The last two weeks have dramatically increased the number of executives talking on video chat and collaboration channels like Teams and Zoom. We know that much of the impact people make comes from how you look and how you sound, not from what you say. As we increasingly fix video interviews with journalists, and TV interviews via laptops become the norm, it’s important to understand how to look your best.
The recommendations I lay out below are relevant both for video interviews with “print” journalists and for live TV. In fact they’re also important for most sales calls (and job interviews).
Lighting – Bad lighting is the main reason people say they don’t look good on video calls. Don’t be too close to a window in the daylight. It’s critical to kill shadows, and for this reason lighting from overhead is not ideal. You should ideally have soft lighting, with two lights in front of you out of view to right and left at your level and with one light behind. Remember you can test exactly how you look on your screen (though keep in mind time of day).
Camera angle – The camera lens must be at eye level. Far too often people are looking down at their computer – you don’t want the camera looking up your nose or looming from above. Put your laptop on some heavy books or files but make sure this is stable.
Keep good eye contact – Look at the camera, not at the screen, otherwise you will look disengaged. Beware if you are screen sharing your laptop with a larger monitor next to it – this can result in you looking at the larger screen and not the camera.
Fill but not overfill the screen – If your head takes up all of the screen, it’s overwhelming and (for most of us) unattractive. If your head is too small you look distant and disengaged. Think about the triangle of head and shoulders filling the screen with a little room on each side. Make sure you are centred – in calls I find some people purposely pose on the edge of the screen, but in an interview you’re the centre of the action.
Posture and movement – As in a studio, the adage about “bottom on back of seat” holds true. Don’t slouch, sit up and lean slightly forward, looking engaged and active. Try not to move too dramatically backwards and forwards, as this is distracting as your head size in the screen suddenly changes.
Table and hands – It’s often best to sit behind at a table. Then you can place your hands in front of you, and keep gesticulation under control. If you’re sitting without a table, then make sure you think about legs, keeping them crossed etc – even if not in the shot, moving them can seem disruptive. One variant we see is standing up with a high laptop camera – this is fine as long as the camera angle is good, and you don’t move around too much. Avoid rocking or swivel chairs.
Cut distractions – don’t have too clutter or other work on your desk to distract you, and similarly don’t have windows or notifications on your screen that will distract you during an interview. Take care not to look at your watch. Don’t tap your pen. Focus on the other person.
Internet connection and testing your equipment – however good your broadband, it makes sense to close down applications you don’t need. Microwaves and dimmer switches can disrupt your wifi, so ensure these are off when on a video conference call.If using a new platform for the first time, try to connect at least 10 minutes before as you may need to download some software and it gives you time to check the audio and microphone are working on your computer. Ideally try a call with a friend or colleague in advance to truly test it.
Background – some are investing in Zoom and other artificial backgrounds. This is an option, but in the current situation, a home background that is uncluttered and unobtrusive is fine. Be aware of mirrors and reflection.
On air and interruptions – while Professor Robert Kelly in Korea became a charming hit when his children invaded his laptop interview, take what measures are practical to guard against interruptions. Ideally this is a closed door with a “on air” sign on it. But with many sharing home offices with partners and flatmates, this isn’t always practical. This is why being close to a wall is good, as it makes it physically impossible to walk behind you and onto the screen.
Mute – Use the mute button when you’re not talking. It helps the overall quality of the audio for everyone and if you are typing/ taking notes, it prevents you from being a disruptive presence. And of course, with multiple people working from home, the mute button could save you from an awkward interruption!
Notes – On a TV interview use of notes is a no-no. The temptation to rig up a static teleprompter with some notes should be resisted, as it’s likely to involve too much visible eye movement. In a “print” interview via a video call, it is ok to have a few brief notes in front of you if unobtrusive. Looking down too often will detract from your impact.
Headphones – With a good microphone built-in. Built in mics have poor sound quality and produce feedback. While TV studios will use No clip-on lavalier mikes, we’d recommend against these as an alternative to headphones, since use is simply more risky on your own.
What to wear – Avoid white, very bright or neon colors that reflects or distracts. Avoid jewelry that glares, or swings about, or clanks when your hands touch the table.How casual is up to you, and broadcast channels are very relaxed, but the main message is look presentable. Unironed shirts don’t look good, and since you may be cutting your own hair these days, make sure you comb it. Dress appropriately from head to foot, since you never know what might happen.
All that said, what you say and how you say it does still matter! I’ve written about this before and will do so again, and Cognito provides comprehensive media and web training services.
Coronavirus communications resources:
Our latest financial services media snapshot for the industry by industry impact of COVID-19.
Guidance from our PR experts on working with the media and managing communications in this fast-moving current environment.
How to navigate the changing online conversation.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito's vice chairman