Article Thumbnail

How to Do Video Conference Calls Without Screwing It Up for Everyone

You could start by using the damn mute button

Like an increasing number of people who do stuff for money, I work remotely from my apartment. On a daily basis, my colleagues cooperate with my bulging head, projected like the Wizard of Oz on an enormous flat screen in our faraway headquarters. The same corkboard where I keep social calendars, important receipts and other reminders, hangs behind me, providing a glimpse into my mundane home life. Gardeners sometimes mow the lawn outside my window during our discussions, and the dogs in my building frequently form a corresponding barking chorus.

During these conferences, I can see my face, about the size of a quarter, in the corner of the screen. I can also see miniature versions of my coworkers, sitting in a conference room at HQ. The extent of what they can see and hear, however, is something of a mystery to me — considering the impressive dimensions of the screen in our office, I suspect that they can see every single one of my pores. For all I know, though, I could look and sound like a blithering, unprofessional moron. 

So, to help everyone, including myself, navigate the dissonance of conferencing into business meetings, I called upon an assortment of webcam professionals, including an audiovisual engineer, a YouTuber and a webcam model, for guidance. 

Join me, but make sure to press the mute button first.

Watch Out Behind You

Before conferencing into any meeting, make sure that the area behind you is clear of distractions, unsightly clutter, private information and anything that could be perceived as offensive. “The other day, there was a guy — we were in a group meeting — and he had a flag behind him,” says Jay Armand, vice president of engineering for Solutionz, an audiovisual integration company, where he frequently conferences into meetings. “It looked like a swastika, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. It was a Tennessee flag, not a swastika. But it looked like something.” 

Remember, people conferencing into meetings rarely have context or even a clear view of the stuff behind you, so take a second look before you set yourself up, and be extra cautious about anything that might look a certain way.

Having a large open area behind you, where anyone or anything else in your apartment can be spotted, is also a bad idea. “Avoid aiming through a door and into another space,” Armand says. “I was recently on a call with someone who had a mirror behind them, and the mirror reflected into their kitchen. Whenever someone in their family opened up the refrigerator, you could see their reflection in the mirror.” Not only is this distracting for your colleagues, but surely your partner would rather not have your entire office know how many hot dogs they can eat in 30 minutes.

That said, choosing a background that reflects your personality could be a good way to connect with your coworkers. “When choosing a background for filming, I tend to stick with one that brings out my personality,” says Deeva Dee, a YouTuber who films talking head videos. “I enjoy bright and vibrant colors; therefore, I love filming with my bright tapestries as my background. Of course, having so many colors in the background means I have to wear solid colors. If you decide to go with a solid color as your background, though, it gives you more flexibility when it comes to what you can wear.” 

Speaking of which… 

Dress the Part

One of the benefits of working from home is that you can spend the whole workweek wearing pajamas. However, when tuning into a video conference, you should dress as if you were in the office, whatever your dress code may be. This looks more professional, and it shows that you respect your peers, who have to dress up and come into the office on a daily basis. Honestly, though, you can probably get away with wearing pajama pants as long as you wear something nice up top.

Get Your Angles Right

Unfortunately, at desk height, integrated webcams tend to capture you from an unflattering upward angle. “I have a Dell XPS laptop, and the camera is under the screen,” says Armand. “A supermodel isn’t going to take a picture of herself down low, so if she can’t make herself look good like that, how’s a 55-year-old, slightly overweight middle manager going to make themselves look good? It’s not going to happen.” 

If you have a similar camera, Armand suggests investing in a cheap webcam that you can mount on top of your computer.

Webcam model Katy Churchill (link NSFW) offers up a cheaper option. “Put your computer on top of a box, a stack of books or other boosting things so that the webcam lens is at eye level when the laptop is open to 90 degrees,” she suggests. “This avoids the up-the-nose angle. If you’re using your phone, please spend $15 on a cheap tripod to hold your phone straight in front of you, with the camera lens at eye level to avoid the same issue. Trust me, your arm will get tired and nobody wants to know whether or not you have bats in the cave.”

Similarly, despite the insatiable urge to look at yourself while video conferencing, Dee recommends looking straight into the camera. “You should frame your face so that we (your viewers) can see you looking at us, which gives the illusion that you’re actually speaking to us personally,” she explains. “If you look at the camera instead of yourself in the viewfinder, it actually looks like you’re talking to us.”

Get Lit

Facing a window for natural sunlight is an easy way to improve your camera quality and make yourself look more flattering. “The sunlight gives you a natural glow, and on camera, your skin will look flawless,” Dee says. Sitting with your back to a window, however, will completely wash you out. “Your face will be covered in shadow,” warns Churchill.

If you have an early or late meeting, and the sun is down, using lamps is another option. For the best lighting, Churchill recommends using two lamps: One behind your computer slightly to the right, and another behind your computer slightly to the left.

Remember, the Mute Button Exists

“Every video conferencing and audio conferencing system in the world makes it super easy to mute,” Armand emphasizes. “On the flip side, sometimes you have people on your team that, halfway into the most brilliant stuff they’ve ever said, are muted, and the only one who hears it is their cat.” Just pay attention to your mute button, please.

Using the mute button is especially important when you have speakers and a mic that are too close together, which often creates deafening feedback and echoing. If you want to spend a little cash and nip that excess noise in the bud, Armand recommends getting a Jabra echo-cancelling microphone. In these cases, though, Churchill also says that simply wearing headphones works, too.

Come Early

Your meeting might be one click away, but you should still tune in early to make sure everything is running smoothly. “We often spend the first five minutes waiting for people to join, not because they’re late — they probably started on time — but because their computer is rebooting,” Armand says. Remember, computers, webcams and especially WiFi can be finicky, so jumping in early and testing everything before the meeting starts is always a good move.

Stop Scrolling

I know, I know, Reddit is just a click away, and nobody is around to see your screen. But when your colleague asks you to chime in and you were too busy shaking your head at a photo of a brony-based biker gang member, everyone can tell that you were doing something else, and now they have to spend even more time in another pointless meeting to get back on track. Just pay attention to the matter at hand, please.

I dare you from Cringetopia

So, there you go. Did you get all of that, or was I on mute?