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The new etiquette of facing the webcam

Many of us are still wrestling with the rules of appearing on webcam for meetings and webinars – and locking down security. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK offers 10 steps to a better virtual experience.

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When South African online clothing retailer Superbalist advertised a line of clothes last week under the slogan “Top up your zoom meetings”, it was probably the signal to every remote worker that “Business at the top, pyjamas at the bottom” was now an acceptable mode of dress. 

However, it also symbolised the extent to which most people in teleconferences, video chats or webinars think that they only need to wear the right top to make the right impression. As a result, we are now experiencing a golden age of bad communication manners, remote blunders and workplace faux pas. 

Some of the embarrassments are obvious, like the woman talking on screen while her male partner was having a shower in the background. Or the dignified gentleman who thought the cameras weren’t rolling during a TV interview, and began swearing at his son in a most undignified fashion when the poor kid walked through the door. 

Then there is the failure to lock down security settings, allowing anyone to enter a meeting, and learning the meaning of the term “zoombombing” – when unwanted and offensive material is shared to all participants in a video call. 

Few of us experience such massive blunders, but most are guilty of minor sins of the webcam. Sometimes it is as simple as bad lighting: sitting in front of a window with the light streaming in and turning one into a silhouette, or being bathed in a bright light from the front and looking like a ghost. 

In other cases, we position our desks in front of a door that cannot be avoided by people sharing our homes, resulting in cameo appearances by family members during serious meetings or presentations. 

Or we simply have too much clutter in our frames, giving participants in the meeting or event an unintended webcam-eye view of one’s private life and obsessions. 

While a rigorous etiquette for video chats has not been formalised, there are basic rules that are either common sense, or make total sense – once someone points them out to you. 

The following is an initial, rudimentary guide to “Facing the Webcam” – the name of a LinkedIn group we’ve established to dispense this kind of advice, because there is such a massive need and demand for it. 

1. Prepare  

Before the meeting or event begins, check that you have the right software application, and test your system. There is nothing as stressful to you – and irritating to others – as having to download the app as the meeting is due to start. And test sound and video before going live, so that no one is tapping their fingers while waiting for you to discover how a computer works. 

2. Secure yourself 

If you are hosting the meeting, make sure that the invitation is locked down. This means that you should familiarise yourself with security settings that prevent the invitation from being publicly available. If it has to be sent out publicly, ensure that the meeting settings allow only you and identified co-hosts to share content. Make sure you know how to eject participants. For large events, learn how to manage webinar settings. If you join a meeting that allows anyone to share content, point this out to the host. 

3. Frame yourself 

Well before the meeting or event begins, open the application, like Zoom or Skype, on your computer or, if using a smartphone, the selfie camera, and examine how you appear on screen. Ideally, it should be in landscape mode, as that is how the display of your screen is framed in most videoconference tools. 

Now make sure your face is centered in the screen. A good rule of thumb is to pose as if a passport photo is being taken. No, not as in scowling for a mugshot, but in the sense of having your head and shoulders fill the screen.  

Set up your computer or smartphone or cam in such a way that the lens is in line with your eyes. That way, you are not looking down at everyone – and especially not appearing to invite them to examine your nostrils, as we often see in Skype interviews on TV. 

4. Frame your environment 

Create a plain or uncluttered background. At the very least, tidy your workspace. At best, keep it as plain as possible, and limit the amount of objects in view. If you have a bookcase behind you, make sure it is neat, without too many haphazard angles. On that note, don’t sit at an angle to a bookcase or other furniture. It creates a disconcerting sense of your environment being haphazard. Check the Twitter account, Bookcase Credibility at  https://twitter.com/BCredibility for an amusing and useful insight on bookcases on webcams. 

5. Look at the camera when speaking 

We automatically look at the face or faces of our audience on screen when we are talking to them in a video chat. However, they perceive us as looking down at their necks or chests, because we are typically focused on the image below the webcam lens rather than on the lens. The moment we focus on the lens, the other party or parties see us looking directly at them. This obviously does not apply when you are expected to look at something on screen, or when you are not speaking. However, the moment you start speaking, you should look at the lens rather than the screen. This immediately gives you a more engaged and involved appearance. If your glasses have a heavy reflection on screen, remove them while speaking. You don’t need them to speak into the camera. 

6. Keep lighting front and centre.  

Move any lamps to point at your face directly, and put a lamp behind your computer screen for a fully lit-up experience.  Test the effect and adjust to achieve even lighting. If you are sitting in front of a window during daytime, make sure the curtains are drawn and not letting in too much light. If that can’t be foxed, move the desk or the location of the computer. A window to the side can be just as bad, casting half your face in light and the other half in shadow. 

7. Mute 

There is always one. The person taking a phone call, shouting at the kids, or having a dog bark in the background, all while someone else is trying to talk. In the interests of everyone in the call, mute your microphone when you’re not speaking. It’s not only about unintended noise: general background noise and typing creates a level of interference that results in the quality of audio dropping, and the experience of the call deteriorating. Oh, and learn where the mute button is at the start of every call. 

8. Be tolerant 

We will all make these mistakes at one time or another. We will all keep making these mistakes. Don’t treat any of them as an excuse to dislike, insult or otherwise disrespect others.

9. Smile. 

There is a good reason many participants in video conferences look grim these days. However, if the topic in question is not necessarily as grim as the state of social distancing, nothing enhances one’s webcam presence like a smile when talking. And there are few things we need more in these times than to see others smile. 

10. Learn 

We are all learning, and we must all keep learning. 

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee 

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