Become More Effective in Virtual Meetings

By William R. Stromsem, CPA, J.D.
Assistant Professor, George Washington University School of Business
November 2020

As we meet more frequently with clients and colleagues in video conferences, it is important to know how to make a good impression in a virtual format. When you look around the gallery in a larger virtual meeting, you can see some who have it together and some who don’t look as good as they might like. Here are some tips on how to make a strong positive impression in a Zoom, Webex or other video meeting. In general, people have low expectations when attending yet another virtual meeting. With a little extra effort and some of these tips, you can look great!

Background

Usually, more than half your screen is background, so don’t miss the opportunity to use this space to make a good impression. If you use a notebook computer sitting on your desk and tip the screen up to get in the picture, then your background is going to be your boring ceiling. Look around the gallery in your next meeting and see how many people make this mistake. Consider what you want to show about yourself in the background. We have seen politicians with flags and lawyers with lawbooks, but these are almost cliché. You might show items related to your interests that might spark a conversation. Photos of your family on vacation are great, but studio portraits can be boring and may seem like you are playing the family card with your colleagues or clients. Avoid political or other controversial items in the background. Sports team items may be appropriate, but don’t overdo it in case someone at the meeting really dislikes your team. If you have a bookshelf directly behind you, this may distract others as they look over your shoulder to try to see the titles. Your background should be neat and uncluttered.

Don’t use a virtual background if you can avoid it. In addition to missing an opportunity to show something positive about yourself, a virtual background may say the opposite—that your room is too boring or messy to show. If you don’t want people to see your office, or a virtual background is better, change the virtual photo to one you relate to—change the Tahiti beach photo for one of your favorite vacation spots. That way, you will not be at a loss for an answer when someone asks, “How are you enjoying Tahiti?” Another reason not to use a virtual background is that you will likely have a blurry edge to your profile where the foreground interacts with the background, and this can be distracting. If you use a virtual background, realize that it is set just a few feet behind you and that if you roll your chair back or tip back through that plane, you may be eaten by your virtual background— a fifth face on Mount Rushmore!

Turn on your camera rather than using a stock photo. If you’re talking and your lips aren’t moving or if you’re smiling when there’s a crisis, it just doesn’t look right. Not being live on camera may convey the impression that you didn’t bother to get it together for the meeting. Also, it is easier to relate to a live person than a photo, and this will improve the effectiveness of your presentation.

Camera Angle

This is one of the most important items to a successful impression. Your camera should be at eye level or a little higher. If you are using a notebook, you need to put it on some books or something to raise the camera lens. If you leave your notebook on your desk and tip the screen up to get in the frame, you will present an unflattering view. From below, your face may appear wider and shorter, and a very prominent feature will be your nostrils. You may give the impression of looking down at your colleagues or clients. Your background will be your ceiling.

You don’t have to be centered in the frame. If you are to the side a little, it makes the presentation more interesting and edgy, and you’ll be less of a talking head. Balance the picture with something interesting (but not more interesting than you!) on the other side so that it doesn’t look like you just didn’t aim well. Also, by putting yourself to the side, you can bring up presentations without having them cover you.

If you are using two screens or an add-on camera, be sure to adjust your settings to have the right camera on—look for the active light on most external cameras or check yourself in the preview before joining the meeting. If the wrong camera is shooting you, you won’t be directly facing your audience and may give the impression that you are avoiding them, or worse, that you have something to hide. Look at the camera as if you were looking at a friend. You would focus on your friend if you were meeting live, but it’s more difficult when you are dealing with a tiny camera lens and there are distractions on your desk and screen. You might put a small photo by your camera lens of someone you want to impress. If you are using notes, they should be just under your camera so that you’re not looking down, and try not to read because your eyes will not be on the camera. Check your notes and then talk to the camera. In general, try not to look down unless you have great hair!

If you can set it up with your camera, consider standing to do a presentation. This may command more attention and make you look more energetic than the usual bland sitting presentations.

Lighting

If your room has a sunny window, set up your camera so that you can face the window. If the window is behind you, your camera may compensate and darken the picture, and you may end up looking like you are in a witness protection program. If you cannot rearrange your setup and have a bright light behind you, you will need a light beside or over your camera to brighten your face. Buy a USB powered light intended for this purpose or place a desk lamp in front of you. Be sure to use soft, bright lighting, with enough wattage to show your face, but not enough to make you squint or feel like you are in a police interrogation. Eyeglasses can be a problem if they reflect the light back into the camera. If you can’t or don’t want to take them off, check your image on camera to see if you have a reflection problem and then tip your glasses down slightly.

How Close to the Camera?

You need to have enough distance from your camera to allow your hands to be seen so that you can gesture during a presentation—not just a head and shoulders shot. You also don’t want to be so far away that others can’t clearly see your facial expressions. To make the presentation interesting, you might vary the distance from the camera during the presentation by moving closer to or farther from the camera at times. This is like walking around the room while you’re speaking instead of standing behind a podium.

Makeup?

In winter and indoor lighting, you can look a little pale and pasty on camera. When it’s warmer, your face can be shiny. Consider some light makeup or powder, but the key to makeup is to look good without looking made up. Gentlemen, have a fresh shave because the camera can pick up a “five o’clock shadow.” Look at yourself on camera and make any adjustments before you go live with your audience.

Equipment

Although most newer computers have a built-in camera, you may wish to invest in a high-definition camera with wide-screen or regular options and with a good quality stereo microphone that you can plug into a USB port and hang over your monitor. The refresh rate for an HD camera will keep movement from being jerky and generally give a better picture, and a stereo microphone will make your presentations sound better if viewers have stereo speakers. They are around $200 and are well worth it if you make a better impression, get the promotion, gain a client, etc.

You might want to upgrade your Internet service to a higher speed and purchase a faster and more dependable modem/router than the old one that you are using now from the cable company. A better modem can be purchased for around $100 and will make better use of your faster Internet service. If necessary, cut back on other data-intensive apps in your area, e.g. people streaming videos or playing games online. Coordinate with your family to be sure that they aren’t also on video conferences for school or work during your critical meetings.

Arrange your presentation space so that you do not have any distracting background noises like barking dogs! If ambient noises are a concern, mute the microphone when listening or invest in a good set of headphones.

If you do a lot of presentations, consider buying a sound board and adding effects such as applause, laughter, crickets or whatever. You may be familiar with these from Jim Kramer’s “Street Talk” where he hits buttons for “Buy, Buy, Buy” or crashing sounds. Basic models aren’t expensive, but you need to decide if sound effects are appropriate for your audience. They can pep up your presentation, but don’t get carried away with distracting gimmicks. Sound boards take some practice, so don’t test it during an important meeting. You want to make your presentation memorable in a positive way.

Wardrobe

Dress for your audience—usually casual or business casual. Wearing a business suit or dress in your home office may make it look like you are trying too hard. Consider who will be there and what they are likely to be wearing. Fine pinstripes and checks are out. It’s not a question of style, but rather of video appearance. Tight repetitive patterns can zigzag during your presentation if either you or the person watching is not in high definition, and that will be the memorable impression of your presentation! Keep it simple with clean lines and solid colors.

Usually, only your upper body and face are seen on a video conference, but wear pants or a skirt—enough said!

Visual Aids

If you are making a long presentation, consider using Whiteboard or PowerPoint to keep the presentation from just being a talking head show. Use a poll, add a video or use other Zoom features to engage your audience.

Final Check

Check that your camera and microphone are working ahead of the meeting and check your on-screen image before going live. You might keep a mirror and comb at your desk to make any final adjustments.

Using these tips will help make you and your company more effective in a virtual world. The next time you are in a virtual meeting, look around the gallery to see what others are doing right or wrong. You may learn from their good ideas or mistakes!