Remote offices will continue: Let’s Zoom at the next level

Even though Dane County has officially moved to Phase 1 of the Forward Dane plan and has started to ease the safer-at-home-style restrictions that have been in place for many weeks, businesses across the region have indicated they will continue to keep employees working remotely, if feasible.

This means that the virtual discussions will continue. What was once a personal, face-to-face meeting has turned into a seemingly distant Zoom call. Although many of us have been working with Zoom for a couple of months, we are still dealing with difficulties and challenges that arise.

How many calls have you been on where a participant’s mic is picking up distracting background noises? How many people have you seen who look like they have artwork or plants from the background growing out of their head? Or my personal favorite, one of my partners on a Zoom call looked like a ghost due to the harsh lighting shining directly on ones side of their face.

With all of these new complications, now is the time to take a pledge and make Zoom meetings more professional, personable, and fine-tuned. It’s time to ensure these calls enable businesses to convey the same feelings of trustworthiness, confidence, and reliability through the lens that they are able to convey when sitting around a table together.

The key is to treat your Zoom calls like productions. No, this doesn’t mean fancy camera work or expensive equipment or backdrops, but it requires some planning and preparation. You’d prepare for an important in-person meeting, correct? You’d check all the details and ensure the proper technical setup, so it is important to take the same meticulous approach and apply it to your Zoom productions. The goal is a smooth virtual presentation, void of technical disruptions and distractions, and ultimately a positive prospect or client reaction.

First impressions count. According to experts, the majority of what constitutes a first impression is visual input. This is why business professionals wear attire that fits the formality of the meeting. While dressing appropriately is still an important factor in creating a virtual first impression, there are now many additional visual factors to account for when preparing a Zoom production. (And yes, put on some nicer clothes for your Zoom meetings. It makes a difference.)

It’s easy to forget there is an added emphasis on facial expressions and eye contact. Unlike traditional meetings, virtual meetings project a close-up of all participant’s faces all. the. time. This means every micro expression and movement is emphasized to the viewer. It is important to try not to look away or down, as you may be perceived as uninterested or distracted. When presenting or speaking, look directly at your camera (not at your computer screen) to be more inclusive with your presentation. Just as with traditional meetings, movement should always be intentional and add value to the presentation. Avoid fidgeting and any unnecessary expressions that distract from your message.

Good lighting is essential. Yes, you know this, and yes, everyone talks about it, but how many of your recent calls feature participants in what simply can be described as bad lighting? So, take some steps and prepare the lighting for your meeting. Whenever possible, natural lighting is your best option. Prop your desk to face the window so light is coming from directly behind the camera. If you don’t have a desk near a window, use a lamp or inexpensive professional studio light directly on your face for even, steady lighting.

Furthermore, it is essential to ensure there is no backlight or side lighting. Backlight will make you difficult to see and side lighting will make half your face look shady. (Or, bad lighting can make you look like a ghost. Not good.)

Pay attention to the positioning and angle of the camera so you don’t fall victim to “wide-angle face.” This happens when a meeting participant’s face looks abnormally wide from being too close to a wide-angle lens like the ones used on computers and smartphones. Scoot back from the camera so your head is framed with room above and below your head. Additionally, your camera should be at about eye-height. The most unflattering camera angle is when the camera is looking up at you. If need be, put the device with your camera on top of something to avoid that.

Perhaps the most debated visual Zoom topic is the background. Many experts recommend a simple and subtle background. A blank wall is preferred, but something professional like a neat book shelf can work as well, while staying away from anything that looks too busy. The key is to create a background environment that keeps the focal point on the presenter.

Now, some companies are opting to utilize the Zoom background image feature. If choosing to go with this option, it is important to use a subtle, on-brand color that allows faces to show clearly, along with a small company logo in one of the corners. I’ve heard of Zoom calls with animated dinosaurs walking across the screen and seen my share of exotic international location backdrops. This can provide a fun break from a serious day for the right audience but most of us will be better served by a much simpler backdrop.

Is your audio input and output where it needs to be? You cannot conduct an effective meeting without proper sound. It starts with a good microphone, whether built in to your device or camera or not. Invest in one if needed. Everyone has experienced meetings where a microphone is muted when it shouldn’t be and vice versa. Additionally, we understand the frustration of feedback or background noise coming through on a virtual meeting. This is all distracting and defocuses participants from the meeting subject. There are many ways to refrain from being a culprit of such virtual meeting sins by working on the following.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3. Just as any musician tests their microphones prior to a performance, anyone planning on participating in a Zoom meeting should do the same. Simply schedule a check-in meeting with a co-worker prior to meetings to verify your microphone is producing clear sound without any background noise or feedback. Are you two to three months into constant Zoom meetings and you’ve never done a real check? It’s time to do one!

One way to prevent extra background noise or feedback is utilizing a pair of small headphones with a localized mic or purchasing an external mic. Both of these options can help localize the sound to your voice while excluding distracting transient background noises from entering the chat. These are great investments for those who present often in a virtual setting.

Finally, it is vital to never commit the cardinal sin of virtual meetings. Whether you are an active participant or a listener, there is no reason to have your microphone active when you are not speaking. We’ve all heard too many dogs barking, loud trucks passing by, doors slamming, and worse. Become very familiar with the mute button and use it frequently. Additionally, if you are the meeting organizer on Zoom, you have the awesome power of muting anyone in the meeting. This is a great way to subtly reduce distractions without having to call anyone out specifically during the meeting.

The bottom line is that virtual meetings are a way to reflect an organization and communicate a unique identity in an authentic way. The same professionalism and detailed planning that went into in-person meetings must translate to virtual meetings. Above all, people aren’t looking for perfection; they are looking for a positive, genuine interaction.

While most of us look forward to the day we can meet with others in person on a regular basis once again, there are ways to make your Zoom calls — ahem, productions — more effective and productive, all while authentically reflecting your company. This ultimately leads each interaction to serve as stepping stones to building and maintaining trust, and that’s what meetings are all about.

Ken Wasylik is managing director of E.M. Wasylik Associates, an international development firm that assists and supports companies of all sizes as they grow and expand their global business.

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