The Essential Video Meeting Guide

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

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

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

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

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.

Avoid interruptions

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?

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

Should you stand or sit?

Don’t film your nostrils

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

Come early and calm down: A short meditation

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

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

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

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!

Summary

If you like my writing style, you might also enjoy:

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.

👏Please hit that clap button a few (dozen) times to let me know if you enjoyed this article!👏

Originally published at https://coderfit.com on May 3, 2020.