Executive class: The author's DIY video conference set up at home. Photograph by David Celdran
Culture Spotlight

Don’t be the elephant in the Zoom: Pro tips on how to look good & sound great on your next video call

What gadgets to invest in, how far should you be from your laptop, and why you should ditch that beach backdrop. When it comes to the new normal in socials and office meetings, this author knows a thing or two about sending the right message. By DAVID CELDRAN 
ANCX | May 22 2020

More than two months into the community quarantine and I’m actually finding myself more productive and sociable than I ever was before the pandemic started getting nasty. Thanks to video telephone and streaming social media apps like Zoom, Facebook Live and Houseparty, I’ve managed to attend more parties, reunions, meetings and seminars than I normally would pre-COVID-19. 

Amazingly, I’ve even found a way to host episodes of a new program on ANC while sheltering at home. Indeed, gathering online to work and socialize is no longer a novelty — or a temporary phenomenon during the Coronavirus crisis — it’s what the future of business and leisure could turn out to be.

So, if it’s true that video conferencing is the new normal of business meetings and social gatherings, then why does it seem like few people I encounter online are prepared for it? You know who I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s that friend who doesn’t realize the insides of his nostrils can be seen on screen, or that colleague with his kids in the background screaming. No doubt, giving others a peek into your home helps you come across as more natural and authentic — and perhaps more trustworthy. But there are limits to how much of your domestic life and home interiors (not to mention sleepwear) ought to be revealed in public. 

The laptop camera should be in your eye level. A ring light casts a diffused, even light onto the face. Photograph by David Celdran.

Sadly, I’ve seen how even the most brilliant public speakers and resource persons (and quite a number of our nation’s legislators) have had their prestige diminished only because of a bad camera angle or poor overhead lighting; a wrong choice of backdrop or inappropriate grooming. Unlike the text and voice apps we’re familiar with, the video-enabled variety is a cruelly transparent tool — and most are still coming to grips with the demands and limitations of the medium. 

So, if you hope to make an impression in that next management meeting, webinar, class reunion or online interview (or Congressional hearing), here are some basic tips to keep you from being the so-called elephant in the Zoom. All it takes is a bit of practice, a modest investment in gear, and some basic skills in cinematography, production design and broadcasting. In other words, the same skills mastered by teenagers on Instagram long before Zoom was fashionable among Gen Xers like me.  

 

Understand how the apps work.

“Sorry, we can’t see you…are you there?” If you hear this often during meetings, then it’s probably because someone in the room can’t figure out how to enable the video function in their software. Applications like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are advertised as intuitive and user friendly, but perhaps that only applies to Millennials and digital natives. 

For most Gen Xers and older, it’s imperative to master the technology before using the app for anything other than keeping in touch with close friends and family. Otherwise, joining a professional meeting with your video turned off, or the audio muted, would be more than just embarrassing — it could be fatal to your career. With your IT department unable to come to your rescue at home, make it your job to understand every feature of the software you pick.

 

Invest in ear plugs with a built-in mic.

Few things are more frustrating than making an important point or sharing an emotional moment which no one can understand or hear. Since most online meetings are done over a home internet connection, expect the audio quality to be compromised by the limitations of broadband speed. As such, speech can come across as robotic, slurred, choppy, or cut off entirely. 

Invest in wireless earplugs with a built-in mic. Remember that in communication, hearing is more important than seeing. Photo by Alexandar Todov on Unsplash

While that’s a given for now, there are a few easy workarounds to improve the voice quality during an online gathering. The simplest is to move your head closer to the built-in microphone of the digital device you’re using. Not too close as your head will dominate the screen, but just close enough for your voice to be picked up without shouting. If you’re willing to spend, invest in a good pair of ear plugs with a built-in microphone that’s small enough not to be spotted protruding like an alien’s antennae from your ears. Make sure it’s a wireless pair as wired earphones are distracting and look messy on screen. And definitely not those huge cupped headphones with attached telescopic microphone, well, unless you’re a call center agent or a dispatcher for a fast food restaurant. 

For a bit more money you can create a professional-grade setup at home using a shotgun microphone to subdue unwanted background noise such as the hum of appliances or other voices in the room. Whichever workaround you choose, remember that in communication, hearing is more important than seeing.

 

Learn how to use natural light or get a ring light. 

Nothing is more unflattering than the effect of poor lighting on your image on screen. Background light that obscures the face is only useful for hiding the identity of witnesses and victims in television interviews, while a harsh overhead light source that produces deep shadows under the eyes and chin only works for police interrogations and torture scenes. If you want to look natural or credible on screen, you’ll need to take a page out of a cinematographer’s manual and light your setting according to the mood and personality you hope to impart on those watching.  

Another set-up by the author at home. A more casual arrangement is perfect for a more social --rather than business -- gathering. Photo by David Celdran. 

As a rule, daylight creates the most flattering and natural effect on a face. Photographers love it and take pains to recreate it in a studio. To avoid unwanted shadows, keep in mind that the angle of daylight should be facing you; not behind, above, or directly to one side of your body. When daylight is unavailable, only a dedicated light source like a portable LED panel attached to a light stand can perform a similar task. A ring light—literally the shape of a ring— would be the ideal choice for video conferencing as it casts a diffused and even light onto the face while illuminating the eyes of the subject. It’s for this reason that many photographers rely on ring lights for tight portraits and glamor shots. Believe me, once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back to that desk lamp or ceiling light ever again.

 

Don’t fill the frame with your entire head.

I’m lucky to have worked as a television director in a previous career because one of the most important techniques I’ve learned from that stint is the benefit of proper framing. Framing refers to the camera angle, the distance from the camera, and the frame size you choose. In apps like Skype or Zoom, this means learning how to position yourself in a scene to produce the most desirable effect on those who see you. Too close, or too tight, and you risk displaying every blemish and imperfection on your face. A head that covers the entire frame also creates an uncomfortable effect on the viewer – like that of someone talking too close to your face. 

On the other hand, framing yourself too far from the camera reveals undesirable and potentially embarrassing background space in your room. Fine if your place is furnished like something out of Architectural Digest; not so, if you have pets and kids running around or if your house is a mess.

The choice of angle is also critical. For some reason, most people I’ve seen don’t realize just how horrible they look at a low-angle. Because most laptops and mobile phones are positioned atop a table, those devices capture their users on screen from below, an unflattering angle that exposes the underside of their chins and noses — plus a huge swathe of empty ceiling above them. Instead, use a laptop stand or a stack of books to elevate the device at eye level to produce a more natural conversational effect.

 

Your background says a lot about your, um, background.

You’ve probably seen worse things happening in the background than I have while teleconferencing: dogs humping, kids fighting, a wife nagging, underwear hanging. If you want to project an aura of professionalism then you better start thinking the way a trained production designer would approach a film scene. Because the work from home arrangement is turning out to be more permanent than originally believed, it might be wise to set aside a corner of your home exclusively for online meetings. And with a combination of professional production design techniques, you can use your newly designed backdrop to help portray your status and personality more convincingly on screen. 

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The choice of books and types of objects positioned behind you are some of the most effective ways to promote a positive image of yourself to others non-verbally. Art is another way. Just be sure that what’s seen in the frame is consistent with your personal branding otherwise that stack of porn magazines or Littlest Pet Shop figurines might project a far worse image than a bare wall behind you. And no matter how fun it seems, avoid those ready-made backdrops of tourist landmarks and beaches that come free with your app; it just makes you look silly.

 

Dress down without dressing inappropriately.  

Remember this: working or socializing with others from home shouldn’t mean looking like you’re actually doing so from your house. Unless you’re chatting with your family, there’s no reason not to dress and groom yourself as if you were going to the office or a party. Perhaps you can do without the tie, or ditch the socks and shoes altogether (they won’t be seen anyway), but no matter how small you appear on the screen, people will still be watching you — and judging. 

While a formal suit might look over-the-top in a home setting, there are still ways to dress down without dressing inappropriately for the occasion you’re participating in. Apart from athletes and those in the creative industry, wearing a T-shirt or athletic wear for a business call is clearly unprofessional. Online social gatherings don’t require full-on party dress attire either, but don’t dare show up in gym clothes or sleepwear as I’ve seen so many people do to their own detriment.

As for grooming? People understand that salons and spas won’t be opening anytime soon, but it’s not an excuse for forgetting to wash up and trim that overgrown beard and nose hair. Take note that apps like Zoom have a recording function so you wouldn’t want to be remembered for life as the elephant in the Zoom, would you?