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Presence and Presentation – Personal Webcam Edition: The finer points of managing and optimizing your personal virtual presence

| April 21, 2020

by Chris Paquette

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Chris Paquette, Director of Survey Services at MOR Associates. Chris may be reached at [email protected].]

Future historians will point to this as the moment when COVID-19 profoundly and instantly transformed how we worked and interacted. Videoconferencing, previously a useful supplement to in-person meetings and teleconferences, has become the primary way professionals meet, and importantly, create personal, human connections. Attesting to this new reality, Zoom, the videoconferencing market leader of the moment, went from 10 million customers to 200 million in the past eight weeks.

Given that our webcam presence has essentially become “our presence,” managing and optimizing that presence is an essential skill that demands our very best attention. To ignore it is to limit our effectiveness and to leave how we are perceived to chance. This article offers advice to enhance your web presence.

Get over the artificiality of staging your presence.  Instagram influencers can be a source of annoyance because they can come off as preening, vain individuals who value appearance over substance and stage illusions of success and beauty. That same visceral reaction can create an impediment to wrapping our heads around managing our screen presence. However, as everyone in the MOR community knows, leaders are always on stage, so you best get over it. If it helps, it’s not about you, it’s about caring about the people you will be interacting with to provide them with an even more positive experience. Nobody wants to see your nose hairs, or gloomy lighting, or a side view of you seemingly paying attention to something else. No, they want to see your face well lit, looking directly at them and exuding positive energy.

You need a decent camera, and it needs to be positioned to make you look your best.  Most laptop cameras are well-suited for use as personal webcams, which makes sense, since that’s what they were designed for. Unfortunately, when used as intended, the camera is positioned too low and creates two problems: it looks past the bottom of your chin and up your nose, and it’s not possible to recreate the impression of looking directly into the viewer’s eyes. The simple fix is to elevate your laptop by placing it on a stable box, so the camera is level with the top of your head. This obviously complicates using your mouse and keyboard, so if you need to type and mouse a lot while you videoconference, and you’re stuck using your laptop camera, you should use an external keyboard and mouse.

Your best bet is to use a webcam with a tripod or holder to get it into the optimal position. This may be easier said than done since there has been a run on webcams, and their prices are double what they were pre-pandemic.  One popular choice is the Logitech C930e Webcam, which has optional software that allows you to zoom and pan (move left to right, up or down) your camera’s view.

Regardless of what camera you use, once you’ve positioned your camera about level with the top of your head, frame your image. The illustration below reflects broadcast television best practices. You can and probably should create different scenes with different framing, if for no other reason than to keep things interesting, but this type of framing should be your default.

Create the illusion of looking at the viewer; do not create the illusion that you have better things to do.  For added impact, look directly into the camera when speaking. Of course, this means you won’t be able to look at your fellow attendees.  Fortunately, there a technique to both look at attendees on screen and appear to be looking at them: with your laptop elevated or your webcam perched on top of your monitor, shrink the videoconference window and place the window so the image of the person you are speaking to is just below the camera. To the attendees it will look as through you are looking directly at them, even as you look at them on screen—and you will deliver a vastly more personal experience for the viewer. The exact opposite of this would be viewing the conference window on your monitor while your camera is off to the side, presenting the viewer with a side view of you. People who do this can be fully engaged in the meeting, yet look like they are surfing the web or doing other work.

You need to have excellent lighting.  The best camera in the world will be rendered useless by bad lighting, and the worst camera will be greatly elevated by great lighting. Think of lighting as makeup. It can enhance the lines of your face and brighten your surroundings. Bright lighting also maximizes the resolution of your camera, whereas dim lighting creates graininess. Whatever you do, never position yourself with a bright light source behind you. The light will be intrusive, you may end up as a silhouette, and it will be disconcerting for the viewer. Also, don’t position yourself with an excess of side light, especially if it washes out your image.

If your meeting space has lots of natural light that faces you, you’re in the lucky minority. Otherwise, you will need to add light, probably lots of it. At a minimum, you should have a bright light in front of you and positioned slightly higher than your head and pointing directly at you. If you’re committed to higher quality and have the room, Amazon sells a complete lighting kit, LimoStudio Photography Photo Portrait Studio 660W Day Light Umbrella Continuous Lighting Kit, for about $55 that will allow you to use the three-point lighting technique, “a standard method used in visual media such as video, film, still photography and computer-generated imagery.”  I have replaced the supplied bulbs and reflectors in mine with 100W 2700k LED spotlights to great effect.

If you’re using Zoom, think about selecting “Touch up my appearance” setting.  If you’ve been on a Zoom call and thought that one of your colleagues looked especially well rested or had put a bit of extra effort into their appearance, there’s a possibility they were using Zoom’s “Touch up my appearance” feature, accessible by clicking on the “^” symbol just to the right of the video icon at the lower left of the Zoom window. This feature smooths out your complexion and whitens your eyes and teeth. It’s not over the top, you will still be you, but you will look more refreshed. Just remember to turn it off if you are having a telemedicine session with your doctor!

You need a decent microphone, and you need feedback from others to know if your sound is okay.  Your options for microphones may include your laptop, webcam, or headset. Since there’s no way for you to hear how your sound is being delivered, consider making a practice of asking fellow attendees if your sound quality is okay, and definitely plan on testing your sound with others. If none of your existing options work well, you might have to buy a dedicated microphone, as audio problems can quickly ruin a meeting.

You need an appropriate background.  If you embrace elevating the production value of your virtual presence, it is only a small leap to manage your background. Perhaps you already have an attractive and interesting space that’s welcoming. If not, you could consider creating it. Alternately, if your videoconferencing solution allows for it, you can use a virtual background. Now that 200 million people are using Zoom, it has become vastly easier to find a wide variety of quality backgrounds on the web. If you use a virtual background, choose one with lighting that aligns with how you are lit and that is in keeping with the purpose and tone of your presentation.

You need an Internet connection that is up to the task.  This can be a challenge, especially if you are competing with the rest of your household for bandwidth.  Some considerations to maximize your bandwidth include using a wired Internet connection or being close to your wireless router to ensure a strong signal.

Feedback is a gift.  Looking for an honest review? Write to me, and I’ll arrange a quick Zoom session to offer you feedback on your virtual presence.