7 simple tips for good, engaging Video Conferences

Web-based video conferences have become the new normal for those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home during this pandemic. And although they have been around for nearly 15 years not everyone had embraced the simple and easy way to communicate and collaborate! I have prayed this mobile and place independent work style for over 14 years in various positions at remote support and remote collaboration manufacturers like GoToMeeting. And finally, through this tragic pandemic, it has evolved it into the mainstream: Web-based video conferences are a vital part and tool for communication between employees, customers, and partners all working from home! Enabling them to have meetings and be productive.

As this technology got such a boost in the last weeks and months, I thought it was time to share some handy tips and tricks for a good and engaging video conference experience for you and your attendees! Every meeting can be great if you follow these six simple guidelines:

1. Look good!

The first tip is a no brainer: Look good if you want to look good! With appropriate clothing and hairstyle, you give a meeting the value it deserves. The general recommendation would be to dress the same as if the meeting would be non-virtual. If you usually would wear a business shirt, wear one in the virtual conference as well! Sit upright on your chair and of course face the camera!

Also, don’t look at yourself during the meeting! I know, you’re the most interesting and good looking in the meeting, that’s why it is so tempting to look at your own video image most of the time, but try to engage with others! The best way to do this is by looking directly at the camera lens! As people see you through the lens, they will have the feeling that you look directly in their eyes when you look at the lens. If you need a reminder or if that seems unnatural or difficult for you, place some eye stickers left and right of the camera. It also helps you put a smile on your face! 😉

2. Light

When it comes to light: more is better! But not every light is good! Especially the angle of the light to the camera is important! Ideally, you would want the light to come directly from the front and highlight your face. The maximum angle should be around 45°. Also, natural sunlight is the best-looking light! So: open the shades and let the natural sunlight come in if your window is somewhere in front of you. Because you want to avoid light from the back, close the shades if you have a window behind you and add some lights in front of you to highlight the most important thing in your webcam view: Your face!

If you do not have enough natural light or if it comes from the wrong direction, you can use a regular desk lamp, place it behind the camera and point it at your face. Of course, you can also invest in LED studio lights – starting from around €50 apiece. A cheaper version of this is USB-powered make-up lights! They give you the flexibility to position the lights in an ideal way and make you independent from having a sunny day. If you want to drive it to the max, then make sure you have two lights in front of you, each at around 45° angle and one slightly less bright. By this, your face will be well lit, but one side will be slightly darker and have a tiny bit of shade from the brighter lap, giving your face a little more depth.

3. Background

The most important picture your webcam catches is yours! Avoid having a distracting, messy, moving background that distracts viewers from you! Ideally, a plain unicolored background that has a good contrast to you! Choose the place where you hold your conference mainly by the lighting, noise but also the background. Often times changing the direction of view of a few degrees can already make a huge difference.

If you are working in a real home office scenario, you can, of course, make sure your background is tidied up and quiet. If you don’t have that option, there are cheap backdrops, curtains or even window blinds, that you can put behind you. I personally have a window blind behind my chair allowing me to always have the same quiet and well-colored background for my meetings. If I don’t need it, I can simply roll it up and it hides on the ceiling!

I personally am not a friend of virtual backgrounds some solutions offer these days. They tend to distract even more! And even if it might bring some fun to meetings in the first few minutes, it does not add to the overall meeting productivity. If you want to have really fun five minutes during meetings, try Snap Camera. It can turn you into a cucumber or a dog and works with every meeting solution. But you can also put it to good use by using a background blur in your meetings.

4. Camera

A good camera is key! Although modern built-in cameras are much better than some years ago they, in many cases still don’t deliver the best possible image. The reason for this is, that those cameras have to be as flat as possible, which requires compromises with the sensor and the optics. External webcams usually have a better image. Not because of a better resolution but mostly because of better sharpness of the image and light sensitivity. Making even a not perfectly lit scene look crisp and good. Recommendations for cameras can be a Logitech C920 or a Logitech Brio.

Another advantage of an external camera is, that you are free to position them wherever you want. Ideally, your camera should be on eye level, or better even slightly higher than that. If it is at the height of your hairline and points a tiny bit down, you usually have the nicest angle. You can achieve this by putting your Laptop on a stand or use some books. The easiest way, of course, is, to mount your external camera on top of your monitor.

Lastly, we have to look at the distance to the camera. You would want to achieve a full centered view of yourself. Make sure, not only your head is in the picture but also a large part of your upper body so that also gestures can be seen by the attendees of your meeting. The actual distance varies by the camera but can be around 50 to 70cm (19 to 27 1/2 inch). Another advantage of increasing the distance to the camera has to do with the fact that those cameras usually have a wide-angle lens. If you sit too close, they exaggerate things that are closest to it, like your nose or your chin. Sitting further away gives a much better proportion.

5. Audio

Bad audio is the reason we found telephone conferences in the past so tiring! You had to concentrate on who was speaking and struggled to understand the content. This hugely diminishes the value of conferences and makes people avoid them, having an even worse effect on the communication culture. With web conferences you have the general audio quality sorted out – modern solutions have wideband audio integrated. But this integrated codecs can only be as good as the signal you feed into it!

First and foremost a quiet space is of course key! You never will have understandable nice audio conversations in a loud environment. So, search for a quiet spot, and maybe close the windows for the duration of the call. 

Secondly, good audio hardware is important! Not only so that you can hear well but especially so that you can be understood! While using the microphone and speakers of your laptop may seem convenient, they catch up with a lot of ambient noise and echo of the room and your surroundings. A USB desk microphone makes things better but still not perfect as it might still catch up audio coming from your speakers. In that case, turn your speakers away from the mic and have them at a maximum 50% volume. The ideal solution still is the use of a headset. It catches audio directly from your mouth without many ambient noises and you can concentrate on the voices of the other speakers coming directly into your ears at the volume most comfortable to you.

If you have some headsets available, do self-tests and record your voice using the different headsets or hands-free devices. This will give you very quickly an indication of which device you should use. Here are some examples of devices I had lying around (I tested in a quiet environment, if it would not have been that quiet, you would have heard a lot more noise on the MacBook microphone and on the Bose headset):

6. Check

Who is not annoyed by the one colleague coming into the meeting and doing all his checks while you and all others are watching? Checking if his audio is working, adjusting the camera, opening the shades because it is too dark, then starts to do his hair?

Most modern web conferencing solutions, such as GoToMeeting, have an entrance room, where you can check everything your own. Check if your audio connection is working, adjust the camera and place yourself in the ideal position, check if you look good and if anything else needs adjustment before you enter the meeting room! Ideally, plan 2 or 3 minutes extra before the meeting to do all this and still being on time in the session. Also, take into consideration that not all solutions fire up as quickly as GoToMeeting does but might require an installation.

It should be your big appearance, every time you enter a virtual meeting! Have you ever seen Beoncé or Elton John perform without the slightest preparation beforehand? No?

So, be prepared and make your appearance in style!

7. Etiquette

The etiquette for online meetings differs a little from onsite meetings. Following these, few simple guidelines improve the meeting experience for all attendees and make most out of your time: 

  • Be on time! Just like with every meeting, you have to be there on time or you waste x minutes of all participants waiting for you.
  • The mute button is your friend! Whenever you don’t want to say something, mute yourself. This reduces the overall background noise of the meeting and lets people better focus on the content. But, of course, do not forget to unmute yourself whenever you want to say something, because not all solutions remind you to unmute yourself like GoToMeeting does.
  • Enter your full name and company name (if you meet with partners or customers) and let there be no doubt who you are and where you belong.
  • Do short breaks while speaking. Because of the latency, it might seem that others don’t have something to say.
  • Ask before you start to record! Even if the software notifies the users, it is polite to ask for consent before you start recording.

Epilog

Most of the tips and tricks are common sense, but I hope I could give some ideas on how to improve your next web conference meeting! Everything around video, background, and lighting is of course much easier if you have a static home office desk where you can arrange everything the way you need it and like it. To give some idea, I’d like to share my current home office setup (it’s also where all the above pictures have been taken.

I use two external monitors (the third is for another computer) and the MacBook internal screen giving me a lot of space to arrange content even if I am presenting on one of the screens. I use a Logitech C920 webcam and two Makeup Lights (all mentioned above). For audio, I do not rely on the internal MacBook audio but rather use a Plantronics C725. It is comfortable, has noise-canceling, which helps in home office environments and a good microphone. As background, I mounted a window blind to the ceiling about 30cm behind my chair.

Hope you enjoyed it! And if you have any other tips or tricks to share, please use the comment section below.

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