[Originally published to Wordpress at kixpanganiban.com on March 24, 2020]
In my previous blog post, I talked about remote work, some of its benefits, and a few things to know when you’re just starting out. Back then, my goal was to share some of the tools and strategies I found effective from working remotely over the past half-decade or so, and encourage people to do the same. I got a lot of constructive feedback from people who read my post, and one of them correctly pointed out that I should have talked more about one key aspect of working remotely: videoconferencing.
Over the past few years, Zoom has become synonymous with video meetings: in fact, in my day to day at work, people say “let’s Zoom” instead of “let’s have a video call” since it has become such a huge part of our daily routines. People just beginning to do remote work will find this true as well, as demonstrated by the recent surge of work-from-home arrangements due to Covid 19-related travel restrictions causing an uptick in Zoom’s shares.
With that said, a lot of people will find it pretty challenging to transition from face-to-face meetings to Zoom calls for the first time, so let’s talk about making that transition easier and your Zoom calls more effective.
Side note: While I choose to use Zoom as the example tool for videoconferencing, the things we’ll talk about also apply to videoconferencing in general, including other tools such as GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, and RingCentral, among others.
Setup your gear properly
It might seem obvious, but this detail is something that a lot of people gloss over: fundamental to your videoconferencing experience is your setup. The quality of your face-to-face with your peers depends on how good the devices you’re using to communicate are.
- Get a decent microphone. Your laptop’s microphone is NOT good enough. Sure, recent high-end laptops like Apple’s Macbooks do better than the cheaper ones, but they will still pick up the noise of your laptop’s fans spinning, the background noise of the wind, and the sound of any taps and bumps on the surface your laptop is sitting on. The voice quality isn’t so great either, from the other end of the call, you’d sound like you have a disembodied voice coming from inside a tin can. Even cheap microphones like this one which you could pick up from Miniso for P399 (~8 USD) sound waaay better. If you’d like to go fancy, I recommend a USB microphone like the decently-priced Audio Technica AT2020USB+, which is my daily driver.
- Check your webcam placement. You want to keep your webcam sitting eye-level. For laptops, this means that you need to put your laptop on a stand (or a thick book, or an el-cheapo stand). For desktops, your webcam should ideally be mounted on top of your monitor. This is because like in-person meetings, you want to maintain eye contact to make the conversation more natural. In addition, make sure there’s ample light coming from behind where your webcam is, to better illuminate your features and give your image more depth. Finally, you’d want to make sure your background is clean (like a wall, some solid color, or even a custom backdrop if you’re fancy) because you want people to focus on your face and not on what’s behind you.
- Headphones, not speakers. While there’s a valid case for using speakers during a call — like when there are more than one of you joining the call in the room you’re in — it would be best to wear headphones (or even better, headsets, so your mic is also taken care of) so that it’s easier to hear what other people are saying and avoid the all too familiar repetitive “Sorry, I didn’t catch that”situation. In addition, this helps eliminate audio feedback since your sound output is isolated, making your voice come through more clearly.
Be somewhere quiet
Where you take your Zoom calls is also really important. Think about in-person meetings: you wouldn’t want to be shouting over each other because of the noise around you, nor be somewhere you’re constantly distracted by what’s going on.
There are two types of noise to avoid: audio and visual. While we have trained our eyes and ears to ignore the noise in real life, our computers aren’t on that level yet. Audio and visual noise get amplified and delivered straight to everyone else in the call — this means that someone talking loudly in the background, or a cat leaping around your room can get seriously distracting.
This means that, if possible, pick somewhere with less foot traffic and activity — like a spare room in your house or a library. Coffee shops and other public places might be fine for doing writing or coding, but they’re too noisy to be good for calls.
Practice your speaking cadence
You probably already know this, but it’s worth re-iterating: talking to someone through Zoom is pretty different from talking to someone in person. The rhythm and cadence of conversations are different, and especially when it’s your turn to talk, there are certain things to look out for to make sure that the conversation flows smoothly. Some of these are:
- Keep your train of thought steady and your points focused.What helps is keeping an outline of things you intend to say whenever you speak, which helps you stay on track of the topic and not get derailed too much. This is initially difficult, especially when lacking public speaking training, but like everything, it gets better with practice. Be careful though: if your outline gets too detailed, it might sound like a prepared speech and you might look like you’re reciting instead of speaking.
- Know when to pause. There are a couple of reasons why you should be mindful of pausing when speaking: first is that you need to do a “temperature check” and check how engaged everyone else is, or if something you said was vague and needs clarification, or you want to get general feedback on some of the things you just said, and second is that regular pausing helps you maintain your pace and make sure you’re not speaking too quickly, and that you’re able to keep your thoughts coherent with what you’re saying.
- Know how to pause. Whether you need to catch your breath, wait for reactions, or stress your previous point, each pause you make needs to serve a clear purpose. Since video calls tend to have a lag time of up to a few seconds, your sudden pause might be misconstrued as an invitation for feedback if it gets too long, resulting in that ever-awkward “Ok go on.” / “No you go first.”
- Be mindful of the lag. The same is true when you’re listening, and the person speaking stops to take a pause. They might do it as they’re moving on to read the next item in their outline, and sometimes not deliberately, so be extra careful and listen in to make sure they’re pausing enough to look for feedback. Otherwise, you might end up accidentally interrupting them and make things a little hairy.
A few last tips
Finally, here are some last things to be mindful of when doing calls:
- Act like your video is on at all times. Like handling a gun as if it’s always loaded, be careful not to do anything during a call (even when you assume that video is off) that you don’t want anybody seeing. Stuff like picking your nose, yawning, or using your phone unnecessarily. You don’t want to be like this lady.
- Be extra careful of what you show during screen-sharing. You don’t want to end up showing embarrassing (or potentially incriminating) things on your screen to everybody else: things like shady websites, weird files on your desktop, or apps and games which are running when they’re not supposed to. Remember to mute your notifications as well by putting your laptop in Do Not Disturb mode, you don’t want personal messages flying on the screen for everybody else to see!
- Be on time for scheduled calls. Learn to set up reminders and glance at your calendar regularly. When working remotely, you’re usually not going through traffic to make it to your meeting, to be mindful to show up 5-10 minutes ahead of the scheduled call time.
- Get a comfortable chair. On video, you might constantly be fixing your posture to make sure you look good, or holding the same position for prolonged amounts of time. This causes strain on your back and spine and will definitely cause back pain later if your chair is not comfortable. Add lumbar support by stuffing a throw pillow between your lower back and the chair, or get one of those office or gaming chairs that have them.
And that’s it! Remember to keep these things in mind every time you join a Zoom call. Remember, while video calls are like in-person meetings, there are certain nuances that make some aspects a little bit tricky. Pick your gear, be mindful of your current environment, and keep on practicing every day, and you’ll start to enjoy Zoom calls as much as you would regular conversations.
Cover photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels