Easy Ways to Look Better Online

Any novelty associated with online meetings has long since passed and so too has our excuse for poor use of these now vital communications platforms. As we approach the first anniversary of the mass migration of meetings, sales calls, conferences and interviews to Zoom, Teams and Meet, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in how they are used by many people.

Given that most people were suddenly thrust into the global home working experiment with no training or advice, most of us have been taking the approach of adapting on the fly. But it’s now time to move beyond the panicked adoption of virtual interactions and put some effort in making the best of them.

For the majority of users, it’s not necessary to invest in new equipment — the most impactful changes you can make to how you appear online are, thankfully, free. If you’re meeting clients or larger groups, then it’s worth considering investing in some better equipment to improve your presence. We’re talking less than the cost of a single night in a hotel room to attend an event and a lot less than most businesses would have spent on travel.

Laptops Aren’t Designed for Video Conferencing

The prominent presence of a webcam on all laptops has the unfortunate effect of making us think that the device was intended for use for video calls. Alas, mostly there is only perfunctory inclusion of the lowest-cost camera and microphone components that were never a significant part of the specifications, compared to, say, the processor, screen size or weight. Coupled with less than ideal components, the physical shape of laptops and how we normally use them don’t suit online meetings.

It’s not surprising, if you stop and think, that using your laptop as a makeshift television studio requires a different approach than typing an email — you need to look at your laptop differently, literally. Laptops and home offices were not designed for endless video conferences and it shows! Rather than simply sitting in front of your laptop the way you would to type an email, consider if that’s the best posture for a video call? It isn’t! A laptop’s very design encourages people to sit far too close to the camera. Laptops’ design priorities make the cameras far lesser quality than sensors that gather the video content we’re typically exposed to, making our on-screen image look poor quality. And do you even know where the microphone is on your laptop? Almost all laptops hide the microphone away, making no effort to help you speak clearly towards it.

Why Bother?

While Zoom, Teams and Meet are easy to use, taking a little extra care with using them will yield noticeably better results. Why should you bother? Well, for starters it’s less tiring and more effective to participate in a high quality online meeting where the attendees don’t make basic mistakes. Even if you don’t consider it important, remember that how you appear online will affect peoples’ perceptions of the quality of your work. The sound quality is even more important than the lighting/visuals — If the sound is weak, muffled, or distorted, viewers lose patience. How you look and sound may be crucial in an online interview situation, or if you are trying to close a sale, negotiate a deal or stand out from your colleagues vying for a promotion. In short, how you present yourself online is now a key business skill.

“When you make it difficult for people to process information, it becomes less credible” — USC research

A TLDR of Looking Better Online

  • Improve your lighting — make sure you’re not sitting with a window behind you. Add a light source in front of you, even a desk lamp. You can add a cheap ring light from about €15.
  • Improve your camera position — raise your camera to eye level. Place your laptop on a box or pile of books. And sit back from your camera.
  • Improve your microphone — if you have a headphone set with a microphone, it helps get the microphone closer to your mouth. If not, the first place to spend money is on an external microphone — remember though that anything over about €50 will give diminishing returns if you’re not looking to record podcasts.
  • Improve your camera — consider using a phone as a camera, using software such as Epocam to connect it wirelessly to your laptop. Even a 3 year old iPhone has a much better camera than a brand new MacBook. If you’re lucky enough to have a DSLR/Mirrorless camera in the house, see if you can use that as your webcam. Otherwise, consider spending up to €120 on an external webcam.

I hope these simple tips help you look your best online. If you’d like more tips on improving your online impact, check out my new book on the topic.

Thoughts about technology and society. Author of five books: details at https://david-kerrigan.com