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man in front of laptop attending a virtual business meeting

3 Tips to Help Make Virtual Meetings Work for You

Before COVID, when I taught effective speaking at Concordia University’s Continuing Education department, I dedicated 30% of the semester to virtual presentations. I recall mentioning to my classes how I could not understand why virtual presentations and meetings were not part of the daily business norm. The technology had evolved to a point where it was relatively straightforward to set up and was stable. Yet business people were still content, out of habit,  to travel hours by car or plane to attend a 2 to 3 hour meeting when a virtual meeting would have saved the time of the individual, saved the company the expenses of the travel/lodging and saved the planet by reducing the carbon footprint. I also recall predicting virtual meetings would eventually become commonplace in business. My rational at that time was as our concerns for the environment escalated and when corporate initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint would become top of mind, virtual meetings/presentations would finally become a regular occurrence. 

The pandemic has catapulted virtual meetings in today’s business environment as a necessity and staple of daily life. Regardless of the position you hold within your organization, chances are you have attended your fair share of virtual meetings. One of the challenges of virtual meetings vs. in-person meetings is the reduced opportunity to interpret body language through a computer or phone lens. It is also more difficult to build trust and credibility in a virtual environment. If you are feeling that you are not being taken seriously, or not being viewed as credible and trusted, then this blog is for you.  I am going to share 3 simple tips to improve your virtual presence, credibility and trustworthiness for your next virtual engagement.

Your Setting:

Have you ever visited someone’s office that is a complete disorganized mess with papers and files thrown everywhere on the desk, chairs, shelves and any other surface that will support clutter? What was your first impression of that person? It most likely was not a favourable one. What was your first impression of a person whose office was well organized with no clutter, papers or files exposed on the desk, shelves or chairs? I will bet that the first impression of this person was much better than the former.

The same first impressions can be made with a person’s virtual background. It is important to ensure that what exists behind you will not be a distraction to other virtual meeting members. Also try to select a place where your background is stationary and there is little chance for random movement of family members, pets or other colleagues that will instantly distract your audience from you. Be attentive to what props are in the background. Could they be offensive to others? For example, if you have your favourite football team’s logo or jersey hanging in the background, not everyone will share your choice of team and your level of enthusiasm. Keep the background professional and tasteful.

As far as incorporating the standard virtual backgrounds services like Zoom offer, I am suggesting you stay away from them. The only acceptable one is the “Blur” background effect which puts your background out of focus. If you have created a branded background then that may be acceptable. Always remember to incorporate good taste.

Lighting:

For virtual meetings, the lack of attention to proper lighting is glaring (pardon the pun). If you are in the office environment, the fluorescent lighting above your head will age you by at least ten years. If you are operating out of your home, chances are you are sitting near a window or under the dining room light. This will cause issues with overexposed areas of your face which are not flattering.  

If you are meeting virtually from your home environment, windows and daylight can provide very good even lighting. What you need to be attentive to is the level of light coming through the window at different times of the day. For example the morning sunlight between 9 and 11 could be shining brightly through your window and create areas of your face or body that are overexposed. The afternoon light may be perfect in that same position. Also keep in mind the changing seasons and the position of the sun. In winter months, the sun is lower in the sky if you live in Canada and the sun rays coming into the window could be too strong. 

If you plan to use a window for lighting, make sure you are fully facing the window. Do not place yourself with the window on your right or left side since that side will be overexposed. Face the window head on and place your laptop, phone or camera between you and the window. This will provide the best and most even lighting. One thing is for sure, do not position yourself with your back to the window. Webcams and phone cameras will focus on the brightest source of light and this means you and your face will no longer be in focus.

Another lighting alternative whether for your office or home would be an LED ring light. Most come with a dimmer so you can increase or decrease the intensity of the light to get the best and most even light on your face. The price range varies however I suggest you purchase a 12 or 18 inch diameter ring light if your budget permits. This will provide an even light and will eliminate the risks associated with relying on daylight from a nearby window.

Camera Lens Level & Eye Contact

While I have left this topic to the last, it is by far the most important. The first part is the placement of your camera lens in respect to your eyes. Most people meeting from their home office use a laptop. Chances are they are at a home office desk or dining room table. The lens on the laptop screen is several inches lower than the person’s eyes. So the laptop screen is pushed back to enable the lens to capture the face of the person. What it also does is give the impression the person is looking down at their virtual audience. It portrays a level of arrogance or superiority which may not be what you wish to impress on your virtual meeting counterparts. 

Raise the lens so it is at eye level or just slightly higher. In real-life meetings, you would meet people in an office or board room and you would be at eye level. This portrays the feeling of openness and willingness to engage and connect. You want to create that same level of feeling with your virtual presence. You may need to place a small table under your laptop or several books under your computer so the lens is at eye level or just slightly higher. If you are working on a desktop computer, the lens may be at the top of the stationary screen. In this case, you may need to raise your seat or place some books or pillows between you and your seat to raise your position so you are at eye level. Having the camera lens higher than you puts you in a position that most people do with their phone when they take a selfie. It makes you look smaller, more child-like and thus your comments and suggestions may not be taken with a level of respect and authority that you would prefer.

Build Trust: Finally, in order to build trust with your audience in a virtual setting you must make eye contact. In a real-life setting, when you communicate with anyone, eye contact conveys trust, confidence, focus and engagement. The challenge with virtual meetings is that when someone speaks to you or you are speaking to someone, you tend to look at their face on the screen. This is natural since you are looking for cues in their facial expressions as you communicate. The challenge is from their side of the screen, your eyes are looking not directly at them but slightly away. Subconsciously this conveys deceit, lack of trust or the attempt to hide something. You must look your virtual counterparts straight in the eye for the majority of the time. This means you need to make the camera lens your focal point. It helps to highlight the lens area with some colourful markers or small arrows to help remind you that you should be focusing on that little black circle. It is difficult to resist concentrating on the screen and the faces of your audience however remember your purpose is to connect, build trust and establish credibility. One advantage of a virtual meeting situation is when you do train yourself to focus on the camera lens when you speak or being spoken to, you are looking directly into everyone’s eyes at the same time. This can be very powerful when you address everyone in the meeting. 

It seems virtual meetings are here to stay for now and for the future. While I always commented to my classes at Concordia that this day would come, I never imagined it would take a pandemic to change people’s habits and preferences. There will always be the need to meet with people face to face. However we are now accustomed to communicating in a virtual environment and the advantages of saving time, money and the environment will ensure that virtual meetings will only be a mainstay with all organizations. Make sure you are putting your best foot forward during any virtual meeting by adopting these three simple strategies for your next virtual meeting. You will be pleased with the impression you start making.

Author:  M. J. Plebon – Online Marketing & Communications Specialist at Communication-IMPACT
M. J. teaches social media and effective speaking at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He also operates his own boutique online marketing agency Communication-IMPACT and can be reached at mj@communication-impact.ca

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