The Virtual You

By John Gilstrap

Zoom, Webex and their conferencing cousins are a way of life these days. It’s how kids (pretend to) learn at school, it’s how business is conducted, and it’s how virtual happy hours are convened. More to the point of this blog, it’s also how book festivals and book tours are being conducted. I’ve even talked to a few book groups. (Send me an email if you’d like me to talk to your group.)

I’ve written in this space before about developing public speaking skills, but now that I’ve been a part of a bazillion virtual get-togethers, I’ve learned that many of the skills needed for addressing an audience in person don’t apply in the virtual world, and in fact may prove harmful to the presentation. So, for this week’s post, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned:

First things first: A number of websites exist for the purpose of allowing you to test your webcam to play with the images. This is one of them.

Don’t look down on your audience. I mean that literally. Many of us (myself include) ply our trade via a laptop computer, where the webcam is at chest level or below–the least complimentary angle from which to be photographed. Find a way to raise that camera so that you’re looking straight at the lens.

If you do a lot of virtual conferencing–even if it’s for a big boy/big girl job–consider investing in an external webcam. With a simple click, you can disable the built-in webcam and switch to one that can be placed on a tripod (or anywhere else you’d like).

Design your set. Background matters, especially if you’re a featured speaker. My background during the day while I’m working is a beautiful bay window that looks great in real life, but looks terrible on camera. First of all, the lighting is all wrong (see below), and closed blinds are boring. My Zoom studio (aka a table in my basement) is set up in front of a pretty bar we built. When I address scouts or kids’ groups, I angle away from the array of booze bottles.

When setting up your zooming place, know that people are, in fact, paying attention to what’s behind you. That’s why the school district in my area does not require students to be on camera during their remote learning sessions. (What could possibly go wrong there?) Plan accordingly.

Avoid harsh backgrounds like unadorned dry wall. In a perfect world, textures like stone work or bookcases work better than plain.

Zoom (and maybe others) has a feature where you can turn a photo into a virtual background. I advise against using that feature simply because it never looks right. When people are trying to figure out what’s wrong with the picture, they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying.

Framing matters. Whether they realize it or not, your audience wants to see you as a close-up. Not a “60 Minutes” count-the-nose-hairs close-up, but a head-and-shoulders close-up. All too often, especially when using laptop webcams, people in virtual conferences become a pair of eyes and a ceiling. Alternatively, they become a distant whole person without clear features.

Zooming is performance art, and needs to be treated as such. Whether you’re the star of the show or an attendee, you should own your moment and be aware of the details.

Remember that EVERYTHING is bigger. The difference between speaking live and Zooming reminds me of the difference between live performance and television. Zoom is, after all, a close relative to TV. Every movement of your eyes, every scratch of your nose is big and noticeable to people on the other side of your webcam. That booming voice you would normally use to address a large crowd sounds harsh and angry through your audience’s computer screens.

The microphone that is built into your computer picks up every sound, and projects it out as tinny, un-nuanced audio. Coughs and sneezes happen, but when they do, show the courtesy of muting your audio for the duration of the event. If you’re in the audience, show the courtesy of staying muted unless and until you have something to say.

Because it’s all bigger, you have to do EVERYTHING smaller. Even if there are hundreds of people in your audience, the teleconference is a personal communication with each attendee. Speak more softly than you would–as if you were sitting across the table from them. As you gesticulate, remember that to be seen, your hands must remain inside the frame.

Focus your eyes on the camera lens. No matter how many faces are displayed in that Brady Bunch checkerboard on your screen, your only audience is the camera lens. If you talk directly to the image of the person whose question you’re answering, you will look to the questioner as if you are addressing the floor. Eye contact is more important in a teleconference than it is in real life, and the only eye you can contact is that camera lens.

Design your lighting. Lighting ads subtle depth to the image you project–literally and figuratively–via webcam. As I mentioned above, I don’t Zoom from my desk in part because the backlighting from my window makes it difficult to see my face, and it also adds unwanted glare to what the audience sees.

Front lights are probably the most important. You want to illuminate your face evenly–no sharp shadows–without reflection off of your skin or your glasses, if you wear them. Given my hairline (and my refusal to grant my wife giggle-rights by applying makeup to my head), lighting can be a real challenge, not just for video conferencing, but for my YouTube channel, as well.

Remember the importance of eye contact with your audience. If you wear glasses, consider removing them for your teleconference. If that’s not possible, work hard to design lighting that won’t be a reflection bomb that makes your eyes invisible. Because I do this stuff a lot, I buy my glasses with an anti-reflective coating that works very well.

Backlighting adds depth and personality to your image. You don’t have to buy anything fancy–you’ve probably got lamps hanging around that will do the job. YouTube teems with lighting suggestions.

Security concerns. We live in weird times. While weirdness may not thrive in your neighborhood, the internet knocks down all gates and fences. I’m probably more cautious than I need to be, but I’m very wary of what people can see in my frame. I don’t show doors or windows, and I don’t display anything of real value. I don’t have kids at home anymore, but if I did, I certainly would not allow them to be in the background. Particularly if you’re using a high angle for your camera, police the paperwork on nearby surfaces to make sure there are no bank statements or draft ransom notes visible.

What say you, TKZ family? Have I missed anything? Have you been Zooming a lot?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

27 thoughts on “The Virtual You

  1. Excellent suggestions. I don’t like being photographed, and I’ve shied away from being the speaker, but have observed so many of these issues as a participant. During the recent virtual MurderCon, one participant was having breakfast, doing exercises, brushing her teeth, all on camera. I spent most of the sessions with my camera off.
    I’ve got an all-in-one computer and the camera is at the bottom. It’s impossible to look at the camera AND look at the speaker at the same time, so I always look as though I’m gazing heavenward.
    I DO like being able to put up one of my backgrounds for Zoom calls, though. Much easier than rearranging my office. I figure a view of Pikes Peak won’t be any more distracting than people trying to figure out what’s on the shelves behind me.

  2. All excellent tips, John. I would recommend investing in a good microphone. I don’t like the normal sound of computer audio. Too often it sounds like the person is speaking in a large bathroom. Nor do I like the look of earbuds and wires hanging down like strands of spaghetti.

    I use a Blue Snowball microphone and have been very happy with it. It’s set off to the side just out of camera range and works beautifully.

    • I agree on all points, Jim. In fact, I have a Blue Snowball, too, and it’s great. It provides a depth of sound that doesn’t quite rival a broadcast quality mic, but it’s much, MUCH better than the built-in computer mics.

      I have a Logitech external webcam that has a built in mic that’s a little better than the computer’s but not a lot.

      For YouTubing, I bought a Rode wireless lavaliere set that works very well with my video camera.

  3. Really helpful, specific tips. Thanks, John!

    Gloria Swanson may have been ready for her closeup, Mr. DeMille, but I don’t think I’ll ever be.

    • Stealing an old expression from somebody, I have a face that was made for radio.

      But it’s my face, and they’re my audience. I figure I owe them the best that I can give, given the tools available to me. And you know what? People just like to “see” and “talk” to the authors whose books they like to read.

  4. Wow. Excellent tips, John. I recently made a video book trailer for true crime, where I spoke to the audience, and I had to record that darn thing about a hundred times to get it right. My publisher wants me to do virtual events for the book launch. I’m much more comfortable behind the keyboard, but I’m inching my way out of my comfort zone. These tips will help. Thank you!

    • Hi, Sue. I have a trick for you to consider when doing your video work. When I shoot my YouTube episodes, I tape notes to the side of the bookcase that is just behind the camera–my ersatz TelePromTer. I just need to look off to the side for a second for the next point, and it looks like I’m being pensive.
      My YouTube

  5. From the horror stories I’ve heard, the most important advice about background is what you think you have behind you can change with the slightest tilt of your phone or computer so vet the whole room including the floor. Also, know where your mute button is in case someone/something in your house/area gets loud.

    I’ve not needed Zoom or any of its competitors, and I’ve had a covering on the camera on my Mac since the day I bought it. Now I need to install Zoom and figure it out for a family wedding in a few weeks. Yeah? Some of this advice will help. Thanks.

  6. I do quite a few Zoom meetings, and there is a little box you can check under video settings that help. One of them is “touch up my appearance.” Another is “mirror my video” that keeps your book from being reversed if you hold it up.

    Is there a webcam that works with a Mac? I ordered one and never could get it to work with my Macbook.

    • I’ve never used a Mac product, so I defer to other on that. As for the “mirror my video” selection, that’s for your view, not the view the audience sees. Think about it: A true video monitor shows how you are perceived by the audience–by someone looking at you. When you raise your right hand, they see it on their left. If the person on camera is doing a presentation using the monitor as a guide, the standard view is very confusing.

      What mirroring does is merely a video trick that changes your screen–and yours alone–from a true monitor to a mirror, where right and left remain the same.

    • Macs now come with webcams included so I’ve never had to pair them. If the webcam says it works with a Mac, just cut it on and check to see if the Mac recognizes it. Click on “About this Mac” in the menu, then click on “System Report.” Look under “Hardware” for “Camera.”

  7. These are great tips. I have an adjustable laptop holder that I set up on my desk or on our dining room table and put my laptop on it so the camera is at eye level.

  8. A better camera/microphone are a must. $50 can make you look and sound like a million.

    I am a fan of digital backgrounds, done right. For less than $10 I have green felt for the wall behind me. My lighting isn’t perfect, but it could be. With my new camera, what I wear doesn’t matter as much.

    Play with your lighting and a green screen and your shirt. Solid black works best. Your digital background can be your brand. Something simple and bold. I did one for my wife’s jewelry sales. The logo is set so it is beside, not behind her.

    • I understand what the green screen does, but I don’t know how to make it work in post.
      We’re going to be moving in a year or so, and when we do, I’m going to make my YouTube studio set up a little more professional, perhaps with a permanent green screen setup.

  9. Invest in a ring light. There are a lot of inexpensive ones made for computers and even cell phones. You don’t have to buy an expensive one designed for portrait photography. Really, for less than $100 or so you can buy an inexpensive webcam, ring light, and microphone and it will be so much better than whatever your laptop offers.

    • Like anything else, your never know what’s working well behind the scenes–unless it’s not working so well. I’ve seen a lot of distracting reflections (often in eyeglasses) when people use ring lights. In fact, I believe the incidents I’m thinking of were the virtual American Idol finals.

  10. Thanks for these tips, John. Good stuff. I’ve watched your YouTube videos and paid attention to how you pay attention to detail. You do a professional job, I have to say. Not to mention offer excellent content. I also got a laugh out of restricting school kids background images.

    One tip to offer. Close the windows and cut the noise, especially sirens from emergency vehicles racing by – if you’re in an urban area – or cut out cow-bawling – if you’re on a farm. 🙂

  11. Ah, John! I laughed so hard at the “become a pair of eyes and a ceiling” that I lost grip on my phone! So true. But better than the inevitable “up the nose” view of most phone cameras! Ugh!
    Very, very good advice all around. Especially good about policing your surroundings. It can be a nasty shock to realize just how inquisitive (or downright stalkerish) viewers can be with what we unwittingly reveal in the most innocuous ways.
    When it came time for me to reluctantly dive into the world of zoom, I tested it out with my girlfriend on the other end. That way I learned mute, chat, and other bells & whistles with a friendly one-on-one audience, not the Brady Bunch!
    Thank you for the suggestion of the Blue Snowball. I sometimes record chapters for my betas (and myself…reading your own work aloud makes ALL the difference!), but my laptop & phone both have horrible mics.

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