Now months into remote working, we perhaps all ought to be experts at achieving positive personal impact in video conferencing and maintaining a solid professional presence on screen. Yet, many of us are still not getting the basics right in video calls, nor considering what this may mean for our personal brand, professional credibility and the opportunity to influence successfully during this period.
We’ve all seen colleagues who have become very relaxed at home. Appearances have changed and some of us are turning up to work on video calls in a way that we would never have dreamed of if we were all still meeting in person. We've probably also all had our call sound disturbed by the rustle of snacks from a colleague or our thought process interrupted when our colleague's attention strays to hold a side conversation with a family member. To thrive in this remote environment we must learn to adapt our style to a remote world, remind ourselves of our usual standards and reconsider how we would like others to see us, using the tools and techniques we have available to us.
I’ll be the first to admit that for quite some time I had camera on days and camera off days. Even when everyone else had been on a call with the camera on, I took the decision not to turn it on because I’d chosen to have more of a relaxed appearance day. Indeed, getting ‘work ready’ seems more of an effort when you’re just staying at home. My experiences have taught me that by having the camera off it is however more difficult to build rapport with others. Colleagues are unable to read my onscreen body language, read my facial expressions and I’ve found it more challenging to get my voice heard because others can’t pick up on when I’m ready to talk or wish to add another point.
And how are we all coping with ‘Zoom Fatigue?’ When we first made the switch to remote working and collectively increased our use of video conferencing, many of us will have noticed a new level of tiredness in ourselves. Some of us will have experienced a much higher level of demand during this period. The all familiar constant ringing of the next video call, days full of meetings with no gaps in between and often inadequate break times because people leap in with the next call when they see you’re ‘on green’ on Microsoft Teams.
The fatigue we feel is not just about demand. Talking to BBC Worklife, associate professor at Insead, Petriglieri, reports that being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat. He considers that we all need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; and therefore we have to pay more attention to these than we would do if we were able to meet colleagues, clients and contacts in person. This consumes a lot of energy. “You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.
It’s not too late to get into good habits, particularly as video conferencing and calls don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Here’s five top tips to consider to increase your on camera impact:
Choose the right environment: You may wish to have a couple of areas in your home that you undertake work in. Each environment might be used for different aspects of what you do. For example, you may have a space that helps your concentration levels for written work or creative work but isn’t suitable for video calls. For your video calling space, choose a place in your home where sound will not be an issue and where you know you can feel most relaxed and your most confident self, without the risk of disturbances from family members. Ensure you have a neutral, professional background behind you with nothing personal that you wouldn’t want to share! Good lighting is a necessity also, so if you can sit by a window for video calls, do so. The camera should sit at eye-level, not below it. You can invest in a laptop stand to elevate your computer to eye-level or use books to prop it up as I do.
Get the technology right: Brian X Chen, writing in his article on the Do’s and Don’ts of online video meetings (The New York Times, 2020) highlights how imperative it is to get the technical set up right and to check video, audio and internet speed before planned calls. He advises “for the best audio quality, use a headset with a microphone if you can, and check the sound level on your microphone. Make sure your internet connection can handle the higher speeds that video conferencing requires.” If you can’t get the right connection where you are, move rooms to find somewhere that you can.
Frame and present yourself well: Dress as if you’re heading to the office. Not only will this make you feel in the right frame of mind, it will also increase your confidence and productivity, which in turn impacts on how you present yourself on camera. Experts advise that we should choose solid-coloured clothes in neutral tones, such as greys or blues. Busy designs or bright colours don’t present well on video. Ensure you fit well into the frame for your camera. You can check this at the start of each day if you’re moving your laptop or camera at the end of each working day. People need to clearly see your face but should also see a proportion of your upper body too. I have experienced calls where I have only seen a mouth or an extreme close up of a colleague. This is very off putting and impacts negatively on the conversation. Remember any personal care that you would normally take, should also be maintained!
Vary your tone: According to Albert Mehrabian’s communication model from the 1970s, 55% of our impact in interaction with others, comes from our body language. At a time where people can’t read this in full, our voice and facial expressions have become more important than ever. It’s crucial to stay engaged and not attempt to multi-task in video calls. Eye contact remains important and we should stay focused on the camera to give a sense of this. All too easily our eye may drift down to take in our own image but we must consciously make the effort to stay looking at the camera. We can indicate that we are listening with nods of the head and our hands can often be seen too. Our tone of voice will have a huge impact too. Practise varying the tone, the pace, the volume and pitch. Breathing techniques may also improve the quality of your voice. Record yourself saying a few phrases and watch yourself back to see if you’re being as engaging as you could be.
Handling fatigue: John Arthur, writing in his book, Improve your virtual meetings (2020) notes it takes more effort to conduct video meetings than in-person ones and we need to proactively make changes ourselves to cope better with this. “To deal with fatigue, acknowledge that it exists. Build in breaks between meetings. If your counterparts permit, change a video call into a conference call. If you are in a long video meeting, feel free to stop the video for a minute or two and move around.” Build in time in your day to take daylight breaks in the winter months. If you can’t do that, take the opportunity to have an uninterrupted cup of tea away from the screen at least once a day. You’ll need discipline to make this happen. Taking planning time for meetings, away from the screen, so that you can issue agendas and reports in advance will also help you manage time limits so meetings don’t over run.
Every detail about video calls says something about your brand, including the backdrop. You want to keep it clean, simple, and representative of your company and image. Any work put into this aspect of the room’s design will only enhance your professional setting.