This is a guide I wrote with a professional editor to sell it but we decided to publish it for free. Enjoy:
You might think video calling is trivial. You just switch on a camera and then have a meeting. But there is so much more to it. Once, I aligned my camera in FaceTime so that my room wasn’t visible. When the call started, all went okay up until the moment when suddenly my webcam caught a much wider viewing range. Not only was my messy room visible but also a whiteboard with sensitive information! Read on to not let this or other embarrassments happen to you.
On video calling hardware
There’s nothing worse than talking to someone whose hardware doesn’t work properly or is misconfigured. I get really annoyed when I speak to someone holding a $1000 iPhone but using it with $5 earphones that have a 10-cent microphone built in, so they sound like they’re sitting in a barrel.
Buy proper hardware, configure it, and test it before you bother other people with video calls.
If you use a desktop, things can get really complex because there are software and hardware issues at play. I am not an Apple fanboy, but I can say that if you stick with Apple products, you don’t have to worry. The MacBook, iPhone and AirPods are the ideal hardware because everything works together in harmony and discourages any configuration that gives you degrees of freedom to screw it up.
If you don’t like Apple, that’s fine. But then you have to do a bit of research to find hardware that is equally good or even better. Compared to other expenses, good hardware is cheap, lasts a long time, and rarely breaks. Buy a webcam that can be mounted on top of the screen. The Logitech C920S HD webcam is an excellent camera. And you might want to get a great microphone, one noticeably better than even the AirPods Pro one ist the Blue Microphones Yeti.
(There is more professional hardware you can buy for thousands of dollars that will turn a room of several people into a virtual meeting room, but in this guide, I focus on individuals, not groups.)
On video calling software
The first widely used video calling software is Skype, which was the only tool people used for a long time. Because they didn’t manage to innovate with useful features like scheduling, better compression, and drop-in meetings (where you don’t need to exchange Skype nicknames and add each other before the call), they started to lose market share. Today people still say, “Let’s Skype,” but they use different tools, and the expression is even slowly changing to “Let’s Zoom.”
Zoom is a relatively new player that grew quickly and is even now listed on the stock market. It won the race because it has the best video compression and ease of use. It slows down the video when the internet breaks and speeds it up when the connection gets better. In this way, the video and audio stream appear seamless. But to implement this, Zoom needed to program a native app for each platform. So, the user has to download and install an additional app. (Some of their installation routines had dark patterns and “nonideal” security.)
Also, due to the integrated calendar scheduling feature and free dial-in capabilities (via normal landline), Zoom became one of the biggest players on the market for video conferencing.
The undisputed king on video and audio quality, especially if one of the parties has bad internet, is FaceTime. Apple uses not only its software but also hardware to optimize quality and compression. The only tool that I could use while traveling in Asia with bad internet was FaceTime. That option only works, however, when everyone has an Apple device.
Other tools I see used right now are Google Hangouts, whereby.com and bluejeans.com, with only BlueJeans also having a native app. (I haven’t used Microsoft Teams/GoToMeeting or other tools for a long time, so I can’t comment on those.)
Then there are one-to-many video meeting tools where you can broadcast your meetings, such as crowdcast.io and Periscope. Crowdcast is more for a LinkedIn audience and Periscope, for a Twitter audience, because they integrate with these platforms and signal to your connections and followers that you are conducting a live public meeting.
If you know that both of you have good internet, you can use any (browser-based) solution since no strong compression is needed, yet every tool that needs a browser plug-in installed has one big weakness: They rely on your browser, most of the time on Chrome. Other browser extensions could be incompatible with the video streaming extension and your meeting might fail. I’ve seen it many times, and this is very embarrassing if you are video casting to social media. It is best to have a dedicated Chrome profile only for these video meetings with only the needed extension installed and test them rigorously beforehand.
Video calls are similar to physical meetings in many ways but also have nonobvious differences. Here are some aspects unique to video calls that you should keep in mind.
Do a morning exercise routine
While a physical meeting suggests that you do have to move at some point during the day, a virtual meeting doesn’t force you to do this. So, sports are a must the morning of an important video meeting.
If you move in the morning, the improved circulation to your muscles will fill them up with blood, making them look bigger. Your face will have a rosy, healthy glow, and your brain gets more oxygen, which keeps your mind clearer throughout the day. Sports, especially heavy weight-training exercises or sex, have a much stronger effect than any easy-to-consume stimulant like coffee. The important thing is that you move somehow, that your heart rate increases and you run out of breath.
If you can have sex the morning of an important meeting, this will make you react calmly and reasonably to any challenging situation. Sex clears your mind, puts things in perspective, and distracts you from small everyday problems that will be gone next week anyway. The biggest mistake people make is to expect sex to be perfect each time, but nonideal sex is always better than no sex.
How to dress and groom
Dress powerfully, especially before important calls or negotiations. And please, I also mean pants. Although the other party doesn’t see them all, powerful clothes give you confidence that will shine through, even on the phone. On video it certainly helps to wear a collared shirt. If you are dressed in a bathrobe, I guarantee that you won’t be able to hold a serious conversation. When in doubt, always err on the side of overdressing. But know your audience. E.g. don’t wear a suit to a Silicon Valley video call.
The same goes for doing your hair, shaving your face, or putting on makeup. When working at home, it is easy to neglect those things. But they are even more important in a virtual meeting because you lack smell and physical proximity on video, two significant influences, so you have to make up for them.
I once had an important client call where I had to discuss money, and I was too lazy to dress because I slept late. As a result, the call went much worse than usual. I couldn’t make myself clear or present my arguments powerfully. I had to later renegotiate via email, which was painful and embarrassing. Make it a habit in the morning to get ready as if you are going to a real meeting.
Nothing will throw you off more than interruptions during a call. In the best case, they are just a bit awkward, but in the worst case, you forget what you were saying, which disrupts the meeting entirely. If you live with other humans or pets, make sure they can’t disturb you.
If fellow humans don’t get it, tell them that an interruption of five seconds doesn’t just steal a few seconds but everything from several minutes up to an hour that you need to get back to the topic you were thinking or talking about.
We don’t want to be interrupted when we are squatting with a 300-pound barbell, do we? Meetings are activities that also need maximum focus from us. Don’t underestimate the effort when your mind is under a heavy load.
Also, don’t forget to switch off your phone and disable the doorbell ring.
Choose desktop or phone?
If you know there won’t be any screen sharing needed, then I would always opt for the phone because you are less likely to run into software or hardware problems. Phones are less complicated devices. You have less freedom to screw their configuration up. And they have lower latency, meaning that the data can “come and go” more quickly.
Also, the aspect ratio is usually such that your face is the center of the video stream, which is great. Everything else is cut out, which is much more natural and similar to how an in-person meeting takes place. In physical conversations, your mind also cuts out everything that is not your conversation partner’s face. Some people even have a dedicated iPhone or iPad for video calls; that's how big the difference can be.
If you know there might be screen sharing, restart your computer or at least close all unneeded applications to give the video software as much RAM as possible to handle the load. Since the video angle is wider, make sure there are no distracting objects captured. If that is not doable, use virtual backgrounds, which we will discuss later in depth in part 2.
Check your internet
Regardless of which device you use, go on speedtest.net or fast.com and check your internet speed. Anything above 10 Mbps down and upload and ping of less than 50 ms should be fine. If the values aren’t good enough for a call, unplug your Wi-Fi router from electricity and plug it back in. If the values still stay bad, then use your mobile internet. Maybe tell your interview partners later that your internet is sadly not good and they have to talk slower.
Should you stand or sit?
If you have a standing desk, use it. When you stand, your body is more energized and the meeting is more likely to go well. Plus, you’ll look and feel more confident when standing. You are better able to keep a straight posture, with your shoulders back. You feel more like a presenter, which you are. If you have several things to focus on, for instance, a PDF, a physical whiteboard, and the video meeting itself, standing allows you to rotate your body much more easily compared to sitting. Finally, standing for the meeting signals that you care about your home office enough to bother with a standing desk.
Don’t film your nostrils
Here is some critical and easy-to-implement advice during video meetings: Set up your camera so that it is higher than your eye level. If needed, buy a tripod. This way, you will need to look up. This makes you look more submissive, and I mean this in a positive way. Many do the opposite. They have the camera on a lower level, which makes others feel as if you are talking down to them.
Some computer manufacturers demonstrated their incompetency about this by placing the camera in a corner at the bottom of the screen, enforcing this effect even more. That’s terrible. Back in university, one professor used such a camera to film himself and his lectures. We were always making fun of him for filming his nostrils. Don’t let this happen to you.
After you dress well and angle your camera correctly, test it to see what it captures in mobile and full-width view. Some apps like FaceTime cut off the left and right of what the physical camera captures but that could change when more people join the call. Therefore, you have to try out the camera ideally in several apps, but especially in the app you will use for the call, to make sure all looks okay.
Choose the right light
The perfect lighting is natural light in front of you coming from behind your camera. If you don’t have a window close by, organize one or several light sources so you have no shadows on your face. This can be challenging, especially it is already dark outside. If you have no good lamps at home, consider buying a selfie ring light. If you wear glasses, avoid reflections from the screen or any light so the other party can see your eyes.
Come early and calm down: A short meditation
Be in the call at least five minutes early and do a short meditation. Have a straight back, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Feel how the air goes in and out at the tip of your nose and avoid thinking of anything else. For most people, this is very hard to do for even just a minute.
If you get distracted, put your awareness on how the air touches your nostrils. When thoughts appear, focus on your breath again. Your breathing might get out of rhythm because you’re consciously doing it. That is fine. Just continue focusing on the air going in and out at the tip of your nose. When thoughts and feelings appear, and this will happen, try to ignore them without pushing them away, as if they pop up on a television or radio show you’re barely interested in. Thoughts appear, play around, and disappear again. Since they go away in the end, why bother about them now? You don’t need to. They can’t change your essence.
This is how you learn to meditate in many Buddhist schools. If you are otherwise religious, some short prayers might have an even better effect for you because you are used to saying them.
Wait for the other callers to appear. The time in meditation or prayer will have slowed down your pulse and make your mind laser-focused. When the other person appears, you can look into the camera and be ready to start the conversation because you are now truly in the moment.
Break the ice and confirm a good internet connection
Have an icebreaker ready, something about the weather in your location or theirs, or a funny thing you saw on social media. In the US the most common icebreaker is “How are you?” That sounds a bit odd to Europeans because we are used to hearing this only from close friends or family. Yet Americans like to use it as a conversation starter. Mostly, you are expected to just answer “Good, you?” no matter how you actually feel.
It is better to say something concrete about the other person, e.g., how a certain hobby is going. If you know details about the other person use them instead of generic icebreakers because it shows that you really care.
In video calls I recommend making this a bit longer than in-person because it is not just small talk but also used to check if your internet connection works. So stretch it out. Based on the facial expression of the other party, you will see if your words are heard or not.
Starting a video call without small talk and going directly into something important is dangerous. Not having checked the internet connection especially sucks when there is money on the line. I’ve often hung up on important calls because the connection was too poor to continue. I rescheduled just to be able to hear the other party clearly and not miss any nuance in what they are saying.
How to answer questions
More important than small talk is of course what you say about the actual meeting topic. Learn from professionals. Check how presenters at big tech conferences answer questions from the audience-always crisp and to the point. They almost always end answers with a polite, “Does that answer your question?” This is an especially important question in video meetings because there might have been an internet break and the other person missed something. Also, asking if the other party heard everything makes you sound collaborative and easy to work with.
Practice answering complex questions ideally with the STAR framework (Situation, Task, Action, Result). If you get a question about what you did last week, a possible answer if you are a programmer could be:
- Situation (outer conditions you were thrown in): A deadline set from the product owner to make the app quicker
- Task (specific challenge you had to do): Updated the codebase from AngularJS to a newer version
- Action (work you did to solve the task): Used automatic tools for roughly migrating the codebase which took two days, and then handcrafted the rest, which took three days. It is important to highlight specific challenges and how you overcame them.
- Result (business impact you generated): Speed increase of critical UI components from 3 seconds to 100 ms so users are happy now.
Look for nuances during the video call
While you talk, look for cues that the other person got your points or looks confused. If you see big disagreements in facial expressions, stop talking and ask if everything is okay. This is hard to do over video but possible: You have to monitor them for their reactions while simultaneously looking into the camera. This is easiest done when your video-stream window right below your camera.
On video you can’t catch tiny cues that people tend to show others. This lack of signal must be evened out by a different speaking rhythm. Try to speak slower to counterbalance small internet breaks but use fewer words. On video people tend to do the opposite. They talk as if they are in person and speak longer because they tend to miss others’ reactions to their words.
People let others speak longer not because they want to, but because they have to. There is no way to signal “stop talking”-there is only interrupting. Yet it is harder to speak up because it can seem rude. Modern tools have functions like Raise Hand to counterbalance this, though, so use them.
It’s also easy to slack off while others are talking and lose track of the conversation because no one is watching you. This can lead to really tiresome meetings. Get into the habit of actively monitoring others to check how they are doing and keep them engaged and remind yourself to stay awake and aware of who is saying what. If you practiced focusing on your breath beforehand you now can transfer this skill to concentrate on what your meeting participants say!
Video calls can be challenging, especially when you do many of them. In part 2, we will look at virtual backgrounds, one way to at least make them more fun.
If you like my writing style, you might also enjoy:
- Why software engineers don’t get jobs: Four horror stories
- Five years after moving to Switzerland. Why I am still here
- Nine reasons why I moved to Switzerland to work in tech
- Switzerland: How buying real-estate can kill you financially and two reasons to go for stocks instead
I educate programmers on what matters in their job-life. Grab a copy of my guide Coderfit: All you need to know for your programming career for more career-training material such as this or subscribe to my mailing list.
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Originally published at https://coderfit.com on May 3, 2020.