Eduvation Blog

10 Tips: Look Your Best Online

Since mid-March, videoconferencing has replaced formal and informal meetings, sales calls, student interactions, conferences, board meetings, and even family gatherings, church services, and first dates. Even without “Zoom-bombers” interrupting your session, we’ve all seen plenty of embarrassing gaffes and technical fumbles online. (Almost 5 years ago, comedians Tripp and Tyler portrayed many of our now-daily frustrations in this 3-minute sketch, “A Video Conference Call in Real Life.”)

Videoconferences have replaced office Christmas parties as the best opportunity to undermine your professional reputation and image.

I’ve been using Zoom professionally, for virtual presentations and roundtable webinars, for several years now. Whether you’re using Zoom, Teams, Webex, Skype, or Facebook Live, here are ten tips I’ve learned through experience, to look and sound your best (in order of impact):

1. Get an external USB mic.

Built-in microphones in your laptop or tablet are simply not adequate for the job, and sound quality makes a huge difference when it comes to naturalistic interaction. (It’s an old adage: good sound is the best way to make video look better.) Particularly if you have a noisy environment, a cardoid mic will focus on your voice and eliminate room noise. (Personally I like the sound of the Rode NT USB mic, but at $250 it’s not for everybody. I often recommend the AudioTechnica AT2020 mic, at under $200.)

2. Face the light.

Either position yourself so you are facing a bright window, or put a desk lamp, ring light or even studio lighting panel in front of you. The more light, the clearer you will appear – as long as you pay attention to which angles minimize your double-chin or wrinkles, of course. (Zoom has a video setting called “touch up my appearance” that smooths out many of those wrinkles, and 5 o’clock shadow too.)

3. Raise your laptop.

Or sit on the floor. You want the webcam to be comfortably at your natural eye level, to have a conversation with someone that doesn’t make them feel like they’re gazing up your nostrils from below. Even better, if you’re willing to invest, consider an external webcam (see #7).

4. Make eye contact.

If you want the other party to feel like they have your undivided attention, fix your gaze not on the image of their face, but several inches above that, on the lens of your webcam. I always resize the Skype or Zoom window and reposition it as close to the camera lens as possible, so that I can maintain eye contact and see people at the same time. (If you’re using your iPad, be sure it’s not in landscape mode, since the camera will wind up off to one side.)

5. Maximize your upstream bandwidth.

Most of us have upgraded our home internet pipes to allow 3 or 4 members of the household to watch Youtube or Netflix simultaneously. (That “buffering” icon lets you know immediately when you are running out of breathing room.) But when I installed a half dozen Google Nest cams last year, streaming 24/7 HD video to the cloud, I quickly discovered that a gigabit connection won’t cut it: I installed two cable modems in parallel and a load-balancing router to give my network 2 gigabits downstream, but more importantly 60 megabits UPstream. When I’m videoconferencing, I shut down those security cameras to free up as much of that upstream capacity as possible, and make sure the kids aren’t using Facetime.

6. Silence background noise.

Set your Mac to “do not disturb” or turn on “Focus Assist” on your PC to silence pop-up notifications and alert sounds during your webconference. You want to minimize interruptions from dogs, kids, and other devices too. (I have a Google routine to turn off the furnace and dehumidifier, and silence the smart doorbell too.) If you don’t have a focused cardoid mic, and/or can’t control background noises, then be sure to mute your mic and use the spacebar when you want to speak. (It makes for a less natural interaction, but it’s better than the alternative.)

7. Upgrade your Webcam.

Although Apple has long been associated with professional designers and videographers, their MacBooks typically have a 720p webcam – far lower resolution than the front-facing cameras on their iPads or iPhones. If you’re trying to look your best for online meetings or presentations, you may want to invest in an external 4K webcam. (I’m using the $240 Logitech Brio and am very happy with it. It also allows me to configure colour balance, wide angle, and more.)

8. Tidy up your background.

A messy room is a distraction, and may reveal more personal details than you intend. Many people are carefully curating a “zoom room” specifically to serve as backdrop for their webcams. Skype has a video setting to “blur my background” which can solve many issues. Zoom allows you to select a “virtual background” – but don’t limit yourself to the beach or outer space options they provide. You can insert any photo – or even a video clip! – to create the impression that you’re working in your usual office, in a world-class library, or on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. This is your chance to have the exposed brick wall you always wanted in your home office! (Or, you could just use a photo of your home office when it was actually tidy.)

9. Use a greenscreen.

Virtual backgrounds do their best, but the clarity of your “halo” will depend on both the strength of your lighting, and the uniformity of the backdrop. You can simply hang green fabric on a wall, but you’ll get the most professional results from a proper chromakey backdrop. They’re available with pop-up stands and wall frames, but I like the elegance of an Elgato rollerblind, suspended from the ceiling. (Just be sure you don’t wear clothing with green stripes in it, or drink from a green coffee cup, because the result will be jarring.)

10. Sit on your coattails.

It’s an old trick of Peter Mansbridge’s, I hear: prevent your suit jacket from puckering up in the shoulders by tugging the bottom of the jacket under your own bottom. It’s amazing how much this one maneuver can tidy up your appearance, and reduce the impression that you’re slouching or wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Bonus Tip: Powder your nose.

If you’re on a 4K camera with bright lights in your face, the natural oils on your forehead and nose will probably glisten like you’re a nervous criminal under interrogation. Since the earliest days of the movie industry, the best solution has been a quick powder puff. (But don’t tell anybody I said so!)  You may also want to pay extra attention in your shaving mirror, and perhaps even risk a DIY pandemic haircut. (But that’s a tale for another day…)

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