Unless you are a seasoned professional, it's tough not to feel at least a little self-conscious on video.
I mean, think about it…at the best of times, people have no idea how to act in front of a camera. But now, work, play, happy hours with friends, family get-togethers…they’re all taking place on video calls.
Every day, we’re faced with cameras pointed at ceilings, fuzzy video, and endless streams of “can you hear me’s.” But fear not. Over the past year, I’ve become a Zoom Master, and I’m here to give you seven tips to put your best face forward and look like a video-call All-Star.
One: Angles Are Everything
Everybody knows the horror of accidentally turning on your phone’s front-facing camera. You can’t help but recoil at the chin-folds, nostril hair, and droopy eyes staring back at you. Now, you know you don’t look like that; your camera caught you at a bad angle. And, when you’re on a webcam, the same rules apply.
All you need to do is elevate your camera. Placing your webcam at or near eye level puts your camera at the best possible angle for you to sit up straight, open your eyes, make you look more alert, and of course, not stare up your nose. You see this all the time in television talk shows; cameras are set at a flat or slightly downward angle to the person talking.
Now, do you need a fancy tripod or an expensive laptop stand? Nope. For years, my “laptop stand” was a stack of university textbooks (which, ironically, is the most expensive “laptop stand” I’ve ever used). All it takes to put your camera at a more flattering angle is a difference of about six to eight inches, which, at least in my case, was about four textbooks.
Why this is important: Whether you like it or not, appearances matter. Being able to present yourself professionally can be the key to having a successful meeting before any words are ever spoken.
Two: Cameras Are Good, Lights Are Better
It feels like every day I see a video or review pop up for a new high-definition webcam. But the truth is…you don’t always need it.
Most (if not all) devices with a built-in camera in recent years are capable of recording video in at least 720p (the low-end of HD video), and many devices can record 1080p or even 4K.
So why does everyone’s video look so grainy? Well, because they’re not lit right.
In very basic terms, cameras are like sponges. More light bouncing off you means more light for the camera to soak up, and the camera has an easier time creating a high-definition image.
So do you need professional studio lighting? Nope. You just need a bright light source coming from behind (or almost behind) the camera. Anything will work. A desk lamp. A sunny window. A really bright white monitor. Whatever it is, it just needs to be bright and in front of you. If it’s behind you, you’ll be backlit, and look like an ominous figure lurking in the shadows.
Now, will this make up for a cheap, low-definition camera? Not completely. But you’ll be shocked with the difference it makes. But don’t go too bright with those lights either…if there’s too much light, it’ll completely wash you out. As always, everything is best in moderation.
Why this is important: It’s tough to connect with someone you can’t see, plain and simple.
Three: Virtual Eye Contact
This is another tip from television. If you’ve watched late night talk shows, you probably know they read off cue cards. But they still look like they’re making eye contact with you (or, at least the camera). Even though they’re not looking at you, it feels like they are. How?
It’s simple. A stagehand is holding the cards right next to the camera. That way, the performer can read the cards, but the cards are close enough to the camera so that it still looks like the host is looking into it. You can also use this technique on your Zoom calls too.
Put whatever you’re looking at on your screen right under your camera. That way, it looks like you’re looking into the camera, and to the people on the other end, it feels like you’re attentive and maintaining eye contact.
Why this is important: People connect with each other through eye contact. Using this method to make your audience feel like you’re looking at them can make the meetings feel more personal, and you’ll seem more professional, attentive, and interested in others.
Four: Dress To Impress
I’ll be the first to admit this…it’s tough to put on “real clothes” when you’re working from home. And yes, I’ve been on Zoom calls in my pyjamas. But I always try and look as presentable as possible on camera.
Why? Just like Number One above, appearances matter. When it comes to the workplace, being on Zoom and being in the office are basically the same thing. You present yourself in a certain way in an office setting, and Zoom is no different.
Now, do you need to wear a three-piece suit? No, but you do need to wash your face, comb your hair, and generally put yourself together. At least, the parts that get seen on camera. Just remember though, if your personal Zoom dress code is “business on top, bedtime on the bottom,” it might be best to stay seated until the camera is off.
Why this is important: Just like in Number One, appearances matter.
Five: Watch Out Behind You
Searching “Zoom Fail” in YouTube will give you a goldmine of Zoom calls gone wrong. While usually funny and almost always embarrassing, they all come down to one thing. People aren’t aware their surroundings are being broadcast to the world.
Whether it’s a wayward pet, accidental nudity, or intrusive children, making sure you don’t have a mishap comes down to controlling your environment. Call from a quiet place, with nothing strange or unexpected in view (if you wouldn’t want it out when company is over, you don’t want it in view of your camera either). Make sure pets are in a separate room or in the care of someone else. Talk to your family (especially children) about what is or isn’t appropriate. Basically, be aware of what’s around you.
This goes for the camera and microphone as well. If you don’t want something seen or heard, make sure the camera and/or mic is off (or, better yet, do it after the call).
Obviously, you can’t control for everything, but a little planning can go a long way to lessen the chances of something going haywire.
Why this is important: Zoom is a social setting, just like an office, restaurant, or someone’s home. Interacting on Zoom should follow the same (or similar) social rules. And those mistakes can have huge consequences…like embarrassment, offending friends, or even losing a job.
Six: Step Up To The Mic
The easiest way to improve video content is better sound quality. Why? People can make sense of fuzzy images, but they can’t make sense of poor sound. So, do you need a professional audio system? Generally speaking, nah.
Most devices today are more-than-adequate for normal use. But, there are ways to make the sound even more clear and comprehensible.
First, make sure your microphone isn’t covered. Phone or laptop cases, papers, clothes, or body parts muffle sound before it gets to the microphone, so make sure there’s nothing in the way.
Second, make sure you’re close enough to your microphone. The farther away from the microphone you are, the harder you’ll be to hear. This is why you see TikTok creators film themselves in front of a mirror; the reflection provides a wider camera angle, but keeps the microphone close enough to pick up sound. But, being too close can also be a problem, causing your sound to spike. Generally, an arm’s length or less from your device is a good distance.
Third, minimize echoes. You can do this by setting up in a smaller room. Or hang some towels on the walls or doors, (even top voice actors and record audio in their closets because all the hanging clothes dampen the echoes). Does it need to be professional grade? No. You just need something soft to absorb the sound waves that would otherwise bounce off the hard, flat walls.
Now if you’re doing high-quality recordings or presentations, you might want to invest in a good microphone. But, for general use, the microphone on your device is likely more than capable.
Seven: Speak Up
A problem I see a lot is people correctly using good sound equipment, but they’re speaking in whispers. They’re not speaking with enough volume to be heard effectively by the microphone (honestly, I see this a lot in the real world at in-person events as well).
If you’re talking into a microphone (whether it’s an actual microphone, or your computer, or your phone), you should generally talk as if you’re speaking to someone across a table. You don’t have to yell but speak loud enough to be heard.
And yes, this may feel silly when you’re sitting in a room by yourself talking to people on a screen, but it’ll be a whole lot easier for them to hear you. And let’s face it, being heard is what conversation is all about.
Hopefully, you find these tips useful. But for now, I have to go. I’ve got a Zoom call.
Mentalist and Magician