How to look more professional on Video meetings is a hot topic right now. There are thousands of online resources about it, and I found that they are all shit. Lets stop learning from boomers, and concentrate on YouTube and Twitch entertainers instead.
TLDR: Use better equipment, do speech exercises, be natural and cosy, do research.
Background & the obligatory COVID intro
So, we’ve been at home for about a year now. Not to be the bringer of bad news, but it’s still gonna take a couple of months for vaccines, and even when it does — don’t expect everything to go back to “normal”.
We might get back to the office, but video conferencing has now permanently been etched into our corporate DNA. Even my grandma has a cheap Android tablet with Viber for video calls. Our bosses, HR departments, teachers, even goverment clerks have gotten used to having video meetings.
Leveling up and noticing the problem
Regardless of COVID, I’ve worked with various remote teams for about three years. I didn’t pay it much attention at first, used whatever camera I had my hands on and whatever room I found myself in.
Those were usually teams that spoke my native language and knew eachother in person, the technical aspect of making a video call didn’t really feel like it made much of a difference. Everybody already knew what to do, so we could make jokes, be late, lay in bed or eat. Never gave it a second thought.
Soon, our pre-COVID backlog got cleared, and it was time to make a series of cross-team efforts to groom new tasks and new initiatives. Multiple teams working together is a whole different story. This is where GitLab’s Remote Work Manifesto became really useful in providing my teams encouragement in trying out new decisionmaking structures.
Now, we had a different set of people, presentations, sales calls, I had to get dressed every time. If faced with a C-level executive I even had to use a table. Sometimes we’d talk over eachother, or it got dark and I looked super-compressed, meetings often felt very long and tiring.
I joined a new company, and met a new colleague with a killer combo — A NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKER WITH A HEADSET MICROPHONE.
My god, the difference. I’d join the Zoom room and his angelic voice would caress me like David Attenborough himself whispering in my ear. Somehow he managed to never talk over others, always interject at perfect times, express himself in a clear manner. When he starts speaking, everyone listens.
I might not have the eloquence of Momus or the humour of Joe Armstrong at my side, but I’ve had my first PC in 1995, played online games eversince 2003, met my wife online and work for a company 1700 km away. There must be something I can over-analyse and optimise.
My friend Srx once told me a story about top-tier audio engineers in the 70s and 80s always having a car radio somewhere in their studios. That was the only authentic way to hear the compressed and muffled sounds coming from their target audience’s primary device.
I started recording calls from a second device, over 3G. Videos were very fun to watch and thoughts came pouring in:
- Weird camera angle
- I often stutter or use repeater words
- Where did that russian accent come from?
- Sometimes I’m talking but nothing comes out
- Also what about that fake smile or psycho eyes on minute 5
- Sometimes I sound as if wearing a facemask for no reason
- I prevented others from talking without realising it
- Also, wow, I have a double chin
Streamer Inspiration time
I wanted to see how the profesionals do this, and found a perfect balance of professionalism in Twitch. Looking at the setups and usage patterns in a variety of streamers like Hasanabi, EsfandTV, Asmongold, Madseasonshow, JinnyTTY and many others. This research inspired the whole setup, and here are the main conclusions:
- Get a better microphone like Madseason but try not sounding like him.
- Use a better camera or even a set of cameras like Esfand, Nmplol.
- Spice things up by looking more presentable like Tim, Hasan, Marques.
- Always show up. Not activating your video is very rude. Yes, even when you won’t be actively participating.
- It is not a sin to NOT look at the camera, they all know I’m probably browsing Reddit anyway, why hide it? Just look at Zack or Hasan, make the camera capture your pretty side iregardless of where the screen is.
- Using a filter or even a virtual avatar is completely fine, as long as it is in good spirit and doesnt bother others.
- Look at those esports speakers or DeepCuts, pronounciation is super important stuff. This takes practice but IS WORTH IT.
- Background does not need to be dull. Having a non-orthogonal perspective instead of a wall can make you become more alive. Especially so if you use a lens with a bokeh. A colourful bookshelf is better than a wall, but a room with a bookshelf, a sleeping dog and a coffee table is way better.
- Have some prepared presets for camera switches or zoom. Tricia and Esfand have 2 cams.
- Try not to have a window or other enormous source of light in the background.
- Sunlight is the best, if not, use an incandescent light bulb. More on this later.
- Prepare for the meeting by quickly going over any notes or your expected meeting structure. Also google diction exercises for speakers.
- Disable all Zoom’s post processing. More on this later.
- Take regular breaks.
- And finally, wipe that dirty camera lens regularly.
Don’t be afraid to ask for recess when you feel the need. Make regular bio brakes, behave like a tomato timer — every 45min you need a 5min break and a glass of water. We are all in the same boat and everyone will understand. In the beginning you might feel that making such a pause will distract some super productive meeting, but it won’t, that’s the basis of the Pomodoro Timer theory. You’ll just get even more creative!
A cat walking across the keyboard, or a dog vomiting on the carpet in the background are fun. Don’t be ashamed, behave naturally. We are all in the same boat. Your spouse telling you something from the background or walking around is not bad, embrace those moments, make them briefly smile and say hi to your coworkers. It might sound weird but everyone will appreciate it.
Be aware of the environment. Do not treat your house as a filming set. If you have a nice sunset happening, share it with colleagues. Do the same for them, if you notice something interesting in their background, ask them to show it to you.
At the same time, you do need to keep up the appearance of being clean and organized. A messy table, stained sirt, old food platter or greasy hair are bad. Duh.
Fixing my appearance — the camera story
The MacBook Pro’s 720p camera won’t do. The lens is simply bad and thats it.
I’ve briefly tried my friends Logitech HD cam, the super popular one. It was far worse than anything my iPhone could do, as well as being tougher to manage.
Coincidentally (¿fb is toootally not tracking me?) I saw an Instagram ad for a GorillaPod on a decent discount, so I went out and bought it. I attached my iPhone to it and found a nice, flattering height for the camera.
According to my wife who is aparently a pro at this stuff, camera should be either at eye level or slightly higher (unless you are: A using korean filters, B trying to get that innocent girl look, or C are super masculine). I put a bunch of books on the table, placed the contraption on those and tried it out. Height— somewhere between Hasan, Tim and Esfand.
The results were already better™. The the overall scene lighting was more natural and I my change in appearance was clearly appreciated by the other side. Prototype was a success.
Yet, the whole experience felt weird, it felt like trying to take photos on a musical concert, with your iPad. I had to touch the camera/screen/viewers all the time and couldn’t see them clearly, nor could I see any screen sharing that was happening.
Better camera time — Reincubate Camo
Advice itself worked, but the medium was bad. If I wanted to use the good camera on the back, I needed to set up the iPhone camera as my computer’s webcam.
As the first MVP I captured the iPhone screen via USB connection and QuickTime Player. It worked, but as I soon found out that theres an app for that — Reincubate Camo application for iPhone.
The Camo app allows you to tether the iPhone to the mac, and literally have a fully compliant webcam. No drivers no fuss. It works flawlessly, respects the rotation, the lens correction, all phone lenses, manual camera settings etc. I mostly use either the Portrait camera for its bokeh effect or the normal camera. The app is free to use, but if you decide to pay you do get a lot of very cool settings. Oh, also you support the developer, which is really nice and you should do it.
Back to the topic, now I looked way better than before. The image was super sharp, but most importantly I now had a camera lens that can properly deal with light. No more weird artefacts in the background, shadows under my eyes or orange skin under LED bulbs.
On the flip side, now everyone knows that I own a very furry Corgi and havent vacumed the floor in 24 hours. Or that my moustache is not nearly as full and manly as the potato-camera would have you beleive. That thing was so dark, furry and blurry that I instantly went from Tom Selleck to being more of a Charles Bronson lookalike.
Jokes aside, it went great, the new camera is truly a wonderous discovery, and I aint going back anytime soon. In fact, since then I decided to attempt an overkill scenario wherein I attached my Sony a6000 via the Elgato CamLink. Oh golly, what some propper lenses can do to your image is unbeliveable.
Anyways, the point I’m trying to make here is to use whatever you have around. iPhone, DSLR, Blackmagic, webcam. You needn’t buy, anything is better than the built-in stuff.
I soon started using OBS in order to have some image post-processing as well as effects, company logo, and different scenes for utility, for example SuperZoom or screen share. Not much to say on that front, go and search YT for some tutorials, its pretty easy. Again, as with the Sony camera, this is an overkill and there is no real need to do it for most people.
I am not a film school pro. Not by any measure. Here is some common sense I had picked up along the way. Use an incandescent light near yourself, just a normal lamp, no need for special setups. Use multiple smaller lamps instead of one that makes you eyebleed.
If you have a permanent setup, research how to do lighting positioning, people have written literal books on it. There is loads of 3minute youtube tutorials.
Warm LEDs are okay, but allegedly not as good. Here is a nice little article explaining my choise of incandescent bulbs. Consider it a poor-mans lighting setup. Costs nothing and works like a charm.
YouTube Lighting: Best Light Bulbs for Video Recording | DIY Video Studio
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Cleanliness is next to godliness
And finally, wipe that dirty camera lens regularly. There is nothing worse than you doing your best while everyone else in the call is wondering why is it so blurry or where did that gunk piece come from.
I always have some “rice paper” for lenses lying around, or use those non-alcohol glasses wipes. Heck use your cotton shirt if you have to, just get it done before every meeting.
Well, in retrospect, I should have done this one first. As everyone else would, I made the mistake of investing lots of time into how I look, instead of how I sound. We grossly underestimate the importance of good sound.
Now listen here, this is a very tricky part for me to explain. Most of it is based on your meeting mates subconcious gut feeling. Nobody is ever going to explicitly point out that “you have an echo” or “bass is too hard” or “we can hear your dog drinking water in the other room” — but they are going to subconciously feel all of that.
First off, you need a non-built-in mic. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Apple Earpods have the inline mic. While the mic is probably worse than the one in the MacBook, it is near your face and picks up your voice well.
Following the same logic you can easily conclude that my colleague with his Sennheiser gaming headset had a little mic on the side. Those are even better than Earpods because they pick up your voise really well. Even if you have a cool headset that has no microphone, there are little magnetic attachments with inline microphones. Its a small investment, not more than $ 20 but it pays off. Your voice now sounds super crisp and without any echo or background noise.
Keep in mind that bluetooth headphones have notoriously bad voice pickup. AirPods Pro are hilariously bad at it, the voice is so parsed that it sounds almost AI generated when compared to Earpods. Its simple really, microphones are miniature and hidden behind your face. Of course they can’t do the same job a real one can. Sorry.
My choice — Røde NT-mini
If you are like me tho, you wanted to go a little bit overboard. I got a sweet deal on a Røde NT-mini USB-c microphone. I mean, it is $ 80, but I was ready to shell out that amount of money. I’m at meetings a thousand hours per day, and this is how I make my money for the forseeable future, so it makes sense to make a one-time investment into the tools you use.
It is super easy to use and carry around, the sound is crisp, deep and clean unlike anything I’ve tried before. There is no need for a preamp, just plug in that USB.
Best of all (and I didn’t even consider this when I bought it) is the “Zero-Latency Monitor” output. Essentially an AUX port on the back of the mic that allows you to connect the headphones and hear your natural voice. Call it a “transparency mode”. I cannot emphasise the importance of this. Totally worth the money, I can sit at a meeting for hours, with my Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H4 headphones with their heavy leather pads, and my ears wont get warm at all.
It also solves a specific issue of automated echo suppresion — you start talking over someone else but nobody can hear you because your computer decided to cut you off to prevent echo.
Again, super important — you do not have to get a dedicated microphone. Anything will do, just spend 10minutes testing its position and OBS filters. Even the Earpods mic can go a long way if you do it right!
Zoom audio settings
In the end, Zoom brings a very important feature to the table. In the settings, you can disable all sorts of post-processing on Zoom’s part, and even turn on the “Original Sound” mode, which apparently sends out the original sound to the participants. For example if you play music over Zoom, it won’t get jabbled and compressed — same happens with your voice.
Thoughts on being a good speaker
I’m not. But I’m trying. This is a skill you learn over years, especially as a non-native language speaker. If you take a look at any eSports major league tournament, or even better, football or rugby speakers, pay close attention to the way they morph their faces into a giant megaphone. When they try to say something, they almost make a grimace. They always smile and always open their mouths all the way. Newscasters do the same thing. Once you see it, its so funny that you can’t unsee it. The LCS speakers look like fish grasping for air on dry land.
This takes practice but IS WORTH IT.
I quickly realized that I almost don’t move my lips at all. This makes me sound weird. It also subconciously discourages me from speaking up. It took some force and some getting used to, but nowadays I feel that I am much more passionate in expressing my thoughts on meetings.
There are lots of good diction exercises and it is completely normal to see actors or speakers on conferences preparing by performing those. They help quite a lot! The effect is almost instantanious.
One other common sense gotcha is to try and be concise. When we are face to face, it is often considered super positive if you are hyped up and talk a lot. In video meetings, its the same, of course, but the bar is set slightly lower. People get tired faster and you should keep an eye on the hype meters. I’m not saying that you should change your behaviour, but keep in mind that it is much harder for other people to interject or participate with body language or small sentences when on video. You are in your own echo chamber, so its super-easy to get carried away and get stuck in a 10minute monologue.
Here is my current technical setup… Good luck!