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Lights, camera, Zoom: How to take your virtual meetings to the next level

Experts share best practices on professional presentation


Never take your audience for granted while public speaking, writes Evert Akkerman. (Ridofranz/Getty Images)

When the COVID-19 pandemic first turned video calls into the prevailing platform for social interaction, there was a voyeuristic thrill to peering inside people’s homes in all of their poorly lit, pixelated and bare-walled non-glory.

But in the months since Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video chats became a facet of daily life, new standards have been set for virtual presentation, prompting people to consider how to best frame themselves on a computer screen.

The Canadian Press asked experts for tips on how people can take their video calls to the next level by upgrading their production skills, digital manners and background decor.

If you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it on camera

While the shift from the boardroom to the Zoom room has given rise to a new digital etiquette, many of the rules of in-person decorum still apply, says Carolyn Levy, president of technology for human resources consultancy Randstad Canada.

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For example, she said most professionals wouldn’t check their emails, get some work done or talk to a colleague in the middle of an office presentation, but such attention slips have become all too common online.

“The rule of thumb is (if you wouldn’t do it) when you were in person, don’t do it if you’re virtual.”

Eye contact is crucial to virtual communication, Levy said, so participants should look directly into the camera when talking, and turn their gaze to the speaker’s window to show they’re listening.

Levy said hosts can help prevent digital faux pas by establishing expectations in their meeting invites, such as whether cameras should be on and when to use the mute button.

She also urged attendees to check their setups before they click to join a meeting to avoid technology-related mishaps.

Lights, camera, Zoom

Cinematographer and photographer Gary Gould says all it takes is a few simple steps to put yourself in the best possible light on your next video call.

The Ryerson University professor said one way to show your best angles is to put your laptop on a stack of books so the camera is at eye level.

Gould suggested people position themselves as if they were posing for a “passport photo” — your face should take up most of the frame, but leave some space around your head and shoulders so it doesn’t seem claustrophobic.

Placing yourself close to the camera has the added benefit of ensuring that your laptop’s microphone can pick up the sound of your voice when speaking at full volume, said Gould.

While a little sunshine never hurts, Gould warned that having a window in the back of your shot will likely obscure your face in shadows. He said the issue can often be fixed by turning the camera 180 degrees.

He also recommended arranging your desk lamps so the light is shining toward your face, noting that warm-coloured bulbs such as LEDs tend to be the most flattering.

Learn from the pros: YouTubers and video-game streamers

Kris Alexander, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s media school, warns his students that it takes more than an impressive resume to win a position. In the Zoom marketplace, Alexander says, “your camera feed is a job interview.”

For tips on professional virtual presentation, Alexander encourages people to turn to those who have built lucrative livelihoods based on at-home digital production — the stars of YouTube and the video-game streaming platform Twitch.

“Currently, we are all in competition with Twitch streamers and YouTubers, whether we want to believe it or not,” said Alexander, a video games researcher and Twitch streamer.

Thankfully, these video gurus have uploaded their secrets in tutorials on lighting, sound, colour correction and graphics, often using tools that can be found in your own home, said Alexander.

“The beautiful thing about it is it starts with you,” he said. “It starts with what technology you have available to you.”

You should be the focal point of your video call

Toronto interior designer Nike Onile says the background for your video calls can serve as a palette to show off your esthetic tastes, but the centrepiece of every Zoom room should be the same.

“You want you to be the focal point,” said Onile, founder of the spatial design studio Ode. “The backdrop should be subtle enough that you still remain the thing that people are looking at.”

You don’t want to compete for your audience’s attention by overwhelming the frame with cluttered walls, contrasting loud colours or busy patterns, said Onile.

She suggested adding a large piece of art, curtains or a plant to liven up a plain background and create dimension. Decor with uniform, repetitive patterns, such as a bookcase, is also visually engaging without risking distraction, she said.

Onile said video call users should also consider how their outfit fits into the frame. Wearing black against a dark backdrop can make you seem like a floating head, she said, while clothes that contrast with the colour of the wall can help you pop onscreen.

There’s nothing like a personal touch

Jessie Bahrey of Port Moody, B.C., and her partner, D.C. politico Claude Taylor, have established themselves as the reigning connoisseurs of video-call backdrops as the minds behind Room Rater, a Twitter account that has racked up more than 350,000 followers by scoring the setups of at-home news segments on a scale out of 10.

Bahrey said Zoom rooms with a personal touch tend to earn higher points than those with professional-grade production.

She said media figures can show a more relatable side of themselves with details such as sports jerseys, political messages, meaningful quotations, family heirlooms and children’s artwork. Some even shake up their set dressing with hidden symbols, she said.

Bahrey said simple knick-knacks can serve as conversation starters that help people feel more connected on video calls, even when they can’t be in the same room.

“I think working from home is going to be the new norm,” said Bahrey, who works at a greenhouse. “So people better get their rooms ready.”