In the first of our virtual presentation top tips articles, Hari Patience-Davies explains the value of turning your camera on, how to set up good lighting and where you should look while presenting.

Here in 2020 people are spending a lot of time in video conferences. Be it a team catch up via Zoom or a weekly status meeting held in Microsoft Teams, a huge number of people are spending an incredible amount of hours staring at collages of tiny faces on screens.

Given the rapidly spreading second wave of COVID-19 this is likely to be the working norm for a while to come, with tech giants telling people to expect to work from home until at least Summer 2021 and research showing that that mass working from home is going to be standard from now on.

As a presenter I will admit that I feel acutely aware of the limitations of video conference technology. Not being able to see the faces and facial reactions of everyone in my audience makes me nervous (even Zoom has a limit of 25 faces at a time). If everyone is on mute (out of politeness so as to not disturb the listening experience of others) then I may have no audio feedback either, leaving me with literally no idea how the talk I’m giving is being received. And reminding myself to constantly to look at the webcam and not just meet the eyes of people in the video feeds is exhausting.

But it’s all necessary if you want to get that crucial connection with the audience.

As a speaker, it’s on us to deliver as engaging a presentation or meeting as possible in order to keep our audience’s attention.

So even if we’re uncomfortable with the idea, it’s incredibly important that we turn on our webcams and learn to love the little HAL-like dot if we want that engagement.

The first reason to do this is, obvious but undeniable, an audience reacts best to someone they can actually see.

In the 1970s Dr Albert Mehrabian proposed that delivery effectiveness broke down roughly as:

  • 7% – what is actually said
  • 38% – how it’s said / tone of voice
  • 55% – body language and nonverbal cues

Over the years this has been widely misunderstood, and so I should state that the above ratio is specifically in relation to how much an audience likes the speaker. It only applies when they are discussing their feelings or attitudes, not just for general communication. However, regardless of the actual ratio, it is safe to say there are two lessons here:

  1. How you say something may be more important than what it is you actually say
  2. Body language and facial expressions have a huge effect on how well a message is delivered

If you don’t turn on video for a virtual presentation, you’re removing your ability to use body language and facial expressions to support that presentation. And your voice has to work twice as hard to engage the audience because they don’t have any other engagement with you as a person.

Camera position

Turning on the camera isn’t enough all by itself – if all the audience can see of you is a silhouette or a heavily shadowed image, then you may be cultivating an impressive air of mystery, but you won’t be delivering an effective presentation.

The first thing to consider is the placement of your camera. No one looks good when the camera is looking up to their face – it can create the false impression of a double chin or add unfortunate shadows. Instead you want the webcam to be on the same vertical level as your eyes – if that means putting your laptop on a riser or a large pile of books, do it. If it means putting the laptop on a shelf and standing up for the length of the presentation, do it (just try not to sway from foot to foot as that can give your audience motion sickness).

Lighting

Now you’ve got the camera lifted to eye level, what’s your lighting like? There’s a reason why photographers and cinematographers the world over are obsessed with lighting – bad lighting washes out a face, making a person look pasty and ill.

Ideally we want multiple light sources illuminating the face of our speaker. Some or all of this can be natural light (in the Summer at least when there’s enough natural light to go around) or you can use electric lights that have a yellow or soft hue to them. If you have enough lights you could set them up to look something like this:

Three point lighting set up - from https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/color-temperature-3-point-lighting-basics
Three-point lighting set up – Image from https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/color-temperature-3-point-lighting-basics

Now these lights don’t need to be professional quality – it’s incredible what good lighting you can get out of a couple of desk lamps with a bit of paper taped over the end as a diffuser. But the main thing is to have more than one light source, otherwise you run the risk of dramatic shadows (if it’s positioned to a side) or flat face (if it’s face on to you).

The absolute key thing when it comes to lighting is that the brightest or strongest light should be on your face, not behind you. Having a strong light source behind you, such as a window or bright lamp, will throw your face into shadow, leaving you looking like you’re giving evidence anonymously in a high profile trial or possibly issuing instructions to a spy network in a Hollywood thriller. Neither is a strong look for a presenter.

An alternative to a putting together a three-point light set up is to invest in a ring light – lots of vloggers and instagrammers  use and rave about them. If you’re doing a lot of presentations to camera then it could be a good investment, but that’s between you and your wallet. Or expense account.

If anyone has further questions on lighting I now defer to the article the above graphic is from which goes into a LOT of detail about lighting colour and position.

Camera quality

I think most of us are still using the webcams that are physically built into our laptop screens – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is worth considering just how good that camera actually is. For the most part, the older a laptop is, the lesser quality the webcam is going to be. Not to mention that I’ve come across many people whose built in camera has stopped functioning but their IT departments don’t consider that enough of a reason to replace the machine.

If you are suffering from a crappy webcam then all the lighting tricks in the world will only offer limited improvements. Sometimes the only real option is to buy a new external webcam, or to utilise a camera you already own. A ex-colleague of mine has his DSLR digital camera connected to his laptop and his video feed is always gloriously HD and crisp. If you have a good quality camera on your smart phone you could always dial in twice to the meeting, once on a desktop to share slides and the second via your smartphone purely for camera and audio purposes.

So it’s always worth checking if a camera or smartphone you already own will do the job better than the one at the top of your laptop screen, though keep in mind, if you purchase an external webcam, you might also want to use an external microphone…and I should warn you that it’s a very slippery slope to having an entire home studio set up around your laptop.

Where do I look? Eye contact for virtual presentations

Last but not least is eye contact. When you’re presenting to a web conference it’s incredibly tempting to make eye contact with each of the little video feeds from your audience that show up on your screen (if you’re lucky enough that people have actually turned the camera on at their end). Unfortunately, while you’re looking at their eyes on screen, what they see in return is that you’re not looking at the camera.

It’s natural for humans to seek out the eyes of the people we’re talking to – we do it all the time in real life. But when it comes to webcams and video conferencing, the audience’s eyes should not be our focus – the camera should be.

And it’s an incredibly hard habit to get into. But there is a way you can make it easier on yourself. This is what I do:

Post it note saying Look here with an arrow pointing at the webcam

Draw an arrow on a post-it note and stick it beside the webcam.

Low tech? Yes

Effective? Also yes.

I know people who blu-tak little lego men up there beside the webcam so they have someone to look at, or cut a hole in a picture of a person and arrange it over the webcam. But frankly the post-it note with the arrow is the ultimate low stress solution to this problem. And if it loses its stickiness and falls off, there’s always another post-it note.

One last thing – while in an ideal world you might want to have the perfect lighting and camera set up for every virtual meeting you attend, if this isn’t something you can easily implement around your desk or workstation, pick your battles. If you’re due to present at a conference, or have a critical meeting with leadership that you’re speaking at, by all means pull the stops out and make sure you as good as you can be. But if setting up a 3 point lighting arrangement every day stresses you out, keep it for special occasions.

When it comes to presenting, whether virtual or face to face, the key thing is that you feel as confident as you can, and that you can concentrate on delivering your message as strongly as possible. As long as people can see and hear you, you’ve covered the basics. And every presenter, no matter how experienced, will always say they can do better, because there’s always room for improvement.

TL:DR

  • Turn on your camera!
  • Think about camera placement – ideally it should be level with your eyes.
  • Think about lighting – can the audience see your face? If not, light it up. And don’t have your back to a window – you want light on your face, not behind you.
  • Is your webcam good enough quality? Is it worth investing in a better one?
  • Look at the camera – use something eye catching if you need the visual reminder


Please note, links do not equal endorsement or recommendation of equipment.

One thought on “Top tips for virtual presentations – learn to love the camera

  1. Great tips. I sometimes join a meeting twice, once on my laptop which I present into and then another time on my ipad which I have propped just above my laptop and showing the attendees. Then I can easily gaze up to see reactions and faces while not moving too far from the camera. New AR-based technology is coming which will allow us to actually look at our screens while looking like we’re gazing into the camera – which will be perfect all around. Well, perfect for a virtual session at least.

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