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?