In a live environment, we exchange a huge amount of non-verbal information. We don’t usually acknowledge this, and most of the time we may not even be conscious of it. Yet our relationships are based much more on rapport than the words we exchange. We interpret physical proximity, gesture, posture, breathing, a whole range of barely perceptible noises, twitches, and, perhaps most importantly, eye contact.
A lot of this essential information is lost in remote communication. In Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any other platform, a 2D image of your face in a box is all that your viewer has to connect with, along with an electronically compressed version of your voice.
And that’s before you factor in all the technical tasks that demand our attention, and distract us from each other and our human needs. To add to the challenge, some elements aren’t within our control. We’ve all endured sporadic screen freezes where our meeting partners are caught in unflattering grimaces, or odd dislocations of sound and image. And if that’s happening to them, what on earth is happening with our image on their screens?
We can’t prevent Wi-Fi signals dropping unexpectedly, or the compatibility struggle between certain platforms and some hardware. We can’t change the fact that looking at another person’s eyes onscreen is not eye contact. Technology can’t help, or at least not yet. All this, we have to live with, for now.
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do to mitigate the alienating effect of remote communication. Applying some basic principles will help you prepare better and manage better in the moment too.
Think about the picture you’re creating for your viewers. Make it easy for them to connect with you by choosing a central position for your face within the frame.
If you don’t know what the picture will look like, take a test before your video call. Check that sitting back or forward doesn’t chop off part of your head or to give people a view of the inside of your nostrils. Remember that you are being viewed from wherever your camera is positioned on your device, not by the screen itself. How far you are from the camera will determine how much of you the viewer will see. To paraphrase Father Ted, if you sit far away, your image will seem small and remote, while if you lean in close to your screen above the camera, your viewer may experience you as looming towards them.
Rather than hunching yourself uncomfortably to fit into the frame, try moving your device onto a stack of books to raise your laptop. If you’re using the camera on your phone or a tablet, you can benefit from a tripod (with a cradle to secure the device) to ensure you’re getting the best height and angle. Now that so much of our communication is remote, using a dedicated device for video conferencing seems less of an indulgence.
Some platforms chop up your frame in a way that you may not be able to preview, such as Microsoft Teams. So, it’s worth checking in with your meeting partners that they can see you properly at their end, particularly if you’re alternating between your face and screen-sharing slides.
If you need to demonstrate an activity, consider adding a secondary webcam. For instance, a piano teacher will want one camera to focus on her face, and another to capture her hands moving across a keyboard. If you need include whole body physical movements, you may need to stand up and position yourself at a distance from the device.
The value of good framing isn’t merely aesthetic. It’s about making rapport easier by removing anything that will distract your audience from connecting with you and your message.
If you have an important point to make, or want to share a moment of deep feeling, you will have to make the decision to tear your eyes away from the faces on your screen to gaze at the tiny pin-prick of the camera on your device. It will feel unnatural, and of course you won’t get any visual feedback from others as you would IRL. However, it creates an impression of eye contact for your meeting partners.
Don’t fix your gaze on the camera, however, unless you are conducting a webinar for a large number of people, whose faces you can’t view anyway. In a smaller meeting, you will still benefit from the limited information you can glean from looking at the faces of others, so do request that everyone keeps their video on.
Another challenge of communicating remotely from our homes is finding the space to create all these set ups. Good composition takes into account background and lighting too.
There’s no strict right or wrong about this, but be aware that your setting will feed the audience opportunities to make assumptions about you.
During the Covid 19 Lockdown, the overwhelming majority of us are working from home. Just finding a quiet room where we won’t be disturbed can be a challenge. Inevitably, bedrooms have become a refuge. However, consider whether the background of headboard and pillows is going to send the signal you want. My view is that it paints a picture of someone convalescing, which in current times, may be true in a literal sense!
Bookcases have become popular backgrounds if you want to present yourself as a learned expert. The BBC politics programme, Newsnight, has noted that men in particular have chosen to bulk up their status with well-packed shelves. Your reading material may become a hostage to fortune, though. For a satirical take, follow Bookcase Credibility on Twitter, for tongue-in-cheek personality analysis based on bookcase content and arrangement.
Another factor to consider is that the standard camera on a tablet or laptop will focus on everything in the frame, not just on you, so double-check for visual distractions within the environment. If you sit in front of anything too intriguing, like family photos or dramatic artworks, or even a controversial book you may find yourself upstaged.
If you don’t want to look like you’re making a scripted statement in a hostage video, avoid an entirely bare white wall. Zoom’s Virtual Backgrounds and background blurring apps have had a novelty moment, but now may signal to some that you have something to hide.
As you can see from the grid in the photo above, there are several ways of making good or bad choices. There’s an immediate impact on the quality of engagement for the viewer.
Light changes throughout the day, so be aware that what worked well in the morning may work badly in the evening. Be prepared to move to another spot so that you’re lit in a way that makes you properly visible at the very least, and flatters you at best.
In daytime, be prepared to draw your curtains or blinds if there’s too much glare. Sitting in front of a window on a bright day will turn you into a silhouette.
In the evening, if you have any table or freestanding lamps, rearrange them to give you “fill” light as well as light on your face. Experiment with what you have to hand before you invest in any new equipment. If you are going to take this more seriously, there’s lots of specific advice on the internet, such as
If you wear glasses, you have the extra challenge of handling reflections from your screen. Whatever, if your light is coming from just one source, you may end up with very stark contrasts. This is great for edgy film noir, but perhaps not the look you want to go for when pitching your organisation’s financial services to a new client.
Let’s think about evening shots. In the image on left side of the middle row of the grid, I have a few ordinary table lamps in front and to the left of me, and in front and to the right. No fancy extras, yet this arrangement provides a soft light that doesn’t create a lot of distraction. However, in the middle image of the top row, I’m just lit by the screen and it’s making me squint a bit. The darkness of the background creates a slightly uncomfortable vibe.
The first image of the top row is a decently lit daytime shot.
While all this may seem like a lot of preparation, if you regularly present from the same location, it is worth giving your setting and composition some thought. You’ll be rewarded later as you maintain your onscreen personal brand, and you can get on with the more important business of making a human connection.