Videoconferencing became the de facto way of conducting business from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though we are months into it now, you may still find yourself uncomfortable with or tired out by participating in video calls. First, let me tell you this is normal and human: it’s exhausting to be on video all day. But, second, it doesn’t have to be that way—at least not all the time. I’ve been researching and writing about the topic for months, as well as collecting tips from others. And, of course, I’ve participated in 20 times more video calls than I had in an average year before this.
Let’s look at some of the best ways you can improve videoconferencing for yourself to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward. (Not that anyone ever sees if your socks match anymore.) That’s essential, assuming you’re concerned with how well you can be seen or heard by others, and you should be, because it may impact how seriously you’re taken.
Although a few of these tips are specific to Zoom, most apply to videoconferencing systems in general, which I covered in “Videoconferencing Options in the Age of Pandemic” (2 April 2020). More recently, I just published a full 148-page book, Take Control of Zoom, to provide more in-depth information on that service. And for a bigger-picture look at setting yourself up to work remotely for longer, download my free book, Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily.
Improve Your Video
There is nothing more terrifying to those who aren’t routinely videoconferencing than having to start using it! A few years ago, I had a contract job with regular video meetings. I wound up making a number of changes in my workspace to make it look tidy and professional so I felt less embarrassed to be on camera. (While it may seem overly self-conscious to worry about this much, and I agree in part, I’ll also point you to this forensic examination of celebrities’ bookshelves seen in the background of their video appearances.)
For optimum results on camera, follow this advice:
- Position yourself so your head fills the space. Your head should occupy most of the top-to-bottom space of your onscreen space. If you’re farther away, other participants may be unable to see your facial expressions, which may in turn cause you to seem distant and unengaged. It can stand out particularly if the size of your onscreen image is noticeably different from other session members.
- Use a computer whenever possible. While you can participate in a videoconference using a smartphone or tablet, the results are often erratic or even poor. The front-facing cameras on most mobile devices are higher quality than computer webcams, but it can be difficult to get a handheld device into the right position to show your face. Holding one also often prevents you from doing something else, like taking notes or consulting reference information. If a phone or tablet is all you have, get a stand or a tripod mount (like the Glif adapter or GorillaPod mounts) to hold it in a fixed position at the right level.
- Consider a webcam upgrade for your computer. Most laptops and many desktop computers already have a webcam, so why spend extra? Because camera webcams are usually low quality, both in resolution and in dealing with low-light and mixed-light conditions. Apple still puts an ancient 720p camera in its latest laptops, and the company’s choice is not unusual. Plus, built-in webcams are difficult to adjust, often forcing you to move the entire display to change the camera angle. Webcams have been in short supply during the global crisis—the Logitech C920S I prefer remains unavailable—so you might have to make this a wishlist item.
- Connect a standalone camera as a webcam. If you have a standalone camera, you might be able to connect it to your computer and use it as a high-quality webcam. Several utilities take a feed via direct USB, through an HDMI-to-USB adapter, or via an on-camera Wi-Fi connection, and then map it to a virtual webcam. Some tools are in beta or even alpha, and compatibility with Zoom and other services keeps changing. Check out Camera Live (free, alpha), CamTwist (free, no longer developed), Canon EOS Webcam Utility (beta, free), Ecamm Live (14-day trial then $12–$25 per month). Watch for announcements from other camera makers, too.
- The camera should be above where you’re looking. If your camera is located somewhere away from where you appear to be paying attention, other participants will assume you are zoned out or rude. External cameras typically mount on top of your screen. If you’re consulting one device and using another, arrange them so you can look the camera in the eye. In a two-monitor situation, be aware of which display has the active camera.
- Improve your lighting. We rarely light our workspaces so our faces are evenly and moderately lit. A dark, noisy, or blown-out face is distracting and hard for others to view. You have a lot of options, all of which start with not shining a light directly on your face. Facing a light-colored wall and shining a desk lamp at it can help immensely, as can boosting the brightness on your display or bringing up a large field of white behind your videoconferencing window. You can also get a “ring light,” a circle of LEDs, designed and used for selfies and video studio lighting. The price of these varies across a large range. Search for “selfie rings” and “studio lighting rings.” Oh, and don’t sit in front of a window unless you can compensate for the bright light behind you.
- Use a physical backdrop. Virtual backgrounds are all the rage (see below), but a physical one can be useful, too, and it doesn’t cut out your hands or produce other weird visual artifacts as you move. I purchased a fake bookshelves backdrop. It’s not fooling anyone, but it’s a darned sight more attractive than the detritus—I mean, gorgeous collection of historical type artifacts in boxes and bins waiting to be sent out—behind me in my basement. You might also get a solid color background to use as a green screen; see below.
Improve Your Audio
In nearly every case, unless you already record audio or have a lot of computer-based phone calls at home, you will need to upgrade your setup. It’s worth testing the built-in mic and speaker in your computer, smartphone, or tablet. They might be good enough, but make sure to get the opinion of others—even have them record your output—to see if your gear makes you easily heard, avoids echoes and feedback, and doesn’t have distracting qualities (like sounding as if you’re 20 feet away from the mic or speaking from the bottom of the Royal Albert Hall).
For better and more comfortable results, however, you can choose among four general alternatives that bump your audio up a notch or two:
- Headset: A headset with over-the-head or in-ear speakers and a boom-style mic in front of your mouth can be inexpensive and dramatically improve the quality of any call you take or meeting in which you’re involved. For video calling, a boom-mic headset also keeps your face visible—though the mic can be distracting at times, especially when it’s right in front of your mouth.
- Earbuds: Earbuds can vary widely in quality, but you probably already own some, and as the path of least resistance and a technology you already know, they might be your best option. Earbuds can be very comfortable, but some people tire of them after a while. Remember that wireless earbuds must be charged more frequently when they’re in near-constant use. (If you own AirPods and spend most of the day in video calls, use one AirPod at a time and keep the other in the case. When one starts to die, you can pop the other in, wait a moment, and then take the dying one out and charge it.)
- External mic plus headphones or speaker: Some people already own an external mic for podcasting or other audio recording work. Because these mics are higher quality than those in headsets, and because you may already have them properly positioned—such as on a swing-arm—for comfortable use, just set your software input on videoconferencing software to use the mic as an input. You may supplement the mic with earbuds or headphones, although the latter may look too bulky on some video calls. Other folks rely on the built-in-speakers in their computer. Most videoconferencing apps have automatic echo cancellation, which may be sufficient to remove any echo or feedback.
- Noise-canceling headphones: Also consider noise-canceling headphones that include mic input in the over-the-ear cups. The headphone part may seem a little much to other video-session members, but your face remains unobscured. In my household, only one of us used noise-canceling headphones in early March. By May, all four of us had bought—or received as gifts—wireless ones. The best noise-canceling headphones use active noise cancellation—they listen for ambient sound and produce a sort of anti-sound to suppress it. Active noise cancellation necessitates a rechargeable battery, even in wired headphones. Many people prefer wireless headphones for flexibility, though Bluetooth audio quality can be spotty.
I am a fan of the low-cost Sony ZX110NC Noise-Canceling Headphones ($48) for listening only. They have fairly small ear cups and fold up, and they rely on a single AAA battery. I get dozens of hours of use with a single charge of a rechargeable cell. The noise-canceling Anker Soundcore Life Q20 headphones ($59.99 with a $10-off coupon at Amazon) have full-size ear cups, Bluetooth, and a mic. Anker says you get 60 hours of use from a single charge.
Prepare for a Session
No matter which videoconferencing tool you use, these tips will help you be a great host or participant:
- Run through your A/V first. Before starting a session, always check that your camera and audio are set to the devices you want to use. It’s entirely common to launch an app and find that the “wrong” audio and video devices are selected. Plus, audio devices are often flaky, and you might need time to restart your Mac to get it to recognize your peripherals properly.
- Set up your virtual background. Earlier, I suggested using a physical backdrop. But depending on the software you use, like Skype, you may be able to blur your background so people focus on you instead of what’s behind you. Several services, like Zoom and Skype, let you use a virtual background, and swap in an image or a looping video, although the latter can easily become distracting to others. I like to use virtual backgrounds of rooms and spaces that are appropriate for the meeting. While talking with letterpress printers, for instance, I put up an image of a shop in which I did a residency in 2017. If you pair a solid-color physical backdrop with a virtual background, the software can do a better job of cutting out a dynamic outline of you.
- Tune up your appearance. Nobody should tell you how you should look. But you might prefer to appear a certain way on camera. If you regularly use makeup, or if you just want to reduce glare from your face or pate—I resemble that remark!—you may feel more confident or professional by applying some. Some videoconferencing software lets you change your appearance slightly. Zoom has a blur feature that lightly smooths out your facial features, so you can feel like an aging film star who demands petroleum jelly on the lens for his close-ups. It may make you look a little unnatural but could make you feel less self-conscious.
- Disable your own thumbnail. One way to reduce the worry about how you look is to hide the video view of yourself that all conferencing software offers. Turning it off may allow you to focus on other speakers more easily, too. In Zoom, hover over the video stream that shows you, click the More ••• button, and choose Hide Myself. Cisco Webex has a similar option. For other services, like FaceTime and Skype, consider a well-placed sticky note on your screen.
- Don’t be naked! You think I’m kidding? Let me quote from a recent New York Times “Work Friend” column: “I was recently talking to a group of professional women across a wide range of ages and geographic locations. Two had firsthand accounts of witnessing someone appear fully or partially nude while dialing into a work meeting because he or she was unaware the call featured video as well as audio. Don’t assume that because you can’t see someone, they can’t see you.”
- Maybe don’t use video. Do you need to participate by video? Will you be the only one who opts out? For calls with just a handful of people, especially where you know their voices, restricting everyone to audio reduces cognitive load and may improve the discussion. Consider if the burden of being on camera outweighs its utility. A lot of people chose to avoid appearing on camera before the pandemic and find being required to do so now to be stressful. If you have a choice, consider whether it works for you.
Participate Well in a Session
Finally, let me offer a little advice that helps out during a meeting:
- The mute button is your friend. Generally, keep your audio muted when you’re not speaking unless you’re in an extremely quiet environment. This reduces background noise. Preferably, everyone starts the meeting muted; in some cases, a host or facilitator may lock everyone to mute and unmute people as they are called on. Find the mute/unmute shortcut for the system you’re using. It’s fine to use a physical mute button if your mic has one, but pressing or holding down a keyboard key to toggle the microphone is usually easier. In Zoom, if you mute yourself, you can unmute by pressing and holding the Space bar. When you release the Space bar, mute resumes.
- Disable notifications on your devices. Particularly if you’re going to be sharing your screen, be sure to Option-click the Notifications icon in the upper-right corner of your Mac’s main display. Enable Do Not Disturb in Control Center on iOS devices.
- Pay attention (or at least pretend to). Don’t glance around to other places while on camera. While speaking, routinely look just below or into the camera—the focus is set on webcams so looking slightly below the lens makes it look like you’re staring directly at the lens. When listening, provide visual, non-verbal feedback, like nodding. Otherwise, your apparent disinterest can make it a lot harder for those who are speaking.
- Raise your hand to speak. If you’re in a participatory meeting, raise your actual hand or use a tool within the videoconferencing app to indicate you want to speak or be called on. A meeting organizer should start with some directions about how to get their attention and contribute.
- You can start and stop streaming video. Most videoconferencing tools let you control whether you’re sending video, turning your spot in a call into an audio-only session. Zoom, for instance, lets you click a Start Video button after the call begins, so you intentionally begin streaming, and you can always click it again to stop streaming. With networks and services sometimes overwhelmed, you may be able to improve audio and video quality by asking participants who aren’t speaking to pause their video to reduce bandwidth usage.
Millenia of civilization never prepared human beings for spending hours a day staring at tiny dots of light and assembling them into pictures of other people with whom we had to try to have real conversations. We can admit it: videoconferencing is literally unnatural, and our brains—our souls, maybe—aren’t made for it. But by putting your best face forward, you might ratchet down the stress and discomfort of an always-on-video workstyle. And we can all hope the necessity and frequency of such sessions lessen over time.