As the longest year in human history drags on, you’re probably taking more video calls than ever—which means it’s much more frustrating if your coworkers can’t see or hear you properly. Take some time to ensure you look (and sound) your best.
Improve Your Lighting
“You want to present yourself professionally,” says Max Rosen, CEO of Indigo Productions. “You’re making a little movie, and the visuals are incredibly important.” Rosen runs a video production company based in New York City that has been producing virtual events for more than 10 years, and he’s seen his fair share of video conferencing faux pas. But with all things photography, good presentation starts with good lighting.
“It depends on what your room is like, but natural light is often best,” explains Rosen. “I often recommend facing a window to get soft, even light on your face.” You don’t want direct sunlight on your face—that’ll just blow you out—but a window is a great place to start. If you don’t have windows, choose another light source and put it behind your screen. Even a desk lamp pointed can provide some much needed light, though Rosen also says a ring light can go a long way if you’re having trouble.
Every room and every light is a little different, so when you have a chance, get on a Zoom call with a couple of friends—ideally before that important meeting—and try a few things out to see what looks good. Maybe you find your desk lamp looks better reflecting off the wall than pointed directly at your face, for example—it’s hard to know unless you have time to play with your setup.
Adjust Your Camera
If you’re using a phone or laptop, there’s a good chance your camera is horribly positioned for video conferencing. You want your camera at eye level, facing you head-on—so stack your laptop on a couple of books if you need to elevate it. “Frame yourself to show your head and shoulders,” says Rosen, “and make sure the top of your head is at the top of the frame.” You don’t want your colleagues to have a Kilroy-style nose-and-eyes only view of your face. If your computer’s built-in camera is low quality, a USB model may help you get a better-looking image, too.
If you’re using a phone, you have a few extra considerations. Make sure it’s in a horizontal orientation, since that’s better suited to the computer screens your colleagues are probably using. And try to rest it on a stand—again, at eye level—rather than holding it, so you don’t have shaky video. If you’re giving a presentation and have notes written down, try to stick those bullet points by your camera, so you aren’t constantly looking down at your desk.
Look the Part
Finally, while it isn’t a tech tip specifically, Rosen stresses the importance of your own appearance and body language. Wear clothes you know you look good in, and that aren’t the same color as your background—you don’t want to blend in, which is remarkably easy in a compressed video feed sent over the internet. In addition, avoid busy, repeating patterns—like thin stripes or small plaid—that tend to moiré on camera. And for heaven’s sake, wash your face—don’t let the sweat from your workout turn you into a shiny mess. (If you have naturally oily skin like I do, Rosen recommends patting yourself down with a little anti-shine powder—no matter your gender. In my experience, blotting yourself with kleenex will do in a pinch, too.)
“Remember you’re on camera,” Rosen says. “Smile, pay attention, don’t look all around the room. Think about where you place your camera, and where people are walking by.” He recounts a recent video call where a participant’s family member walked by in their underwear, mortifying the caller and ruining the meeting. “When something goes wrong—and it will eventually—try to go with the flow. Laugh it off, and don’t let it throw your game.”
Good Audio Is Crucial
If there’s one thing I took away from my college video production class, it’s this: People will watch crappy video, but they won’t listen to crappy audio. This can be especially challenging with video calls, since you can’t hear how you sound on the other end.
To start, make sure the room is quiet, says Rosen. If your family is home, let them know you have an important call, and for the love of all that is holy, mute your microphone when you aren’t talking. You don’t need to grace everyone with the sounds of trucks driving down your street or your kids yelling in the next room.
In a similar vein, make sure you’re wearing headphones. If you use your computer’s speakers, your colleagues will hear an echo of themselves talking. Earbuds are easier to hide and less visually distracting. If you still have echo problems, it could actually be due to your space. “If you have an echoey room, you can muffle that with blankets or towels,” says Rosen. “Just keep as much of it off-camera as possible, or it’ll look like you’re doing laundry.”
Rosen also recommends an external microphone. While the microphone built in to your webcam is probably fine, you’ll sound a lot better with a dedicated USB mic—or, depending on the situation, a lavalier microphone pinned to your lapel. Make sure you actually select that microphone in your video chat program of choice—usually through the audio settings—because your computer will probably default to the lower quality microphone on your webcam.
Just be careful not to disrupt that microphone during the call. “I’ve been in calls where people are tapping on their computers as a nervous habit, and it’s very distracting,” says Rosen. Remember, that microphone amplifies the sound of anything nearby—especially that clacky mechanical keyboard.
Keep a Strong Internet Connection
None of these tips will make a lick of difference if your internet connection is slow or unreliable. If you have an ethernet jack nearby, wire it up to your PC or laptop—you’ll get a much more stable connection than you will over Wi-Fi. If wireless is your only option, check out our guide to improving your Wi-Fi signal, and make sure no one else in the house is sucking up bandwidth with Netflix while you’re on an important call. And if all else fails, a standard phone call is a great fallback—video chat is great, but a reliable phone call is always preferable to a stuttery, low-quality videoconference.