Through the camera lens, our eyes clock congruence, that is harmony or compatibility (in this context) of words, tone, facial expression, and any other non-verbal cues.
Recall the times you met a stranger in a certain place, and thought “something’s not quite right”? Or chancing upon a friend and sensing something’s off? This is because we pick up inconsistent cues from that person’s verbal and non-verbal presentation including body language.
The same when we are in a video-conference. In fact, we are working harder to pick up cues because we know we have less to work with. And incongruence distracts.
So what helps us to appear professional in a video-conference?
What we wear and our personal grooming and style contribute to the professional appearance. What is appropriate will depend on the purpose of the video-conference, who the participants are, perhaps the industry/professional expectation, and the environment in which the video-conference is being held. This is synonymous to wearing appropriate attire to an in-person meeting. Most importantly, be authentic. There are different types of casual professional attire, select that which portrays who you are.
Our appearance ought to be consistent with the environment, that is our surroundings when we are in a video-conference. Is it congruent to be wearing a dark suit if our background is a view of the bedroom (no matter how stylish it may be), or a Zoom background of a beach at sunset? It is likely we will sense a degree of awkwardness. If you wish to convey a relaxed atmosphere then lose the dark suit.
We bring our environment into a video-conference through the sights and sounds being transmitted from where we are physically located. Mute the microphone where required and minimise potential visual distraction to other participants in the video-conference. This is also a sign of respect.
Tech and equipment
A good webcam is necessary to capture clear visual and audio, which eases communication. This is a necessary investment (not a luxury) in the current professional space. Couple it with a good pair of headset or microphone and speakers. No matter how good we look, if we can’t be heard then the whole scene is sub-standard and interferes with the perception of professionalism. Imagine a documentary with beautifully shot visuals but you have difficulty hearing the narrator?
Placement of the camera is also important. A view up one’s nostrils is never pleasant, nor is a view of the top of one’s head. The camera should be placed directly at eye level or slightly above the eye-line. The illusion of us looking into the camera and thus meeting another’s eyes is inviting. Its absence can create a sense of disconnection and isolation.
Lighting is important. We are attuned to consider a face hidden in shadow as suspicious. No matter if we are thinking it or not, we will react less favorably to a partially hidden face, or when we are unable to see someone’s eyes or facial expression. This is particularly true in a culture which considers making eye contact as a sign of sincerity, honesty and good manners. Using a ring light to illuminate our face solves this issue. Ring light is usually placed behind the camera and directly facing our face. This allows flexibility of where we position ourselves for a video-conference, and removes the need to be facing a window for proper light or be concerned about back-lighting.
Spend time considering what you need before each video-conference. Be prepared.
Do not turn on your video or unmute before you are ready. Shuffling paper, appearing distracted as you attempt to close down an application, fidgeting as you make yourself comfortable – all can appear less than professional.
Perhaps this means leaving yourself with ample time in between calls to gather yourself before you start the next video-conference.
Professionalism is fundamentally about behaviour and attitude. Our behaviour ought to be congruent with our attitude.
Any discomfort or resentment (a video-conference may not be everyone’s meeting mode of choice) will channel through as a result of inconsistency in verbal and visual expressions, say between your stiff smile, or the wariness in your eyes, or your agitated gestures, or your constant shrugs or nervous laugh.
A good way to familiarise yourself to being in front of a camera is to be in front of one. Practice, for example starting your webcam and leaving it on while you work, or take a recording of yourself. As with actors, you will soon “forget” about the camera, or be less self-conscious. You may even learn to use the camera to your advantage.
A moderate and calm demeanour assists with a professional presentation. Exaggerated gestures or volume are magnified in a video-conference. Fidgeting and sudden movements will interrupt and distract. To find “just right” will depend on the context and how practised you are before a webcam.
When the camera is focused primarily on your face – any smirk, flinch, grimace, or eyes-rolling, are captured and transmitted. Being respectful is an important condition to being a professional. A respectful attitude is keenly felt even through the camera lens.
I hope this gives you food for thought and inspiration to act.