Face to face meetings are the most natural way to communicate. But if that’s inconvenient, then video conferencing has a lot going for it over phone calls. People pay more attention when they can see the people they’re talking to.
Unfortunately, for all the benefits, video conferencing is incredibly easy to screw up. "Everyone thinks they know what they’re doing but they’ve never been trained to do it," says Paul J. Bailo, author of The Essential Digital Interview Handbook. Here are some tips for looking like a pro:
Overhead lighting is the worst kind of lighting for video conferences because it makes shadows under your eyes. Unfortunately, that’s what most people have by default. You may not care about the lighting if you’re doing a quick snow-day check-in with the team you’ve worked with for four years. But for high-stakes situations (like job interviews) when you need to look your best, Bailo recommends using three natural, soft light sources: two behind your web cam (one on the left, one on the right) and one right behind you.
Are you using a web cam clipped to the top of your monitor? Chances are it’s not capturing you from the ideal perspective. If it’s angled down too much, you’ll put your fellow meeting-goers in the position of towering over you. You want the lens to be right at eye level. A tripod can get you there and hold the camera steady.
If you’re using the built in camera on your laptop, it may be too low—and looking up your nose. While it’s not ideal, you can put hardcover books under your laptop until the angle’s right. You want the camera to capture the triangle of your forehead to your left shoulder and right shoulder in the frame.
Even if only your face and shoulders are in the frame, you never know if you’ll need to stand up for some reason. So look decent from head to toe. Put some flattering, solid colors near your face, just like television news anchors do. Check your teeth for remnants of lunch. Make sure the temperature is such that you won’t be sweating, and won’t need to start taking off layers, which is disconcerting for all watching.
Less obvious? "Make sure you’ve got the right chair," Bailo says. Fidgeting is fine on audio but deadly when you can see someone moving like a hyperactive school boy in the corner of your screen.
The people you’re interacting with will be treated to the view of whatever is behind you through the whole meeting. Junk and clutter is bad enough. Your bed with dirty laundry on it is unprofessional. Or worse, you may have something sitting there that’s part of the scenery to you but jarring to everyone else (e.g. that Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders poster your kid moved out of his bedroom but never put away). Bailo recommends investing in what’s called "seamless paper" (what professional photographers use in their studios) if you’ll be doing a lot of digital interaction.
If you’re in an office, Jay O’Connor, chief marketing officer of Blue Jeans, a video conferencing service, suggests painting a spot of wall with the company colors and a copy of the company logo to serve as the backdrop. "You look like a million bucks," he says. "You look like this incredibly established company. It’s a very low-cost way to make yourself come across as a professional big business."
Bailo suggests making an "On Air" sign for your office door when you’re live in order to keep other people from walking in. If you’re working at home and the people you’re concerned about those who are too young to read and obey such a sign, then you need to hire a babysitter or ship them off elsewhere. Pets too. A barking dog can ruin a conversation, as can a cat that runs across your keyboard. "First impressions count when it comes to video conferencing," says O’Connor. "If you wouldn’t want it in a live meeting you shouldn’t have it on a video conference."
Video is closer to a face-to-face meeting than it is to a conference call, yet most people treat it like a conference call. So they’re trying to look at their notes, or are squinting at their computer screens. This is much like holding a piece of paper in front of your face in a live meeting. "You come across as not listening," says O’Connor. Know your main points and look up, so you can interact normally and score the benefits of seeing people and being seen.