It catches the tops of glasses sending a shadow right over the eyes.         

Where to look, or what to do with your eyes.  

  • Most of us who are not used to speaking into a camera will be inclined to look exclusively at the image of the person with whom we are talking.  Of course, this is a natural instinct, as we are used to making eye contact with our conversation partners when we are with them physically.  However, while video conferencing, when we look at the eyes of the person on our screen – which is below the camera on our computer – we appear to be looking at their mouth, chin, neck or even their chest.  When, instead, we look directly into the camera above our screens, the person with whom we are web conferencing will see an image of us that appears to be looking right into their eyes.  This will help our conversation partners feel a personal connection in spite of the technology.   
  • I understand that it is unrealistic and impractical to look exclusively into the camera when video conferencing.  There will be plenty of times when you will want to, or even need to, look at the image on your screen.  What I suggest is making a conscientious effort to look both at the screen and directly into the camera throughout your web meetings.  You will likely find it easiest to look into the camera when you are speaking, but don’t forget to also look into the camera at times while you are listening to others.  Whether they are conscious of it or not, your video conferencing partners will feel a greater connection to you if you appear to be looking into their eyes, which you can only achieve by looking into the camera lens.

Body language.  

  • This is a critically important part of non-verbal communication and translates a little differently over web conferencing than it does in person.  The most essential thing to remember is that the camera is trained on your face, so what you do with your face is of primary importance.  With that in mind, it is crucial to remember to smile and nod often as a way to signal that you are listening.  Smiling makes people relax and makes you look friendly and unthreatening.  When coupled with a nod, a smile tells someone that you hear, understand, and agree with what they are saying.  This will make people feel good about you and themselves.  Moreover, other non-verbal cues that normally would telegraph to someone that you are interested in what they are saying, such as leaning in or moving closer, are harder to do in a web conferencing situation, as you are just a face on a screen.  
  • Keep in mind that your movement on camera will be amplified, therefore your smile does not need to be broad, and the best nodding will be slight.
  • As I mentioned above, you should not lean back in your chair away from the camera.  Moving away from the camera far enough to show more than your head, shoulders, and upper torso will look as if you are disengaging and uninterested in the conversation.  You can lean in a bit at times, but again be aware that movements are exaggerated on camera, so a slight lean will suffice.  You don’t want to cut off the top of your head or get awkwardly close to the camera.  
Voice and speech coach, Jenni Steck, showing what an appropriate lean in to the web cam looks like
A nice and subtle lean in to the camera to show I’m listening and engaged

Gesturing.  

  • If you have everything set up as I have recommended your web conferencing partner will not be able to see your hands unless you lift them into frame near your face or back away from the camera.  You may choose to do either of these to demonstrate something physically with your hands that the person you are speaking with needs to see, or to emphasize a point you are trying to make.  That’s terrific, but I recommend doing so sparingly.  A lot of gesturing and movement on screen will be fatiguing to watch.  I do recommend however that you gesture freely off-camera.  This is because the very act of gesturing frees your vocal expression and helps you sound more vibrant and dynamic.  I work regularly with on-camera talent and cannot stress how much it helps them sound their best when they feel free to gesture.  Of course, be careful not to gesture too wildly, as that will move the rest of your upper body in a way that may interfere with your visual presence on screen, but don’t feel like you have to just sit motionless staring into your computer screen.  If you do that your voice will inevitably lose its vibrancy and you will struggle to sound engaging and dynamic.            

First Visual Impression.  

  • When meeting in person you likely give thought to making a good first impression, especially if you are meeting someone for the first time.  You will think through how you walk in the door, smile, say hello, shake their hand, take your seat, etc.  In a virtual meeting, your first impression will be determined by what your conversation partners see when you pop up on their screen.  I recommend, just before the meeting is to begin, that you position yourself as we have discussed and look straight into the camera lens, rather than your screen. As soon as you know you are on screen, smile genuinely.  That way when your image appears you will look professional, prepared, and in-control.  The smile will show you are warm, friendly, engaged, and happy to be meeting.
  • If you have the capability, like Photo Booth on a Mac, check your image (how you look, how your background looks) before you launch or join the meeting.

Stay tuned for Video Conferencing Best Practices – Part 2, in which I will discuss Vocal/Auditory considerations and offer tips for navigating technology and equipment.        

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