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Project Your Best Image in Virtual Meetings

Campus closures have forced a crash course in something that most events planners don’t really do—audio and video conferencing. After all, our business is creating ways to get people together, not working with technology to keep them separated. Our staff was sent home last week with a directive to download several types of virtual meeting software and be prepared to use it. But how?

The big dump of software we’ve received presumes that many of us are lots more tech-savvy than we actually are. Unfortunately, the always-helpful IT staff are overwhelmed at the moment as they struggle to convert entire universities to online entities practically overnight. Without them to call, we’re on our own. Besides setting up our computers, there is the problem of how to look and sound professional in this new realm. We’ve all been tortured by audio and video conferences and webinars that feature bad lighting and sound, presenters who don’t know how to look into the camera, and distractions caused by everything from poor preparation to the unanticipated realities of everyday life like when a famous author’s dog barked throughout her entire online presentation.

Learning how to use these technology tools appropriately involves not only mastering the software, it requires a shift in how we behave. If you’re like me, the mere mention of such things makes my eyes glaze over and my mind wander to my happy place. Nevertheless, we no longer have a choice so I asked my son, who is a professional in the entertainment industry and veteran of many television productions and large corporate meetings, for some pointers. Here are some of his tips to ensure you project a professional image.

For both audio and video conferencing:

Test your gear and know how to operate software before meeting time. Meeting software may need to be installed on personal computers, and workers are discovering that their home office tech may not be up to the job. Update operating systems and security software before installing university-provided software. Slow Internet speeds can also pose a problem.

Learn how to operate software before the meeting starts. Explore your new software and practice with it before meeting time by connecting with colleagues or friends for a dry run.

Designate a work space at home (preferably one with a door) and set rules for children who may be there with you so that they understand not to interrupt while you are on a conference.

Keep pets, especially dogs, confined so that if a barking alert happens when a delivery person approaches your home, other participants can’t hear the ruckus.

Be on time! Always be logged on and ready to participate at the meeting’s start time. Late participants are rude enough during in-person meetings, but are extra painful during virtual sessions. A large group of us waited 10 minutes on a tardy participant this week before finally giving up. If you can’t make the call or video conference, let the organizer know in advance.

 For video conferencing:

Position yourself so that the camera is at top center of the computer screen. When speaking, look into the camera, not at the video feed, otherwise you will appear to be looking down or off-camera. I was on a conference with a man who was sitting parallel to his computer. Not only was it hard to understand him when he spoke, we all got a thorough view of his ear for the better part of an hour.

Test your microphone to be certain clarity and volume are adequate. Also check that speaker volume and microphone level do not combine to create feedback. Using a headset will help avoid this problem.

Work in a room that has adequate lighting, preferably from side sources. Without good lighting, you will appear as an indistinct face emanating from a murky background. Or worse, if you are illuminated only by your computer’s monitor your image could be reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror film.

Check what’s behind you. Much like your desk or office at work, the scene you set communicates volumes about productivity, attention to detail, and professionalism.

Sit in front of a blank wall rather than in front of a cluttered bookcase or a display of family photos. Check your desk, too. It should be free of stacks of paper and things like coffee mugs.

Remember, we can see you. Dress as if you were attending the meeting in person, because you are! A professional appearance is still required. Pay attention and don’t work on other things during the meeting.

For audio conferencing:

Use a headset if at all possible. Headsets improve your voice quality, help you hear better, are lots more comfortable than holding your phone during long calls, and leave your hands free to take notes. Using a headset also makes it easier to quickly mute or unmute your phone.

Mute your speaker when you are not talking. Background noises are magnified by microphones and can be very distracting to others. Ceiling fans, clacking keyboards, pets, and children are not good meeting companions. This week, I was on a call during which one of the participants was obviously cleaning up her kitchen. Enjoying telecommuting on your back deck? That light breeze sounds like a hurricane to the other participants.

Don’t use your smartphone on speaker unless you are in a completely quiet place and remain very close so it can be unmuted quickly if you are asked a question. If you do choose to use the speaker, always mute the phone when you are not talking. 

Identify yourself each time you speak. This is especially important for large calls with people who may not know one another and definitely helps when someone is taking minutes.

Pause before speaking and don’t interrupt. During in person meetings, much of what transpires is the result of visual cues and body language. We lose that capability on audio conferences and this makes it difficult to not talk on top of each other. Multiple voices talking at once makes it very hard to understand what is being said. Suppress the desire to say “uh-huh” or make other affirmational comments while someone else is talking. A normal part of in-person meetings that may not even be noticed, these become distracting on an audio call and can obscure what the speaker who has the floor is saying. If you remember to mute your phone, this won’t be a problem.

When you are the moderator, remind people to mute before the call begins, control the pace, and don’t let any one person How dominate the conversation.

Take heart, hopefully we will soon be back in the world of real people gathering together at great special events to celebrate, discuss, learn, and have fun! But the reality is, this technology is finding its way into daily operations more and more frequently. It’s time to step up the game and embrace what the millennials already know. It really wouldn’t be a bad idea to develop some training and schedule regular video conferences to help us all look and feel confident while communicating with tech.