“Do I look straight into the camera or is that weird?” A friend of mine was getting ready for a job interview via Zoom and reached out to a professional with a background in the film industry for help with these types of questions. She learned how to “dress the stage” with a few books and plants in the background, which is something I didn’t think much about until now. I myself recently attended a seminar with Toastmasters Leadership Institute on remote video conference meetings, so I thought I would share these combined learnings on the not-so-obvious as we all find our feet with Zoom, Google Meet, and other platforms. Some of what I learned was very surprising, especially this first one.
(1) Neutral Expressions = Negative Impressions. Repeat this to yourself; it’s your new mantra. We often think that a neutral expression means we aren’t half-wits smiling at everything nor are we anti-social psychopaths. We are serious professionals, so we will put on our serious face in order for the world to know that we take ourselves and our jobs seriously. However, it may be a surprise that neutral reads “negative”, especially in a time when we are fatigued from these remote interactions. Even if our natural expression is neutral, try to motivate yourself before the meeting to think positive thoughts, sit upright in your chair, greet others with a smile when you arrive, and keep a positive tone throughout the video call.
(2) Your background setting could bias your audience. We are all at home, and know by now that your background should be clean and uncluttered. Maybe, like my friend, you have added a few books and a plant to set the stage. Good work! However, that book on politics, relationship therapy, and religion behind you may not sit well with others. Even if you don’t think anyone will notice, remember when you speak, someone might have you on an expanded screen view or may be using a large monitor or television screen for work where your background is magnified. Same goes for that photo of you and your besties in Napa or you nephew’s birthday party. While we want to give our backdrop a bit of charm and personal touch, anything too personal should be avoided as it detracts versus adds to your professional image. Bottom line: create a clean and neutral space. When all else fails, if you have a Zoom account (even a free one), you can change the virtual background.
(3) Lights! Camera! Action! Have you ever taken a photo of yourself where you appear to have a double chin and your entire face and upper body are broader? Not flattering, is it? That’s because you took a bottom-up shot. Always take a photo from above for a more flattering angle! This goes for your computer’s camera as well. Prop your laptop/camera/PC onto something where there is a bit more of a top-down view of you. Now for lighting. Same principles of photography: you don’t want to be backlit and show up dark nor do you want a picture frame producing a distracting glare. Make sure you have either natural light facing you or a lamp (yes, you can even purchase a lighting apparatus that attaches to your laptop expressly for this purpose).
(4) Don’t forget to be a good audience member. Going back to the first point of neutral = negative. This goes for both when you are speaking and when you are an audience member. Facial expressions / reactions are a way of engaging when we are muted. Normally we receive both verbal and non-verbal cues when we are talking to someone in order to encourage and facilitate conversation. Make a point to show that you are not just passively listening. Nod your head, smile, and show up as a listener! However, if you are going to be a passive listener, remember that your movements will show it. If you play with your hair, eat, or have another distraction that causes you to move or glance away from the computer, then the polite thing to do would be to turn off your video to avoid distracting the presenter. As always, mute yourself when you are not talking so background noise doesn’t throw you into the main speaker video slot.
(5) Is it weird to look into the camera? Finally time to answer this question. No, it’s not weird. What is weird is feeling like we are engaging with a void by looking into the camera and not at a person. Here’s how to make it feel less disingenuous. Make the speaker’s box as small as possible and move it to the top of your screen, just below the camera. Now you can engage with the person in a way that feels more genuine.
(6) Naming conventions. This one is less obvious. I was a guest at a meeting with 20 people and had no idea who was who. When it came time to address the audience and call on people individually, I was oblivious as to what their titles or roles were. This resulted in calling upon those who were to be presenting that day and trying to mentally prepare, but had some lady (moi) distracting them by calling upon them to answer questions. If you have a larger meeting with people outside of your team, office, or a guest, it might be wise to add your title/role in the meeting next to your name to avoid this type of snafu.
(7) You may be recorded. Although it is proper etiquette to advise participants that the session is being recorded, you might miss the memo, so as always, be on your best behavior!
Good angles, lighting, background, and actively engaging with “eye contact” and positive expressions can enhance how you are seen in your professional life. I hope these tips have been helpful. Please feel free to reach out with more ideas on how to navigate our new reality in a virtual space.