Brush up your on-screen presence as video meetings become the norm both at work and at school
Locked up in our homes under the looming threat of pandemic, we now interact with the world through the video camera. Right from office work to education ranging from primary to the university level, and even essential services like medical consultation –everything has gone online and are being conducted through video meetings. On one hand we have the presenter struggling to put the point across through the eyes of a lens, and on the other we have the listener, or a group of listeners, trying to make sense of it from a pixelated screen, big or small. Be it informal WhatsApp video calls or full-fledged formal meetings on Zoom, Google Meet, Skype or Teams – it is all about the individual against the camera.
Does this require a change in the way you communicate? Of course it does, because you are no longer physically present in your entirety in front of your listeners. You have lost most of the advantages that body language can bestow, and your listeners now cannot even see the whole of you; even the portion that they do see is condensed within a tiny rectangle proportionate to the device they are using.
Are you well prepared to make the most of this new communication medium? No, you are not; unless you are a model, or actor, or TV presenter, or professional speaker accustomed to talking to a camera – which most of us are not. That means most of us have turned bad communicators only due to the constraints imposed by the medium we are currently forced to use.
Can you do anything to get a grip on the situation? Definitely you can! You need to enhance your on-screen presence. Modify your speaking mannerisms to suite the eye of the camera, and master the features offered by the meeting tool – and you are ready for “Lights, Camera, Action”!
Basics remain the same – virtual or real
At the onset always remember, whether it is a virtual or a physical meeting, the basic etiquettes of civil human interaction hold true as ever. Do not take things either too casually or too seriously – merely because it is an online video event. You still need to attend in time, and politely apologise if you are late. So pay heed to the notifications and stick to your calendar.
Just as in face-to-face conversations, never try to hijack the conversation and hog the speaking minutes. In remote calls this puts people off quicker than in real-life situations. Wait for the right pause the interject or comment – that too only if relevant to the flow of discussion.
Conversely, if you are the timid and withdrawn type, do not hesitate to put forth your view whenever required. In physical meetings you might have used your body language so that you get a chance; however, simply fidgeting to draw attention will not work here. Use inbuilt features, like the raised hand icon on Teams, or just ask for an opportunity to speak if you have points to share.
And never get intimidated and corner yourself only because the bully in the group is all over the microphone. If need be, take emotional assurance from the fact that since things are virtual, you are in your own safe space, and speak out at your individual pace and style.
Know the meeting tool
If you are new to the tool being used, always try a mock-up call with a friend or a relative to make sure that you are accustomed with the basic functionalities before the actual meeting. Even if you have been using the tool for sometimes, you might not be familiar with many helpful features – especially because updates and upgrades keep happening all the time. User-friendly features like the raised hand, clapping hands, a wide range of emoticons, sharable interactive whiteboards, parallel chat windows, background options, are trying to provide the participants with conversation experiences as close to life as possible. You need to know your platform’s options and ensure a flawless participation.
Get the set right
You do not need a lavish Hollywood style set to make the impact, of course! However, frame yourself correctly at the minimum. Keep yourself in the middle of the screen, with a little bit of room over the top of your head and keep your device at a comfortable distance so that your face occupies one-third of the screen. Also take care to keep the camera at an optimum angle – neither below your chin, nor above your forehead. Keeping it at eye level is the best, for which you will have to keep your laptop on a raised surface. In case you regularly take video calls from a mobile phone or tablet, it is best to invest in a phone/tab stand – a variety of which are now available at negligible cost.
Although nearly all meeting platforms offer virtual backgrounds, they should be used if your backdrop is absolutely informal or unpresentable. Projecting a real environment is the best, but of course do clean up or set yourself up before a plain wall. Bookshelves make a wonderful backdrop with their multi-coloured book spines, and also create an aura or eruditeness around you. Well maintained curtain drapes are good for background too, but make sure you are not sitting against a window from which outdoor light is pouring in or with your back to a wall light. That will naturally darken your face. Lighting a small table lamp behind your laptop, which would cast ample light on your face, is a good idea.
Finally, dress nice and clean, at least up to the extent you will be visible on camera. Whether to wear formals or semi-formals will depend on the persons you are meeting with. If in doubt, the safest bet is to go with just what you would have worn in physical meetings. Only take some care to contrast your dress with your background to some extent; or else only your face might be spookily floating on the screen if you are wearing a crisp white shirt with a whitewashed wall at your back!
Act natural, but play to the camera
True, that it’s a meeting like any other meeting but the difference is that you are being seen through a camera and within a small rectangular frame at the other end. Hence, subtle gestures and expressions are most likely to go unnoticed. That is why you need to emote more clearly and gesticulate with extra vigour than you normally do in real-life settings. When you nod, nod with a more pronounced shake of your head and neck; if you are making a point, use your hands with abundant energy and make sure they are clearly within the range of camera.
Smile clearly while acknowledging or responding to others’ comments. Show signs that you are listening while others are talking by nodding or with appropriate facial expressions. Vary your sitting postures as naturally as possible throughout the meeting. Straighten up, relax once again, take notes if that is required. In short, do not simply sit within your video frame like a… well…framed picture!
And what about eye contact with the person you are speaking or listening to? Eye contact is perhaps the best way to communicate both involvement and emotion. That was a must in all physical meetings, and naturally you would want to do that in video meetings too. Only, this time, remember not to look at the eyes of the person on screen – because that will move your face away from the camera and as a result that person will find you looking away from him or her – either above or below or sideways, but never eye-to-eye. The trick is to look at and speak to the camera lens, because that is what is picking up your image. This might require some conscious practice, but the results will be amazing.
Talk clear, talk sense
Do not feel constrained by the remoteness of the meeting; just address people by name as you normally would, and that would immediately close the gap. Addressing people personally always helps. Similarly, after someone else makes a point, you might want to ask a relevant question or two as always. That will show that you had been listening and the speaker would get the right feedback to what extent the intended message has been conveyed.
When you speak, do vary the pitch of your voice, and never engage in a solitary drawl. Use the ups and downs in normal speech as the sentence demands and always pause at the correct places, so that the listeners get some extra seconds to grasp and process your words. That is always a good speaking practice.
While making a statement or placing your arguments try to group your points in logical chunks. And end each sentence with appropriate stress so that the listeners know that the full stop has arrived. That helps immensely.
Explore what works for you best
The pandemic has forced upon us the compulsion of video meetings and it looks like they are here to stay. No comprehensive manual on how to ace your video meetings has yet been written, because the need for such a guidebook for general public was never felt – until now. You are free to try out anything that you think might work and develop your own best practices. Keep sharing them with your friends and colleagues, and contribute to an evolving history that is going to change the way we conduct meetings – forever.