How to stand out on Zoom, Skype, and other video conferencing platforms by being intentional with your video setup

At the end of last year I was reflecting on my career and making decisions on what to tackle in the coming year. The result was to make the switch from being a consumer of content to being a creator of content. What medium would I use to create? I enjoy blogs, but it is a slow medium for me because when writing I tend to be overly perfectionistic and verbose. That led me to a question: Where do I typically consume content myself? This had a clear answer: YouTube. I decided video, and particularly LIVE video would be my medium of choice.

From Niche to Hot Demand

Working in video seems easy but you quickly realize it requires a range of skills in many related areas (video editing / production, audio, streaming platforms, on-camera presence, lighting and composition, and content strategy just to name a few). So what I hoped would be a quick start has been slower than I had anticipated but I’ve also been learning a lot and acquiring new gear.

By mid-March the global business environment experienced a rapid change. Suddenly everyone went from working face-to-face in offices to working from home. When you no longer can see your coworkers or customers face-to-face what medium replaces those interactions? That’s right, video. LIVE video.

Why You Should Pay Attention

While working on my new setup for streaming I was mainly focusing on capabilities for making videos for YouTube and being able to live stream. Once everyone started to work from home I quickly realized my prep work for YouTube translated to video conferencing. During the first week of work from home we happened to have a training session via Zoom with over 15 co-workers joining the call. Before the facilitator joined there was about 20 minutes where we were just chatting as people joined the call, I was one of the first 4 people to join the call. Shortly after joining I got a few unprompted statements and questions.

“What camera are you using? Your picture looks awesome!” and “Is your background real??”

These observations happened a few more times as other people joined the call. This was also just comments on my camera alone. The setup I use lets me mix in other video feeds as well. On this call I got more reactions from the group as I later had my iPad screen slide into view where I had taken notes for one of our breakout sessions. “Oh cool! How did you do that!?” At that moment it was a cool novelty but I believe there is a much bigger opportunity here.

My interactions on this call with coworkers revealed something interesting: The difference between what people expect video conferencing to look, feel, and sound like compared to what it could be like.

If you join a call with this kind of setup you will be instantly different, “remarkable” in the literal sense of the word. In a suddenly virtual world this unexpected difference can be an opportunity to set yourself apart. This can be particularly helpful for businesses as they still need to win customers and market themselves but can no longer use in person communication for these interactions.

You can either accept the limitations of what comes out of the box with software like Zoom or you can build new skills and capabilities that could transform video from being a barrier to working to your advantage.

People have a varying degree of quality in their default video based on the computer they took home with them. Most of the time this is roughly the same. However if you zoom in on this you can see how my gear makes my image stand out. And yes, my background is actually real. :-)
My camera versus a co-worker using a normal webcam

This illustrates the difference you can achieve with a big upgrade in your gear. The camera on the right isn’t a bad camera, it’s exactly what you’d expect out of most stock webcams (both pictures are also a little blurry because this is a screen clip from Zoom’s gallery view, but you can see mine survives the down scaling much better). The camera setup to achieve this cost me around $800 (used camera, new prime lens, capture card, cables, etc), probably not an amount you want to drop as an individual unless you are really committed to video creation or just want an excuse for a new camera. However, if you are a business this is probably a reasonable investment to make for individuals who are doing important business development or public content creation.

Gear Up + Skill Up

So now that you can see the opportunity to increase your professionalism by improving your virtual presence you’re probably wondering how to get started. Being several months into learning about this stuff myself, I can tell you there is a substantial amount you could learn. I’ll share some basics with you now to get you thinking about immediate improvement. If you find yourself wanting to discuss more advanced tips and setup, connect with me on Twitter (@mathewda), I’d love to geek out with you.

Skill Up Basics

To get started with improving your virtual presence you can start by making a few tweaks that are free. Here’s some tips you can use on your next call:

Check Your Connection

  • You can check out speedtest.net or just google “speed test” for a built in test on Google. Your internet has both an up and down connection speed. Most broadband has very fast down speeds, which you can think of as the speed you are able to get stuff to you from the internet. The up speed is how fast you can transfer things out to the internet. On conferencing software your down is probably just fine but if your up is too low other people may see your video and audio cut out. If you’re pushing out video you should probably have at least 5Mbps up if not 10Mbps or higher. If you test low, consider calling your service provider for an upgrade in your “up” speed, ask for that specifically as asking for “faster internet” may only get you more “down” speed which in this case is not as relevant to improving your video quality.
  • Beyond your internet connection you should also consider having a plugged-in connection to your home network. WiFi could be limiting the speed between your laptop and your router in your house. This means even with a fast internet connection the wireless connection inside your house could be the limiting factor. If you plug in via network cable you’ll be guaranteed a fast local connection. So if you experience problems with call quality and are on WiFi at home, try plugging into your router directly and see if that helps. If you are using a newer mac or an iPad you can buy a dongle with ethernet to give you the ability to hard wire. If wired isn't an option for you, make sure you have a router that supports the fastest connection speed possible as newer versions of WiFi technology can be substantially faster.
  • If you have a good connection make sure you check the "Enable HD" setting in the video section of Zoom's settings (on the desktop client)
Check "Enable HD" to force Zoom to stream your camera at a higher resolution. Note.At the moment Zoom has disabled HD streaming for most people (so if you check this and don't notice a difference it's Zoom's issue not you). If you are a Business or Enterprise customer you can make a request to your account manager to have them re-enable HD for some or all of your account. See this support article for more information.

Frame Yourself Properly

  • Make sure you are taking up most of the camera view with your head and torso. Typically the width of your shoulders should take up about half of the width of the camera view with you being centered in the video. Your head should have just a small amount of space above it in the camera frame. The further you are away from the camera the more blurry and less compelling you will appear. Take up as much space as you can while also leaving enough room to capture your hand gestures. In the physical world psychology tells us that taking up more space improves your presence, taking up the camera frame appropriately is its virtual equivalent.

Look At the Lens (practice this as much as possible)

  • Eye contact on video feels weird for everyone. Your natural tendency is to look at the other person while you talk. In a virtual conference this means looking at your screen, not the lens. So while you feel like you have eye contact what they see is you looking off to the side, not at them. Looking directly at the camera lens will create the eye contact that you want with the viewer. This sounds easy but is really hard to get good at. So ask yourself who would you rather have feel weird? You or your audience? To help yourself do this better try putting a sticker or something by your lens to help remind yourself to look there. If you can position where you see other people on your screen, move them on the screen as close to the lens as you can. This may include making their picture smaller. The idea is to make the picture you are tempted to look at as close as possible to where you should be looking (the lens).

Don’t Have Terrible Lighting

  • Lighting makes a huge difference in video quality. Even a high end camera looks bad when poorly lit. Consider the environment you’re in when you’re on a call. Check your video preview to make sure you are well lit. If you aren’t well lit, consider adding an extra light (just grab a clamp light from the garage or an extra lamp from a side table) or moving closer to a window. Your face should have minimal shadows and stand out from the background.
  • The light should be in front of you not behind you. If you have lots of windows behind you then those lights will wash out your picture because your background is too bright. Natural light is great but just make sure it’s lighting you and not lighting your lens.
I have some big windows in my dining room. With these windows behind me I become dark as the background is over exposed. By just sitting on the other side of the dining table the same windows are in front of me, lighting me but not the lens of my camera. (these were taken with my built in camera on a 2018 Macbook Pro)

Your Camera Should Be Straight On Or Slightly Above Eye Level

  • Another aspect of framing is the angle. Ideally you want your camera to be looking just slightly down at you. An external camera helps a lot with this because it gives you much more control of positioning. However even with a built in laptop camera you can position your laptop to get a better angle. Put your chair lower during a call or consider using something to elevate your laptop on your desk so the camera lens is at eye level or slightly above. I've seen a few instances of people putting their laptop on a box or a stack of books to get a better angle.

Contrast With Your Background

  • Try to pick a consistent place to do your conference calls from. Once you know how your background looks from that camera view try to wear a shirt that contrasts with your background, this will help you stand out. This should also improve a virtual green screen as the software will be able to more easily identify you from your background so it can cut it out as cleanly as possible.

Think About Your Sound

  • People hear you through your microphone so make sure you know where it’s located on your device so you can project your voice toward it. Try to project your voice to the microphone, this means talking louder than you normally would. If you have a headset or just your earbuds that came with your iPhone, I’d recommend using them. Basic apple earbuds usually have the mic on the volume control on the cord. This gets the mic closer to your mouth. You could also improve this by strategically pinning it to your shirt with a safety pin.
  • Wear headphones (preferably wired) to help prevent any chances of audio echo during your meetings. I just ordered the MEE Audio M6, which wraps over your ear backwards so you can still wear headphones but also keep them minimal in your camera view.

Amp Yourself Up To Make Up For The Energy The Camera Takes Away

  • The energy you project in person will be reduced when you’re interacting through video conferencing. Being aware of this can help you make up this deficit. Before going on an important call, doing a webinar, or going live to your viewers, do something that will amp up your energy level. This will help you come across as more of yourself on camera and will increase engagement with your audience. There’s lots of ways you can do this: listen to music and dance, do some pushups, take a walk, etc. Find something that works for you and add it to your pre-live habits.

Pay Attention

  • You can be easily distracted while video conferencing, and others will be able to tell this if you are constantly looking away. If you wear glasses remember that your computer screen might reflect in them so others might also be able to see the glow of your email reflected in your glasses, indicating you are clearly not paying attention to them. On the flip side of this, if you notice others distracted or actively doing something else during a meeting you are leading, it’s a good time for a quick check in. Stop to ask how people are doing, if they are following the information, or if they have any questions. The audio prompt for engagement will give you a chance to recapture their focus. (Hat tip to presentation consultancy Duarte for this tip. I had already drafted this post and then happened to watch this webinar they put on that echoed most of my tips here and added a few more like this one)

Gear Up Basics

Gearing up can be highly complex so I’ll keep this part brief and simple for the moment. The main thing you need to know is that you don’t have to break the bank to take a big step up from your computer’s out of the box capabilities.

Audio

Sounding better is the first step you should improve.

Cheap

  • Try your phone’s earbud mic to see if it’s any better than the built in mic you are already using
  • Buy a cheap lav mic (< $30), put it close to your mouth

Better

USB microphones

Lav Mics

Best

Prosumer mics

Pro / Professional mics (usually require additional mixer or amp to power)

Video

Once you have good audio, consider making some upgrades in your video equipment.

Essential (Make sure to skill up on these first! See above)

  • Framing
  • Improve your lighting

Hacks

  • Use your phone and join separately on your computer as well if you need to screen share. Smartphone cameras are usually way better than laptop built in cameras.
  • Use NDI to bring use your iPhone as a virtual camera on Windows (more technical but more flexible, see the link for a YouTube video I made to walk you through how to do this on a PC)

Better: External webcam

  • USB webcam like the Logitech c920, c930, or Brio (popular and normally affordable, if you can find them in stock anywhere)
  • HDMI capture card + recent generation smartphone with HDMI dongle

Best

  • DSLR or Mirrorless camera + capture

I’m using a Sony a5100 camera body (around $300 used) with a dummy battery (important for heat control) with the Sigma F1.4 16mm lens ($400). I also have the 30mm Sigma lens which is about $100 cheaper. I bring in the camera to my computer with an Elgato CamLink 4K capture card (~$120). If you use one of these capture devices the camera will be plug and play like a normal webcam, just select it in Zoom or Skype and you’re good to go.

If you use a capture card like the Elgato it’s important to use a recommended camera. Nikon and Canon cameras will many times not let you remove the camera display overlays in the HDMI output or they will have short shutdown times (Nikons usually power off after 20 minutes). The Sony cameras are pretty rock solid for this use case, it’s worked great for me.

Taking it to the Next Level

Having good sound and a single great camera will make a big difference in how you present yourself when you are live. I hope this post has started you on the path to improving your virtual presence and provided practical tips you can apply right away.

If you want to take your capabilities to the next level, broadcasting software allows you to work with multiple sources to create more engaging live content for streaming or video conferencing. Once you’ve mastered on-camera presence and upgraded your gear there is still much more you can do to increase your capabilities to a more pro level production setup. If you’re interested in going beyond the details in this post, reach out to me on Twitter (@mathewda) and subscribe to my YouTube channel for more content like this.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.