Video conferencing in style in these turbulent times

a TV anchor’s guide to how to shine on Zoom

Originally published in Forkast.News

A new reality is emerging. It’s one that landed on all of us, without much warning… and with consequences that we are still coming to grips with today without any sense of what tomorrow will bring. The world as we knew it is now on pause.

Truth is, we are all decentralized now. Some of us have been operating like this for a long time. But here we all are. So how to lean into disruptive thinking? How to thrive in the unfamiliar? It begins by letting go of the familiar, and having the courage to embrace it all. In this spirit, Forkast.News is embracing what we need to evolve into. We recognize that the one story that has been at the forefront of our coverage of emerging technology has always been about change. Changing systems, business logic, policy, and thinking are what drive our storytelling and reporting. So now we lean into disruptive thinking as the world is violently pushed into a different trajectory.

I wrote this next piece to share a little perspective to what we are all now asked to become: visual storytellers! After all, we’re all television anchors and presenters now.


Dreading your next Zoom video conference call? As my 3-year-old likes to say, “no need!” He’s right. There is no need to fear. Let me share some tips from my years as a television anchor. I’ve never really broken it down until now. But hey, we’re all in this together, and we do what we have to do — because the alternative is not an option.

Video conferencing has become a mainstay during the coronavirus outbreak, made possible by apps like Zoom. Photo: Angie Lau

For millions of people around the world now working from home, juggling kids and career in the same confined space — this is a new reality as Covid-19 ravages nations. We stay in place to keep ourselves and our communities safe. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep building, producing, dreaming, sharing, conversing and communicating. We just have to do it online and on video conference calls! So in that spirit, let’s get right into it:  

VISUALS

1. What’s in the background? 

As you appear on camera, know that the visual attention isn’t always on you. Eyes will dart to what’s behind you, the books you’ve piled up, or the laundry that hasn’t been folded yet. Find a visually neutral background. Some texture would be nice. That white blank wall is fine in a pinch, but a bookcase or framed pictures are a nice touch. 

2.  Where’s your light? 

Make sure when you pick a spot, you don’t put your back to a window. You’ll be backlit. Which means your face will be dark, because the iris of the camera will be focusing on the light. Instead, face the window and the brilliant daylight will wash your face aglow with natural light and we’ll all wonder where you managed to get that facial amidst the Covid-19 isolation orders. 

If the sun has set, your colleagues in the Asia office are joining the call and you’re on until midnight… then find a lamp, and sit in front of that. Let the light find your face. Face the light. 

3. A little hairspray and makeup doesn’t hurt… anyone. 

Television (I mean videos) is a visual medium. Which means it is a two-dimensional experience. What looks good in real life, doesn’t always translate on camera. I’m talking about hair and makeup. Ladies and gentlemen, spray those flyaways and just brush that hair in place. As for makeup, please don’t go too crazy — there truly is no need… you’re working from home after all. For men, a little loose powder will do — it removes the oiliness from that well-lit face of yours. The camera is looking for definition in the face, so eyebrow powder that frames your beautiful eyes and a little eyeshadow can also go a long way. 

As for color, it’s up to you. But au naturel feels right at the moment. 

4. What to wear? 

Stay away from patterns — your background will be visual noise enough — and stick to solids. Plain Jane is having a moment right now… as she should (because she’s awesome). For men, a dress shirt, T-shirt, collared shirt or sweater — all fine. Dare to wear color. For women in corporate, stay away from ruffles on camera… but everything else is fair game, including pajamas. I did once wear my pajamas on a video call — it was silky and looked like a tank, and I wore a structured cardigan with defined shoulders over it. For those who are fashion bold, you know what to do. 

5. Frame yourself.

The rule of thumb is, an inch of space between the top of your head and the top of the screen. Aim to look at your laptop camera straight on. If you don’t have a fancy tripod, go grab a few books, a box of diapers, a pot turned upside down… and prop it on top of that. 

Lighting and good camera angles are important to set up, whether using a webcam or other devices. Photo: Bold Content

ON CAMERA

You’ve escaped to the bathroom. Your lovely husband is trying to keep your screaming toddler from rushing in, but you can still hear him crying, “Mommmyyyyyyy!!!” And then it’s your turn to pitch. It’s go time!

6. Think happy. 

How you feel is how you sound. And if you don’t feel that way, take a breath. Breathe. Reset. Smile (yes smile — you’re not the only one on the call trapped in the bathroom, believe me). Find your happy place, and settle into the moment. Focus. 

By the way, it’s ok to acknowledge sudden family needs that come up during the all-hands meeting you’re leading. In fact, it’s ok to say, “excuse me, let me just take care of this.” The boss is human. Your boss will think you’re human. And if they don’t, well, that’s a great data point for your career aspirations. 

7. Don’t look at yourself when you speak.   

And yet we all do that. You’ve got to look into the camera. The camera is the person you’re talking to. So, put a little sticky arrow pointed at the tiny pinprick hole on your laptop, because that’s the eye contact you want to have with the camera (aka your colleagues who are logged into the video call). That camera is how you make human eye contact online.

If you look away at the monitor, your eye attention is shifted… what would you be looking at? You know what they’re thinking? “He looks like he isn’t committed to his idea.” “She appears distracted, not confident at all.” 

While most people consciously don’t think it’s a big deal if your eyes wander to the screen while you talk, subconsciously, if you can master the skill of focusing on the camera, your points will come across more powerfully. You’ll hold your colleagues’ attention, because you’re “looking” right at them. And that human connection in this digital divide will be real.

8. Turn the “hmmmms, uhhhhs and ahhhhhs” into silent pauses or “and.”

There’s something about people watching us when we speak that really gets deep into our psyche. You know what it is? Everyone is judging you. They know you really are still wearing pajamas. At least that’s what you think. But you know what they’re really thinking? The exact same thing… about themselves. So, get over it. 

Sometimes you really need your brain to catch up with your words. The “hmmms, ahhhs and uhhs” are nervous hiccups of speech. And they communicate lack of confidence, even if your idea is brilliant — which of course we know it is! 

Working from home allows more flexibility and comfort during self-isolation measures around the world. Photo: rawpixel.com

So, another tip: right as you feel yourself wanting to pause, don’t fill the silence with an “uhhhhh” — have the courage to take a pause. If the pause in your mind is too long, only one word strongly gives you the bridge to your next thought, and that is: “and.” Watch any Obama speech (or not if you swing the other way), but the man is a master of this little trick. You could say it was pretty effective for him. 

9.  Be natural! More energy! 

When I was at WEWS in Cleveland as a young reporter, my news director hired a consultant from Los Angeles to come in to work with his on-camera talent. We all diligently trudged into the conference room for our one-to-one critiques of our on-camera work. When it was my turn, I was hoping that this would be the chance to learn how to be better, to hone my craft even more, to learn the true artistry and magic of how to be that million-dollar anchor I always dreamed I would be one day! Instead, all I got was: “I want to see more energy!” To say I was disappointed was an understatement. What did that even mean? I was a consumer investigative reporter, not a cheerleader!  

On-camera work is always subjective. People know what’s missing, but they can’t tell you how to bridge the divide. Let me do that here. It’s all psychological. 

When you’re on camera, you’re staring at yourself. And then you realize people are watching you — and that lump in your throat gets even bigger, while your heart  thumps ever louder. What is going on? It’s because you’re thinking about yourself. So let me just shake it out of you. It’s not about YOU. It’s about you communicating your idea for the greater good. Think of the audience —your peers, boss, board — as your students. And you’re the teacher. 

If you can shift the mental perspective to serving, rather than performing… you’ll be a natural. 

If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them as best I can (unless I’m hiding out in the bathroom from a small child for my next video conference call). Look forward to seeing you soon! 

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