Video Conferences: The Ultimate NI Guide To Looking Professional

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From this to this: how to Zoom like a pro

When you take part in video conferences on the likes of Zoom or Skype, how do you look?   Do you project a strong, crisp, confident image, or a face in shadow, with an up-the-nose camera angle, window glare and scratchy audio?

You strive to be professional in every other aspect of your career, so don’t let your appearance in video conferences let you down. Especially not now, when you need to lead, impress, generate leads, close deals or even get that job.

Technology and video can be quite tricky sometimes, but if you do it right, it will work wonders for your credibility and authority. I’ve seen cabinet ministers, Stormont bigwigs, and local chief executives appear in video conferences looking amateurish on screen.

You can avoid looking unprofessional with a little bit of work. Our Ultimate NI Guide to video conferences will take you in easy steps from this:

Poor video conferencing images of man against window

To this:

Man on video conference in home office

All the photos of me in this article were shot in the same home office with the same lighting and taken within one hour of each other. And all were shot with either a laptop camera or an HD webcam. Covid Hair and all!

How video works for most people

Here’s how video works with most people. It’s pretty straightforward, not that different from real life.

In a nutshell, people will check you and your background out and if there are no distractions, they will then concentrate on what you have to say.

If there are distractions, like poor audio, bad lighting or weird angles, they will not properly engage or take you sufficiently seriously, and may even form other judgements about you.

This is the engagement cycle for virtual meetings:


Video conference lighting: how to get it right

Lighting is critical for video conferences – and the single biggest mistake you can make is to have the light source behind you.

Even pro cameras will struggle if you plonk yourself in front of a window, but smartphones, tablets and others just can’t cope; they’re programmed to seek out and focus on the light. Which is why you appear like I do in the window shot above.

The simple trick of facing the light source, for example, the window in this case, changes everything. This is me in exactly the same position as the shot above, but with the chair swivelled around 180 degrees to put the window in front of me, allowing its natural light to fall straight on to me.   (I’m still looming ominously over the camera, though.)

Pro tip 1: If your home office doesn’t have a window, or the window is in the wrong location, a cheap ring light might be the solution. We’re currently testing some ring lights and other home lights; get in touch if you have lighting requirements.

Light source: those shadows definitely won’t flatter you

The other thing is the way the light falls on you. Wrongly-angled light will cast unflattering shadows that make you look tired or older. After light behind you, the next worst is light falling on you from above. This will exaggerate bags under eyes, jowls, wrinkles, blemishes, etc.

But light that falls from one side or the other can also cast strange shadows and create an unflattering or even sinister appearance. Try to get the light in front of you, or if possible, create your own lighting conditions.

This is me in the same place, and with the same lighting, but with a 90-degree turn from the window. Note the unflattering shadows.

Man video conferencing with light source from side

Use your camera properly… and think about a better one

First off, look directly at the camera during video conferences.  Some people get irritated when the speaker is looking off into the distance instead of into their eyes (direct personal engagement).

It can be a bit off-putting at the start, but try and look into it most of the time you’re speaking.  It’s worth it for that added personal engagement with your colleagues. You don’t have to gaze into the camera all the time, but certainly, most of it whilst talking.

Angles are also key to looking like a pro in video conferences. Get your camera up to eye level to avoid those up-the-nose shots (see below) or to stop you appearing to be quite literally talking down to people. This is really important, too.

Consider using a proper webcam for video conferences

Raise your game significantly by using a separate webcam plugged in via a USB port – and if you’re on a traditional desktop set-up you’ll likely need one of these to make video calls at all other than through your phone.

Woman on video call with webcam on monitor

Webcams can cost anything from £40 for a decent one to £200 for a really good model.  I use a Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam – it’s pushing on a bit in age these days, so you can pick one up for £45 on Amazon. The latest all-singing version will set you back circa £200, but you really don’t need that. They have lots of choices in-between

What are the advantages of using a separate camera for video conferences?

Well, there are loads. These are just some:

Pro tip 2: Advanced users can use a two webcam set-up. This is helpful for demos – so, for example, for an art class, you can show both the painter in action and close-ups of brushstrokes or other techniques.

This is me on the laptop camera:

Man on zoom video conference using laptop camera

versus me on the webcam:

Man on Zoom video conference using Logitech webcam

To be fair, the camera on my Mac laptop is pretty good and better than most Windows laptops, so yours might not shoot as well as this. The webcam is set to wide-angle but can be cropped in to eliminate the door, etc.

Now we’re actually getting places. Let’s talk about your background options.

Video conference background: give it depth and interest

In virtual meetings, your background is really important – it is in effect your set and gives further clues as to who you are.

Man on Zoom conference against a close blank wall
Man on Zoom conference illustrating depth of background
Man on Zoom conference with Golden Gate Bridge virtual background

More pro tips

Pro tip 3: The virtual background feature works best if you set up a green screen behind you. You can even get virtual backgrounds with movement; waves lapping beside a palm tree, etc. Or upload your own photo. The craic is always good when you land in a meeting with a fancy backdrop, even if it is a bit fuzzy around the edges without the green screen. You can simply switch the virtual background off mid-meeting with two mouse clicks.

Pro tip 4: Some platforms will let you blur your background so people can only see a fuzzy outline of your background and not the actual detail. Do this is you have a messy room, distracting situation or where confidential stuff might be visible. Like this (note to self: don’t look so grim…):

Man on video conference using Skype blur my background feature

Pro tip 5: Most platforms will also allow you to dial in with audio-only. This can be a useful function because you can listen in, yet still see shared screens, use the chat function, etc.  Officially, it’s great if your internet connection is weak – but unofficially it’s brilliant in large, more anonymous meetings or webinars where you can do something else at the same time. I painted that office back wall during a webinar. Don’t use in a situation where you might get caught!

Support your device – don’t hold it

It’s really important that you find a way to support your device. This is for two reasons:

There are many workarounds, from amateur to pro to solve these issues, but solve them you must.

Apart from the webcam option, you could prop your laptop up on a pile of books, or you can buy smartphone or tablet stands. Search online for “Gooseneck phone holder”, for example – these will clip to your table and are very adjustable.

Clothes and make-up: you are what you wear

Don’t dress up too much – and equally don’t dress down too much. A good rule of thumb for work video conferences is: go one level down from what you’d wear at the actual office.

Photo of two people on a Zoom video meeting

So, if you’re a jacket and tie person normally, try a button-up shirt.  A business jacket and blouse can be replaced by a smart casual blouse. If you’re a T-shirt and jeans person in the office, then T-shirt and jeans it is for video conferencing – but don’t drop below that standard into, say, jogging bottoms and vest.

Avoid patterns and fussy clothing: we’re writing up a full post on what to wear for video and it will be published soon.

Some video secrets

Pro tip 6: Many men in TV use tinted moisturiser filled with make-up pigments – it makes the skin tone appear more even, but without that make-up look

Pro tip 7: Some platforms have special Touch Up My Appearance software than smooths out wrinkles and skin blemishes and adds a slight make-up look

This is me on Zoom without touching up:

Man on Zoom video conference with no touch up of appearance

And with Touch Up My Appearance – not so noticeable here, but it is on a bigger screen:

Man on Zoom video conference using Touch Up My Appearance option

Your audio: how to improve it

Generally, if you’re at home and the room is quiet the audio should be ok. Tinny perhaps on phones, tablets and laptops, but at least ok.

You can improve it with a good webcam, or a plug-in extra mic. A mic allows you to get the mic close to you which boosts your voice, makes it sound more natural and can remove unwanted ambient noise.

You could wear earphones with a built-in microphone. This means other people’s voices are in your ear and not out of a speaker, and some – not all – people find they can interact better with this set-up. It can also help with ambient noise. A downside is it can pick up breathing and coughs, and also that it may pick up sound as it scrapes against your clothing.

Pro tip 8: If you’re doing a moving demo, a radio mic is the job. Sennheiser and others are brilliant and last for years but are expensive. Depending on your requirements, there are cheaper brands on the likes of Amazon, and smartphone-compatible radio mics are now available.

Getting pro-quality audio can be tricky – we’re happy to help.

Treat it seriously – it’s your livelihood after all

Once you have your new video conference set-up with its better lighting, camera angles, background and more – test it out. Arrange a video call with a friend, and get them to send you a screengrab of the setup so you can run your eye over it.

Then for every video conference after that, treat it as seriously as you would a real face-to-face conference. Be on time, or even better, early. And be au fait with how to operate the particular platform – don’t leave learning the ropes till the last minute.

Act as if you’re in an actual meeting – don’t doze off, fiddle with your phone, reply to emails, etc. Only do this if you’re sure it’s acceptable (for example, in a very large group or webinar).

Pro tip 9: At least one video conferencing platform, and probably more, has an attention tracker which notifies the meeting convenor when participants move away from their seats. It’s because the camera goes out of focus.

Which video conference platform is best for you: Zoom, Skype or others?

We’re preparing a SmartVideo Ultimate NI Guide Series post on which video platform is best for you.

Most have good features, like Blur My Background and Touch Up My Appearance – but none has all the good features in one package, so it’s important to know which is best for you.

Security can be an issue, too, and we’ll also have a post soon on how to secure your Zoom chats and other platforms. We’ll do one on video interviewing, too, for you job hunters out there.

Video conferences are here to stay, so the better you can do it, and the more professional you look, and the better for everyone.

* Paul Connolly is managing director of SmartVideo Ltd and Smart3D. If you want help with a professional video set-up, get in touch and we’ll sort you out.