How to be less awkward on Zoom calls: 11 tips

Tired of looking at yourself on screen? Aren't we all? Consider these tips to ease the pain and polish your remote work image
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Pulling off video calls with panache can be an art. But there's significant science to it as well. Most of us were thrown into the virtual meeting deep end with little instruction on how to best present ourselves. However, there are some best practices you can employ to feel more confident and sharpen your Zoom image.

"It's not a matter of vanity – it's a matter of showing respect for your conversation partner."
"You are much less likely to feel awkward on Zoom if you know you are showing up looking and sounding your best," says Karin Reed, broadcast journalist turned executive coach and co-author of Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings. "It's not a matter of vanity – it's a matter of showing respect for your conversation partner(s). You want to make it easy for them to receive your message. If you have crackly audio or you are sitting in shadow, you will not be able to effectively communicate."

How to prepare for Zoom calls and remote meetings: 11 tips

Making sure you come off well via video conference is largely in the preparation. Turning on your camera will not transform you into an effective virtual communicator, says Reed. It's important to attend to what Reed calls your "personal production value": audio, video, background, and framing. Also key is taking steps to make sure you're connecting with those on the other side of the WiFi connection. Ultimately, what you want to do is emulate a great broadcaster.

Consider these tips to ­– at the very least ­– look and feel a little more polished for your next Zoom.

1. Study your favorite broadcasters

"If you have to be on camera, the best way to see what is truly camera ready is by watching the news," says Cynthia Watson (formerly Spraggs), CEO of Vitira and author of a book on how to work from home. "When reporters bring people on for live interviews, here's what you see: Most are using a ring light and they may have a webcam on a tripod at eye level. Their monitor serves as their teleprompter or gives them an ability to check facts while looking directly at the camera. What are they wearing that looks good? What impact are you trying for?"

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

2. Arrange yourself for front lighting

"While video allows you to provide some nonverbal cues, you are limited by the size of the screen, so you want your facial expressions to be as easy to read as possible," Reed says. "That means making sure your face is well lit. If you can face a window, that is often the best option." Investing in a ring light is another solution.

3. Be aware of your frame

"Most people tend to sit too far from the camera which makes it difficult for people to see your expression," says Andy Atkins, practice leader with at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications (recently acquired by global strategy consultancy BTS)

Think news anchor. "Adjust your camera so that your head and shoulders fill most of the frame. At the top of the frame, it should appear that there's about an inch of space above your head, and the bottom of the frame should be below your shoulders at your armpits."

Aim for your webcam to be at eye level. This may mean you have to elevate your laptop on a box or stack of books. "If you have an external webcam, consider mounting it on a small tripod to achieve the same goal," says Reed. "If you put it on top of an external monitor, often the camera will be too high and you'll look like a little kid asking a parent for permission."

4. Reconsider your audio

"The acoustics in your room impact how you sound on a video call," says Reed. "Your built-in laptop microphone might be just fine, but if you have hardwood floors, high ceilings and no curtains on your windows, the sound might bounce around and make your voice come across as hollow or echo-y. Headsets, earbuds, or headphones may offer a fuller sound that also blocks out background noise.

[ Does remote work leave you exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

5. Say something about yourself by using objects

"Think about what you want people to know about you and put that in your background."

While you may wish to avoid having personal or family photos in view, depending upon your privacy concerns, some personal items can humanize you. "Books, kids art, musical instruments – things that say something about who you are. Think about what you want people to know about you and put that in your background," Watson says. "We have a champion surfer who is big into music and her surfboard and guitars are visible in the background. It creates instant connection."

But don't overdo it, says Atkins. "It's fine to have a couple personal items in view but eliminate anything in the background that could be distracting. You want others on the video call to pay attention to you, not to the knickknacks behind you."

6. Use your tools

If you are running a large call, make sure you're using the voting buttons to request a turn to speak and give people time limits. "This looks way more professional than a free-for-all," says Watson.

[ How are leaders prioritizing as they craft a model combining remote and office work? Read also: Hybrid work model: Qualcomm IT, HR execs share 6 priorities for leaders. ]

7. Make appropriate eye contact

Remember that to look at others on the call, you must look at the camera, not at them. This is a tough one in a big virtual meeting, but use the technology to help you. Try to position the speaker (or someone else in a larger meeting) as near to your camera lens as possible. If your video platform allows you to eliminate self-view, take advantage of the option. "Since we naturally are drawn to look at ourselves, removing this distraction will help you maintain appropriate eye contact," says Atkins. Remember though, you needn't stare at the camera every second. "We don't maintain eye contact that way in person," Atkins says.

8. Transmit energy

"You have to change your mindset. The camera is the conduit to your conversation partner," says Reed. "Focus not just your eyes, but your energy through the lens, in order to truly connect with the person or people on the other side. Otherwise, you will just look like you're being held hostage by the camera lens."

9. Perform a spot check

Once you've made some tweaks to your environment, take a selfie of you and your background from your device and examine it, advises Watson. Is it distracting? Does it look like something is sticking out of your head? Adjust accordingly. "Curate that window into your world by removing anything that might pull focus," Reed says. "You can have chaos just off screen and no one will know."

10. Be an active meeting facilitator

When verbally interacting with virtual participants, use their names to address them. "This not only pulls that participant more into the meeting but identifies that participant to others," says Donna Steffey, president of Vital Signs Consulting.

Actively leading the meeting – paraphrasing comments, calling on people, periodically referring to the agenda noting what's been accomplished so far and what remains to be addressed – creates a more dynamic virtual meeting, says Dick Axelrod, who along with his wife Emily co-authored Let's Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done.

11. Consider training

If you're still feeling unsure, consider investing in some training. Video meetings aren't going anywhere. "Make it a priority to get really good on video," Elizabeth Freedman, Elizabeth Freedman, executive advisor and head of consulting at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications. "Communicating on camera requires its own set of skills and attention to body language, eye contact and presence. Recognize that your audience will be multi-tasking…so figure out how to facilitate differently and ensure productive conversations."

[ Want to make more thoughtful decisions? Get 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.