How to Master the Art of Video Conferencing: 10 Timely Tips
Written by Stan Schneider
March 23, 2020
Our children, and their children, will be studying 2020 in history books for years to come. Even putting the health and economic impacts aside, this year challenges us all. Never before have so many people faced so much disruption so quickly.
The loss of in-person interaction is one of the biggest disruptions to the way business operates. Most say that in-person meetings are critical to fully understand the context of the situation; face-to-face just works better.
Well, of course it does. Professionals all have years of practice in meetings. However, meetings and companies will become increasingly virtual, virus or not. Those who don't learn to leverage this new reality will be at a huge disadvantage.
How to Leverage Virtual Meetings?
We at RTI have been doing virtual meetings for years. About one third of our employees today work full time at home. We intentionally distribute teams to help us better bond as a global organization. And we allow our Silicon Valley employees to work from home (WFH) to skip the traffic battle two days a week. Nearly every meeting at RTI has remote participation; the last time I was in a meeting with everyone in the room, we started the video anyway out of habit.
In any case, all this practice taught us a lot about video meetings. There’s a huge learning curve. You can tell how much experience people have with virtual meetings by simple skills, like how they manage sound and where their eyes are on screen. Becoming adept at remote meetings is an entirely new form of communication. It’s hard to do it well. It takes focused effort and real practice, like learning a new language.
Virtual Meeting Best Practices
Always Use VideoAlways. If you must turn it off, ask for a break if possible; it's almost like leaving the room. And don't allow call ins, except maybe to just listen. If you aren’t in the room even virtually, you will have a much harder time fully participating.
Present a Good ImageMost cameras are OK; most lighting is not. Look at the image: is it good? What's in the background? Is the lens clean? If you talk with your hands (most do), can others see them? Are you too far away? I use a webcam at the office, but with the WFH revolution, they aren't available any more. Laptop cameras are notoriously mis-aimed; adjust the camera for a good picture, even if it makes the screen more awkward for you to read. You want to aim the camera so your eyes are about one third of the screen from the top.
Worry About NoiseMake sure you have a quiet location if possible. Isolate typing noise from the mic, by using either an external (ideally quiet) keyboard, a headset, or both. Don't rely on "not typing"; it never works. Use a noise-cancelling microphone if you can; most headsets have them, as do some webcams. Turn your laptop speakers off or way down so others don’t hear chimes from other programs like Slack.
Manage "Mute"For the sake of a lively interaction (and laughter!), you need to minimize mute. But you can’t flood others with noise. Managing mute is your responsibility. It’s a faux pas to either a) broadcast noise so others notice, or b) fail to respond quickly or (worse) say "sorry, I was on mute". When you do these things, realize you made a mistake. Learn.
Good interactive meetings have lots of interruptions without being overbearing. It's much harder on video. Don't drone on when you have the floor. Do let others break in, and do be willing to break in yourself, especially with really natural interactions like jokes. This may be the biggest difference from f2f; it's very hard to learn how to balance interactivity, hogging the floor, and too many interruptions. In a meeting with many newbies, this won't work well. It helps if people at least try.
Manage EnergyHolding an energetic virtual meeting is a very new challenge. And it’s critical:
Great meetings, the kind that make real progress and energize people, do not result from a good agenda, starting on time, preparation, discipline, or formality. Great meetings are defined by the quality of the dialog. You cannot have an execution culture without robust, open, tough, informal dialog. Informality is critical to candor. Invite multiple viewpoints, explore the pros & cons of each, honestly & candidly create new viewpoints, bring out reality, work towards closure (only) at the end. Learn & teach to challenge & debate without getting defensive. Value truth over harmony.
For Meetings <10 PeopleIn a small meeting (<10 people), interrupts and easy interaction are important. No laughter and chatter make the meeting boring. Everyone should be off mute most of the time. This is a primary reason that video meetings tend to lose the audience.
For Meetings With 10-25 PeopleFor 10-25 or so, teams need to get good at politely interrupting...just like in person. You also need to be adept at mute, because keeping 20 people quiet gets hard, while being muted is dead. You should still try to be off mute unless you're in a noisy space. (Or if you have a noisy keyboard...or don’t use it; your laptop keyboard is better.)
For Large MeetingsFor large meetings, everyone's typically on mute, and people should just go off mute and break in.
For Formal MeetingsSome more formal or very large meetings use the chat window. Some systems like WebEx have a "raise hand" function (it's at the top of the chat window). The problem with the chat window is that unlike f2f, nobody pays any attention to the request, so people are ignored. You can assign someone (not the leader) to watch and queue speakers, or use another chat service that makes a chime.
Manage AttentionIf you are leading the meeting, it’s your job to watch eyes and notice when people are drifting. When that happens, you either lose the meeting, or you have to do something "dramatic" to get attention. This is not easy. The next time you're in a video meeting, watch how many people are looking elsewhere. It's amazing how different it is from in person. The social norms are just not there.
You no longer have the cue of everyone else turning their heads to look at the speaker. People use those cues to naturally manage the flow of conversation. It's hard to adapt to this reality. I don't know how to do this except to practice. If you think about it, you can do a better job.
Remember the Camera is Your AudiencePut your Zoom or WebEx video window with others and presentation materials (e.g. their slides) on the screen right under the camera, so you are always looking at the camera, whether you are watching someone else speak or looking at notes or materials. Try not to use materials or notes on "second screens".
This is extra critical if you are presenting. It's much easier to share an entire second screen than a window, but then you have to consciously remember to look at your audience (camera), not your slides. Just like in person on stage.
Practice Sharing Your Screen
It's really annoying, for instance, when someone shares the PowerPoint document window or presenter console when they wanted to share a slide. Use the entire screen or window so the text is big enough to read for users.
Politely Correct People
If you notice someone else making an error, politely correct them immediately, as you would in person. Nobody wants to sit through a meeting with the wrong materials shared, key people not on video, loud typing, or others staring off into space.
Adapting to Working From Home
Welcome to the new WFH world! I suspect that when the pandemic ends, many people and companies will find that they prefer WFH at least part time. The travel and conference industries may never be the same. You must adapt.
But realize that this is like a new language, and you won't be fluent in it right away, any more than you would be if you took up High Valyrian. I do know from experience that if you take it as a learning challenge, you'll get better quickly.
Best wishes as you sail the unchartered waters in the months and years ahead. Engaging with a remote team will be a key skill for the future. I hope these tips help.
About the author:
Stan Schneider is CEO of Real-Time Innovations (RTI), the largest Industrial IoT connectivity vendor. RTI has an extensive footprint in Energy, Medical, Automotive, Transportation, Defense, and Industrial Control.
Stan serves as the Vice Chair of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC). He also serves on the advisory board for IoT Solutions World Congress. Stan holds a PhD in EE/CS from Stanford University.