Several weeks ago, I had an interesting experience while participating in a routine video call for work. I facilitated a call between a service provider and one of our company owners to review the overall performance of that vendor. During the call, we reviewed recent projects and achievements of the program while also asking questions to clarify the direction we should go in the coming months. When the video call ended, I immediately received a phone call from the vendor who was afraid her program was going to be cut from our company budget. During the video, she felt that her accomplishments were minimized and that the senior executive had threatened to eliminate the program. As we spoke, I tried to calm her fears, but I also realized that I wasn’t sure what emotions the leader wanted to convey. Upon ending the conversation with the vendor, I immediately picked up the phone to reach out to the executive who explained that what she had understood was in fact the opposite of his position. The program was doing well and would continue to be funded.
What did I learn from this experience? Even though we’ve had more than a year of working from home to perfect our video conferencing skills, we all miss the mark once in a while. Video adds a complexity to communication that we may be overlooking, and if we’re not intentional about correcting for these shortcomings, we fail to help others understand what we really mean.
Why is video different?
For decades, communications experts have indicated that only 7% of what we communicate comes from the words we use — what we say. The other 93% is attributed to nonverbal cues such as our tone of voice and our posture and gestures. While video helps win back some of what we lose when communicating at a distance, and it’s superior to a simple phone call, it does not fully replace the richness of interacting in person. The result is an environment that is fraught with potential misunderstandings like the one I experienced.
Improve your video call presence
It may go without saying, but effectiveness is more important than attractiveness during a video meeting. Your goal should be to maintain or even enhance your personal presence during web calls so that you enhance your ability to communicate with clarity and to get your job done. I’ve learned three strategies for enhancing the power of your presence on video: snuggle up to your camera, show your teeth, and say what you mean.
Snuggle up to that camera!
The way you interact with your camera may have the single biggest impact on your ability to effectively communicate on video. Even after a year of video conferencing, most of us still sit too close or too far away, are angled above or below the camera, and don’t clearly stand out from the background behind us. As you evaluate your own situation, consider the following:
- The optimal distance from the camera depends on both the size of your head and the quality of your camera. As a general guideline, keep in mind that viewers should see both your shoulders and head with some room to spare. While your face should dominate the picture, you don’t want to lose the context and appear to be floating without a body or neck.
- For the most realistic look, raise your camera to eye level. Moviemakers have known for decades that camera angles either elevate or diminish the importance of the subject. Faces shot from below look intimidating and threatening, and those shot from above seem less important and intelligent. Further, a downward camera angle causes your chin to recede and makes it harder for others to understand what you say. Eye level is best.
- Look directly at the camera — not your computer screen — when you speak. Be especially careful of the temptation to shift your focus to a second screen or your phone on the desk in front of you when others speak. While multitasking when physically together has become more acceptable, its effects are magnified when you are in the focus of a camera lens. Even worse, shifting your focus often treats your colleagues to a shot of the top of your head or a close-up of your ear — neither is flattering.
- Thanks to a host of funny videos online, most of us have figured out that we need to be aware of what’s present behind us when we’re on camera. Your best option will be a plain light or dark background that is not cluttered by busy wallpaper, bookshelves, or other distractions. A plain background allows you to take advantage of the background image option available in most web conferencing platforms. Be careful when selecting a background image, however, to choose one that is not distracting. The point is that you should be the star of this video!
A final note for those participating from office conference rooms: choose a seat that is close to the camera. The further away you are, the harder it is for others to see and understand your facial expressions and to distinguish your voice. Make it easier for your colleagues to understand your message by snuggling up to the camera.
Show those pearly whites!
We know that when we’re in person, we can make eye contact, lean toward a speaker, and smile to encourage them to comment and participate. In fact, for most of us, these are instinctive responses that subconsciously promote emotional bonding and healthy relationships. It’s important to note that many of these instincts don’t kick in when we’re interacting with technology rather than live human beings. That means we have to be intentional in our use of relationship-building cues.
This idea has showed up in an interesting way for me over the past year of video conferencing. I needed to learn a bit about stage makeup so that my facial expressions are clear and easy for other video participants to distinguish and understand. Even more interesting, I noted that I needed to show my teeth when I smiled, as a more subtle smile simply did not translate as a change in facial expression via video. Thus, I try to ensure I’m flashing my pearly whites periodically during a call to let folks know that I’m listening, engaged, and open to ideas. With some thought (and maybe a chat with a colleague you frequently interact with on video), you’ll be able to identify some things you can do to better convey your own emotions via video.
Say what you mean!
My last piece of advice is not just specific to web calls, but it becomes dramatically more important in that setting because of the parts of communication that we lose. Be sure that you say what you mean during a call. How? Without the ability to shake hands or clasp someone’s shoulder, they may not feel welcomed on a video call. If you’re glad to connect with someone, take a moment at the beginning of the interaction to tell them so. Comparing notes also becomes more difficult, so ensure clarity along the way, by repeating back what you understand the other person to be communicating and be the first to summarize the key points and action items at the end of a call. If you’re unsure of the overall tenor of an interaction, ask the other person to tell you what they’re feeling. In short, communicate, clarify, and confirm throughout a video call to close any potential gaps in your message or in understanding others. Alternatively, take a minute following a call to interact one-on-one with anyone whose message you may be unsure of.
Video calls are not going away Most experts say that work from home is here to stay for as much as 40% of the workforce. Virtually all knowledge workers will work remotely at least part of the time going forward. Thus, it is important that we master our video presence so that we can participate powerfully in meetings and enhance our ability to get the job done.