Holding eye contact with a webcam can be difficult. Hari Patience-Davies shares three ways to make it easier to focus on the webcam and therefore provide eye contact to your virtual audience.

Delivering effective virtual communication is not as simple as just turning on your webcam, as we’ve covered in our virtual presentation top tips series. There’s a lot of things a presenter can do to connect with their audience over a webcam and one of the most crucial ones is to maintain eye contact. Unfortunately, the way Zoom, Microsoft Teams and many of the other web-conferencing apps work can make it hard to do this.

Human beings like to make eye contact when they communicate. We even do it to inanimate objects – focussing first on the eyes of painted portraits and people in photographs – so it’s no surprise that when faced with a screen full of small single person video feeds, our natural instinct is to try look them all in the eye.

But that’s not where the camera is!

Meeting people’s eyes on screen means you’re not actually meeting their eyes from their perspective because your webcam isn’t where the video feeds are. On a laptop the webcam is often at the top of the screen, which means meeting eyes on-screen makes you look like you’re looking below them, or, if you’re using a tablet horizontally the webcam is off on the side, so your on-screen eye contact is off at an angle.

Even when you know you should be looking at it, it can still be a challenge to keep your focus on the webcam. After all a webcam is often only a tiny dot on your computer hardware, some of which are almost invisible (Apple iPhone front camera I’m talking to you) and forcing yourself to stare at a tiny almost invisible dot is hard work.

So here are some tips to make it easier:

Move the video window on screen as close to the webcam as you can

This is easier with some conferencing software than others and only works on a desktop view – most mobile or tablet apps default to full screen and won’t let you do this. With Zoom on desktop you can choose whether you want to see a single video feed of your audience, a column of several feeds or expand it out to see up to 25 video feeds at once.

If you’re someone who has difficulty maintaining eye contact then I would advise selecting the single feed view and dragging it up to the top of your screen (or wherever your webcam is). It won’t be absolutely perfect but making eye contact with a single video feed that is physically within an inch or so of your camera will make it seem to your audience as if you are almost making eye contact with the camera. Unless they have you on a big screen on full screen view (and if you’re presenting slides or sharing your screen that will be the big picture, not your video) they won’t be able to tell the difference between you making eye contact with the webcam or making eye contact with the video feed just below the webcam.

With Teams or Skype, try reducing the size of the software window, and moving it about on screen to get the right position.

This only works if your webcam is positioned as part of or is right beside the screen. If you have an external webcam which is free standing and/or more than an inch from the edge of your screen, you need a different approach.

For some or us, it’s not other people’s video feeds that we make eye contact with but our own. Whether it’s ego, a desire to make sure we’re presenting well, or just the fact that yours may be the only visible feed on screen, it doesn’t matter – if you can move that video feed to align with your webcam, do it. It might feel a little weird to be effectively presenting to yourself, but if you’ve done any practising of presentations in the mirror, you may find this more comfortable than you might expect.

Post it notes are your friend!

Post it notes are a wonderful invention and are especially useful if you have to present on video while using a front facing phone camera.

Ideally if we ever have to use video on a smart phone, it’s best to use the camera on the reverse side – they tend to be higher resolution and therefore better quality. But if you’re working alone it can be hard to get the position the phone right – if you can’t see what the camera sees when you’re aligning it, you might end up with a off-centre video feed or one where the top of your head is cut off. If you have someone who can help position the phone’s reverse facing camera to make sure you’re in shot, great, but if not you may end up having to use the front facing camera.

But when you’re using the front facing camera, you can generally see yourself on the main screen, and as we’re all drawn on eyes on screen, it’s easy to end up making eye contact with yourself and not your audience (via the webcam).

So this is where post it notes come in – place a nice big one over the screen of the phone, so the picture is obscured but not the camera. Like this:

Smart phone with post it note obscuring image on screen

You can even draw an arrow on the post it note to draw your eye to where the (tiny almost invisible) front facing camera is. Like this:

Phone with post it not obscuring image on screen. Text on post it reads Look here with an arrow

On your laptop, you can also use the arrow on a post it note trick to direct your eyes to the webcam – here’s what the top of my laptop looks like currently:

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

It’s a low tech solution, but it works.

Blu-tak a Lego figurine (or other small doll with eyes) beside your webcam

Humans aren’t just drawn to eye contact with other humans – we also make it with animals, cartoons, toys – almost anything with one or two eyes. (More is harder, and while you can try and make eye contact with a spider but I can’t quite imagine how it would benefit you). This means that if the arrow on a post it note isn’t working for you, you can use something else as a proxy for your audience.

A former colleague of mine recommended Lego figures for this and I always thought this was an excellent idea. A little Lego person is small enough to not be a major distraction, but has a recognisable face (and two painted on eyes) so if you position your figurine correctly, it’s easy to use as a focus point.

It’s also a great excuse to use Lego’s online Pick-a-brick functionality to create the perfect Lego person, but keep in mind the Lego website can be a dangerous distraction during the work day. It’s a slippery slope from mini-figures to more – use with caution.

Featured image credit: Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

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