In January 2020, comparatively few people even knew what Zoom was, let alone how to use it. Now, a little over a year later, not only do most people know what it is, it has become its own verb. “Can we zoom tomorrow?” “We’re zooming at 4 pm.” It has become a part of our daily life, a way to connect with colleagues, friends, and family while we are locked down at home. And in all likelihood, it will continue to be part of our lives long after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.
As we are thrust into holding meetings remotely and connecting primarily through virtual platforms, very few people understand the importance of mastering communicating on these platforms. How you communicate remotely with your employees, customers, and business partners is as important–if not more important–than how you communicate in person.
In person, we give non-verbal signals which show respect and build trust that we have mastered after years of co-existing with others. Yes, some people master these skills better than others, but as a rule, we know what to expect and how to behave when meeting with others in person.
Online, however, is a different story. Because there are computers and the internet between us, the tendency is to think that we don’t have much control over the situation and that our behavior or appearance is not as relevant as it would be in person. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Your appearance and your behavior are more relevant than ever.
In an online meeting, your appearance and behavior can build (or destroy) trust, show (or not show) respect, and give you a competitive edge over your competition. I would like to share with you five things which will help improve your presence and communication in online meetings, and as a result, help you build relationships and trust remotely.
In remote meetings, having a professional setup is everything. This setup does not have to be inherently expensive, but you do need to understand which aspects of the setup are particularly important to successfully communicate your message.
Understand that the reason that the setup is so important is that it enables you to put you and your message as the focal point of your presentation. In order to create a connection and build trust with your audience so that they listen to what you have to say and concentrate on your message, it is important that they be able to clearly and easily see your face–in particular your eyes–and hear your voice. Everything else around you is simply there to help solidify and support your message.
(Yes, I’m starting with your background. It’s much more important than you think!)
Your background communicates any and everything about you, and in choosing it, you need to decide what you want to communicate. Do you want to create a calming, peaceful atmosphere so that your viewers feel at home? Do you want to create an atmosphere which communicates professionality and seriousness? Do you want to promote a product? Or do you want to be the focus so that your viewers can easily follow you and your message?
Each of these questions represents a different type of background for your meeting.
Why is the background so important?
Human nature. Whatever is behind you will be the focus of the person viewing you online. It is what we in theater call “upstaging.” Online–just as in theater–any object or background picture or person who is standing behind you will steal the focus of the audience.
So, if you would like to create a calm, relaxing atmosphere, you might want to have a glowing fireplace behind you. If you are doing a product launch, then there should be a bookcase or stand with the product on it behind you (and slightly to the side, so that the viewer can see it!). If you want to show your brand, then your brand colors and logo should be behind you. If you want the audience to be focusing on you and your message, then it is important that your background be as neutral as possible.
Then there is the question of the virtual background. If possible, I recommend that you do not use virtual backgrounds. The challenges with the virtual backgrounds are as follows: First and foremost, you need considerably more bandwidth if you are projecting a virtual background–even more if you are trying to project a video as a background. Second, you need a well-lit green screen to be able to project the virtual background evenly across the entire picture.
Last but not least, virtual backgrounds can be very distracting. If you choose a video as your background (with the possible exception of a fire in the fireplace) it will steal focus. No one will pay attention to you and your message. And the technical aspects of creating a virtual background that does not cut out part of your head or body are challenging. Your computer really needs to be accurately adjusted to make sure that you are physically fully in the picture (not missing your hair or ears or shoulders or whatever), and that you can move about freely without having part of you disappear.
In a future article I will go into further details about how to create a professional background that is inexpensive but very effective.
When you are holding a remote meeting, it is important that your audience be able to see your face clearly. This is not possible if you are using overhead lights for your lighting. Overhead lighting creates shadows which distort and hide our facial features.
Again, the goal is to help your audience be able to clearly and easily see your face–especially your eyes–without difficulty. We want them to be able to see your eyes, because all personal communication flows through the eyes. They are the gateway or mirrors to our thoughts. If your audience cannot see your eyes, they will assume that your message is not for them, and they will stop listening.
There are different ways of lighting your studio to create different effects, but for our purposes the most basic lighting can be easily done with 3-4 LED dimmable video lights (with softboxes or filters) or with 2-3 LED lights and one ring light (also dimmable).
One of these lights (either one LED or the ring light) goes in front of and slightly above your face. The other lights are there to light the room itself, using at least one of those to light the background. The overhead light should be turned off. Also, be careful that there is either no light coming from outside or make sure that the light from outside does not distort your lighting or your picture in the meeting and that it does not distract from you.
Again, we want your audience to be able to see you clearly. Therefore, it is essential to have a camera that will be able to stream at full HD (4K is wonderful, but the quality of the virtual platforms currently available cannot handle 4K). There are a lot of possibilities to choose from when it comes to cameras. You can spend thousands of Euros or you can use the camera on your computer or smart phone. It really depends both on your budget and on the quality of the cameras that you already have.
Several things to watch out for are 1. If you use your smart phone camera, make sure that the software used to connect the camera to your streaming software (Zoom, MS Teams, etc.) does not slow your bandwidth down. Also, 2. if you are able to afford more expensive DSLR cameras to stream with, make sure that the cameras you choose have a clean HDMI output. This will enable you to use the camera with other streaming equipment like the ATEM Mini Pro or ATEM Extreme.
In video, the sound is actually more important than the video. As listeners and viewers, we are more willing to tolerate bad video than bad sound. The reasons for this are many, but most pertinent is that auditory sensory perception and emotions are very closely connected. As soon as there is disturbance in the sound like echoing or crackling or anything, we become aggressive and impatient because it becomes physically uncomfortable for us.
Most built-in microphones are passable but not ideal for online meetings. They pick up not only your voice but the room (causing echoes) and any other sounds around you. Also, they are calibrated to pick up a larger range of frequencies and to compensate for different behavioral situations (i.e., the person speaking is relatively far away from the computer, etc.). This gives you an adequate but not ideal audio for your online meeting.
Far better is to invest the 150-200 Euros in a high-quality external microphone. If you would like to keep it simple and not need any other appliances on your desk, I highly recommend getting a USB microphone, like, for example, the Rode NT-USD or the Blue Yeti. If you would like to invest more, the sky is the limit. If you choose to get a higher quality microphone with an XRL connector, you will need a device through which the microphone can connect to your computer (i.e., Zoom PodTalk P4 or the Rodecaster Pro). Again, as with the cameras, you can have a very good quality for less money, or you can choose to go all out!
Once you have your studio set up, it’s time to get started! The most common mistake that I see participants in an online meeting making is that they don’t know where their camera is! Again, your eyes are the gateway to your soul, and they are the part of the body through which we communicate. Knowing this, why is it that so many people during a Zoom call or Teams meeting only look at their monitors with the grid of all of the participants?! When you look down to look at everyone in the meeting (and this is fine–if they are talking!), we cannot see your eyes. It is especially distracting if the display with the participants is off to the side!
We may cognitively know that you are looking at us, but subconsciously we think that you are ignoring us–simply because you are NOT LOOKING AT US! To give the impression of looking at us, know where your camera is and look into it. So, every time that you are speaking, you should be looking directly into your camera, not at the display with the people on the call. This is not an easy discipline to develop because it seems counter-intuitive, but it is essential!
Because participants in an online meeting can be more easily distracted than in person, it is even more important to create and communicate a clear structure and timeline for the meeting. They will be able to plan both their time and their needs around the structure you give. This reduces the number of times that people turn off their cameras and microphones so that they can quickly go do something else, and it enables you to plan enough breaks during the course of the meeting to reduce fatigue caused by staring at a computer screen all day.
Creating and communicating a clear structure and timeline also shows the participants of the meeting respect. By doing this you are communicating that their time is important to you and that you want them to fully be there while the meeting is going on.
Also, in creating the structure of your meeting, make sure that you include more frequent breaks than you would in an in-person meeting, and add time for each participant to “check in” and give feedback. This allows you to know how actively involved the participants are in the meeting (if they are getting tired or restless or if they are loving it!), and you can use this information to better plan future meetings.
Staring at a two-dimensional screen for hours on end can be very tiring, and it is difficult to stay concentrated over the course of several hours. Therefore, it is really important that you add as many interactive aspects and activities to your meeting as possible. Interactivity not only supports staying alert and active during the meeting, but it also enhances the absorption of information. Your participants or colleagues or customers will internalize the information you are giving much more quickly and deeply if they are allowed to be part of the process.
There are many ways to make the meeting more interactive. For one, you can use the chat function to encourage participants to ask questions or reflect on concepts that are being discussed. You can use the whiteboard function to bring in a visual medium for clarification, and you can use external programs, like Collaboard or Mentimeter, to create polls (there is also a polling function in Zoom) or word clouds or to check on how your participants are doing. You can also create breakout rooms so that the participants can discuss in smaller, more intimate groups how they feel about the topic or what new ideas may have come to them during the main discussion.
Last but not least, allow time before and after the meeting for networking. In this digital world in which we find ourselves, we need contact to others. Many are suffering from depression simply because they are not able to leave their apartment and have contact with other human beings. Allowing time before and after the meeting for small talk and networking will allow your participants to connect with others. This can be lifesaving. In addition, it will allow you to see how they are doing so that you can offer support or plan accordingly.
The challenges that we are facing in this digital age are not easy, but the potential is huge. As Richard Branson wrote in 2013, offices and office buildings will someday be a thing of the past. This means that this digital world in which we are finding ourselves now will be with us for years to come. Now is the time to optimize how you use online platforms to communicate your message, and to consider how you can use this medium to enhance and support your team for years to come.