12 Tips to a Better Zoom (or Teams) call
Zoom, Teams, Webex and lots of other online conferencing platforms are now the norm for many people when it comes to virtual events and remote meetings, but as a creative production company we are constantly being surprised by the number of presenters whose presentations leave a lot to be desired. That’s why we’ve created this list of 12 things you can do to make sure you look and sound your best when you have to present your next virtual event.
- Use the right device
When you’re presenting, you need to give yourself the best chance of success and you need to be able to see what your audience can see. Always present from your desktop or laptop and not from a mobile phone or tablet. Phones and tablets have their uses, but not as presentation tools.
The first thing we always say to clients is, “If you’re presenting from a laptop, make sure it’s plugged into the charger”. You wouldn’t believe the number of presenters who suddenly disappear mid show because the battery ran out on their laptop. It may sound stupid, but also make sure the power is turned on. We had one presenter who plugged their laptop charger into a 4-way extension lead without checking that the lead was plugged in and turned on at the other end.
- Virtual Backgrounds
Ok, they can sometimes look cool, but virtual backgrounds are a no-no when you’re presenting professionally. Firstly, unless you have a really beefy computer, the processing power required to pick out you from the rest of the room behind you and then replace your background with another picture (or sometimes video) is immense. That means that your video and or audio quality may suffer as a result. Even if your computer is up to it, the artificial intelligence built in to the background removal software is not infallible and there’s a very strong chance that at some point during your presentation part of your head, hands or body will momentarily disappear. Our audiences like to see what’s going on, and to have a bit of a view into your home makes you that little bit more human. If you really don’t want people seeing into your room, then position yourself in front of a fairly plain background with maybe just a pot plant on show to break up the background.
This is a big one. Get the wrong lighting and you might as well not be there. Your webcam will always try to adjust itself to the best quality for the amount of light it’s receiving, so if the lighting is really bright, your webcam will turn the brightness down to compensate. This means that if you’re in that shot too, you are likely to just look like a shadow. The best tip here is not to sit in front of a window, and definitely not in front of a mirror. If there’s a window in the room, make sure that the blinds or curtains are set in a way that will stop the sunlight affecting your image on camera. Remember that if you’re presenting for a long time (or a number of times throughout the day) that the shadow cast by the sun will move, so what might start out to be a great looking shot could by late afternoon be a disaster in the making. Front lighting yourself is always a good idea as you are the thing that you want people to see. USB and other low powered video lights are quite cheap these days, and they’re a great way to make sure that people can see you clearly while you present. Before the day of your presentation, try lighting yourself in different ways to see how it looks. Both Teams and Zoom have a section in the settings for you to test your audio and video, so make sure you use it.
We often get asked, do I really need to use a separate microphone? Isn’t the one on my laptop good enough? The answer largely relies on the type of setting you’re going to be in when you present. If you have the luxury of a quiet room with lots of absorbent materials around to soak up any echoes, then yes, the mic in your laptop may well be good enough, and both Teams and Zoom have built in noise suppression – but they can only do so much. If you have a microphone that is unobtrusive and closer to your mouth, then the sound that others hear will be that much clearer and that in itself makes it easier for people to listen to what you’re trying to tell them. Although some people don’t like them, we normally recommend that people wear a headset with earphones and a microphone so that the microphone never gets to hear what you are hearing. That way, the software has very little to do in terms of stopping what you’re hearing come out of your speakers from being picked up by your microphone and sent back into the call for everyone else to hear again and again and again…….
- You’re on mute!
How many times have you heard that phrase over the past 18 months? More than once I’m sure. It’s a fact that the transition to virtual events has not been easy for some people, and those three immortal words have now become a normal feature of many virtual events, but think back to the in-person conferences and events that we used to attend before March 2020. If the keynote speaker stood at the lectern and his mic wasn’t switched on when they started to talk, firstly the presenter would have been highly embarrassed but secondly, the audience would have thought how bad it was that the AV crew hadn’t got the microphone switched on. If your virtual event is part of a bigger production, the chances are that the production team will have the ability to make sure that people only hear you when they’re supposed to, so check with them. But if not then write yourself a little note to stick at the bottom of your screen that simply says, “IS MY MIC ON?”. Something as simple as that could stop those embarrassing moments that you’d rather hadn’t happened.
If your presentation is part of a managed virtual event through a production company then you may find that you are placed in a virtual ‘green room’ before your presentation or in between sessions. This may give you the opportunity for you to speak to other presenters and may also give the producer the ability to talk with you to let you know you’re up next or that things are running late, or to ask you to give some additional information as part of your presentation. In this type of environment, the production team will make sure that you can only be heard when you are presenting, so again unless you are specifically asked to, don’t turn your microphone off.
Your connection to the Internet is the most important part of presenting to a virtual audience. If you only have a limited amount of bandwidth then the feed from your webcam may be unstable and your audio may also start to break up. Both Teams and Zoom will prioritize audio over video, so if you have a poor connection then your video will be the first thing to suffer. Initially the frame rate of your webcam may start to reduce which means your video will become choppy and your audio may become out of sync with your video feed making it look like a Chinese film that’s been dubbed into English. To give you the best chance of success here, make sure you’re connected to the Internet via a wired connection if possible. WiFi connections these days can be quite good, and in fact mobile 5G connections can be super-fast but the stability of wireless connections are much less reliable than wired connections, so we always advise plugging your device in via a wired ethernet connection. The next thing with the Internet is that every Internet connected device in your home takes up a certain amount of bandwidth depending on what they’re doing. Devices like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa don’t use a lot of bandwidth, but at the other end of the scale, Xbox, PlayStation and other online gaming devices are very heavy bandwidth users, so if you have others in the house when you’re trying to present then make sure they’re not gaming or streaming online videos or films at the same time.
In film, TV and photography, we work to something called the rule of thirds. Rule of thirds is a composition guideline that breaks an image down into thirds both horizontally and vertically so when you’re sat in front of your camera, try to make sure that you’re sat in the center third of the picture with just a small gap between your head and the top of the top vertical third, and try to stay in that same position throughout your presentation. When working with larger productions, we quite often have the crop the sides of the video shot so that we can fit the presenter on screen next to their presentation, so the last thing we (or your audience) want to see is your face cut off by your presentation. Once you have your camera set correctly, don’t adjust it while you’re presenting – it just doesn’t look professional. Get it right beforehand and then leave it alone.
It helps to have your camera in line with your natural eye line. This may mean you need to elevate your laptop or camera but it makes for a much better shot. If your camera is too low then it looks like the camera is looking up your nose and it certainly won’t be a flattering shot. If the camera is in line with your natural line of sight then it also makes it easier to light yourself (see point 3).
A little “tip-et” here is, if you can see yourself on screen, it might be a little off-putting, especially if your video feed is slightly delayed – as often happens in a larger production where your video feed is being processed by the production company and combined with your slides before being sent back out to everyone (including you) to view. You might find it useful to place a piece of paper (or sticky note) over your picture on screen so that it doesn’t distract you while you’re presenting.
Finally for this tip, whenever possible, try to look at the camera – Your presentation will be much more engaging if the people on the other end think you’re looking at them. We quite often use camera surrounds that have the words “LOOK HERE” and a couple of arrows pointing at the camera lens to focus peoples attention.
- Close other apps
A bit like your Internet connection only being able to handle so much at the same time, your computer is exactly the same – if you have other applications open at the same time you’re trying to present, your computer is potentially trying to do lots of things at the same time which can slow down the application you’re using to present from. It’s a smart move to close down any other applications that you don’t really need open such as email, Word and your web browser.
- Sounds and Notifications
Think about noise distractions around your home – dogs barking or children crying will often be picked up on your microphone, but also they will distract you from what you’re trying to present.
Make sure you turn off any notifications that might pop-up or ping while you’re presenting. This also goes for mobile devices – make sure your phone, tablet and any other additional devices in the room with you are in flight mode or set to silent – the last thing you want is a phone call disrupting your presentation or the repeated ping of WhatsApp or Facebook messages during your presentation.
Some noises are unexpected and unavoidable but try to think about what noises might disrupt your presentation. Recently we had a presenter calling in from another part of the world where it was quite early in the morning so they didn’t expect much in the was of traffic noise but neither did they expect to be presenting at the exact same time the bin men were collecting the glass recycling outside…. Smashing!
- Know your subject
It might seem obvious, but if you know your subject then your presentation will be so much better. If you’re constantly having to look away from your camera to follow your notes then your presentation will not look well-rehearsed and people will find it harder to follow you and will be less engaged. Don’t rehearse your presentation so that you know it word for word either though because if something unexpected suddenly happens then it’s likely to throw you off track and it will be much harder for you to pick up from where you got interrupted. It’s much better to just have a few bullet points written down that you can glance at quickly rather than reading the entire contents of your PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. Make sure you also have a copy of your presentation printed out and available if needed. If anything stops you being able to see your slides on screen then you need something to fall back on but don’t read the contents of your presentation word-for-word. We’ve all been on the end of a “Death by PowerPoint” presentation, and it’s not a good place to be – especially if it’s being delivered online.
If your presentation is part of a larger production then the producers may sometimes show your slides on screen without your video feed being visible. These times are a great opportunity for you to look at your notes and check you are covering things you need to, and it’s also a great time to make sure you’re running to time. A sub-tip here is to set a countdown timer on your phone or tablet (with a silent alarm) so that you don’t run over with your presentation.
Make sure you take on board all of these tips, and then test out your setup in advance of your presentation, then when you’ve got it all set correctly make a note of anything you had to do out of the ordinary. Then for your actual presentation, make sure you do exactly the same thing. Make sure you’re using the same device, in the same room, connected to the Internet in the same way as when you tested. If you follow these simple tips then you’re giving yourself the best chance of delivering a killer presentation.
Finally, not really a tip, but if your presentation is part of a bigger event, make sure you speak to the people producing the event before you go live. Tell them what it is you need to do when presenting so that nothing is a shock when you’re giving your presentation. The reason why we produce virtual events for our clients is because they want the event to look professional, so the last thing they (or the production company) want is for you to suddenly say, “Ok, so now I’m going to share my screen” – especially if they’re not expecting it. If there’s some content you need to show people, let the production company know – there is usually a much better way to do it rather than sharing your screen live during your presentation. For instance, if you want to give an online demo, it would be much better to have that demo pre-recorded so that it can be played to the audience as if it were live when you get to that part, but without the potential problems of the demo not working correctly if you were to do it live. Again, the production company can help you out with this and should be able to make it look like it’s just another part of your presentation.