Stop Doing Video Conferencing Wrong

We’re stuck with video chats. Can we please follow some simple rules?

We’re not going back to the office. Not this summer and maybe not even this fall. 2021 is a toss-up. Even when we get back into the office, all-hands meetings with dozens of people squeezed in cheek-to-jowl are probably over.

Illustration of various bad strategies for videoconferencing.
Lifewire / Joshua Seong

This is our new normal and part of it is video conferencing with coworkers, family, and friends. We live a good portion of our daily lives in little squares, struggling to maintain eye contact and not look like we’re glancing down at the phone in our laps or at Price is Right playing on the TV just behind our laptop screen.

Even after months of doing this, we’re still terrible at it. Personally, I’m sick of it. We need to up our game. Buckle in for some real-talk tips.

Zoom Call
Saturday Night Live did an excellent job of lampooning myriad video conferencing fails. Zoom Call / Saturday Night Live

Beware Video Neck

Look, I don’t know if you have a double chin in real life, but on Zoom you have a triple chin. This is because you sit on the couch, put the laptop on your lap (I know, “lap” is in the name, but it’s intended optionally not literally), and then stare down into the webcam on the top edge of the display.

Obviously holding the laptop up to eye level is not practical. Instead, I suggest walking over to a desk, kitchen, or dining room table, placing a shoe box on it and then setting your laptop on top of that. This will put the webcam at or near eye level. Sit up straight and, just like that, your triple chin disappears.

Woman on conference call
Don't let this be you. Getty Images

I Love your Ceiling Lamp

 The same camera angle that turns you into a gargoyle also shows off the least attractive part of your home or home office: the ceiling. I swear, it’s like people have never watched a movie or television show. How often does the camera put the subject in the bottom fifth of the screen?

Do all you can to level the webcam so it’s pointing at a 90-degree angle to the nearest wall. Now position your head in front of that camera. If you can fit two or more of your heads on top of yours, you have too much head space above you.

Prince of Darkness

I was on a Zoom call in which one participant put a dresser drawer behind his head in a failed attempt to block the klieg-light-level of illumination coming from the window behind him. In the end, both his face and the drawer were in utter darkness.

The point of being on video is that it’s a visual medium. Make sure people can see your face. I do not care if your most comfortable seat is in front of your biggest window, find another place to sit so that you are facing the sunlight. Your other option is to shine a bright light directly on your face. Most of us do not have an Instagram influencer ring lamp, but any desk lamp will do.

Welcome to the Grand Canyon

Video meetings and virtual birthday celebrations are tough enough (all that cross talk and awkward silences where we all stare into the abyss wondering who will speak first) without your terrible audio quality. Microphones on laptops, in particularly, do little to reduce room echo.

So many Zoom meetings feature someone sounding as if they’re communicating from the basement where they’re being held hostage in a tin box.

According to my own entirely unscientific study, approximately 25% of every video call features someone freezing because their Internet connection tanked.

Grab your echo-vaporizing earbuds and plug them into your laptop, tablet, or phone or, better yet, use Bluetooth headphones. You’ll finally hear what everyone is saying, and they will be able to hear you, too.

Also, you know all those dirty looks you’ve been getting from family members who are unwilling participants in your sonic escapades? They’ll disappear when, thanks to headphones, no one else can hear your video conferences.

Welcome to My Crib

Lance Ulanoff
Probably overkill for your video conferencing, but do notice that I'm dressed appropriately, have no bright back light, and the phone is on a tripod. Lance Ulanoff

Thanks to video conferences, I have seen my fair share of bedrooms. Stop it. This is your private space. Take the meeting to the kitchen, den, or home office. If there is no other place to conduct the call, for heaven’s sake, make the bed and put away that pile of clothes in the corner.

If possible, choose a pleasant background. Not ugly curtains or sinks full of dishes. A bookshelf with books (even if you’ve never read any of them) is always nice.

You…Break..g…Up

According to my own entirely unscientific study, approximately 25% of every video call features someone freezing because their internet connection tanked.

This is not always your fault, but I don’t think most video chat participants are doing all they can to insure a decent connection. A wired ethernet connection is usually not possible, especially for those conducting calls in the middle of, say, the kitchen. On the other hand, most home broadband and Wi-Fi connections are more than capable of handling the standard Zoom call.

Do not imagine, though, that home Wi-Fi is akin to filling your home with 10,000 gallons of water where the water level is equal in every part of the home. It’s more like an uneven lava flow. Some spots are piled high, while in other spots you can still see the floor. I think humans have the unerring ability to identify the place in their homes with the weakest Wi-Fi and use it for their video conference.

Learn about the quality of your Wi-Fi by running a bunch of Speed Tests in all corners of your house. You’ll find the strongest signal (which I hope is not in the bathroom) and can conduct your calls from there.

Alternatively, you can buy a mesh network system to spread your Wi-Fi network more like water.

That’s Not an Earthquake

Stop holding your phone or laptop in your hand. Put the laptop on a flat stable surface, prop the tablet up against something, and consider putting your iPhone on a small desktop tripod.

So What

There are countless other tips like using landscape video, muting notifications, combing your hair, wearing pants, and never ever, ever, taking your device to the bathroom during a video chat, but you get the idea.

It’s gonna be a while before we get some real face time. I suggest you take video chats and conferencing seriously. Otherwise, I can’t take you seriously.