Virtual Engagement Tips from a Three-Time Emmy Award-Winning Journalist 9/24/2020
These days, our entire world in the eyes of our clients and colleagues consists of whatever is viewable on their screens. And those screens can vary: They can be a typical laptop screen such as I use. They can be a large external monitor as many of my colleagues on the marketing team have at their home offices. Or, they can consist of the much smaller viewing area of a mobile phone or tablet.
How you come through on that screen can make the difference between having an extremely successful meeting, or completely bombing. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to enhance your engagement during virtual meetings – whether giving a sales presentation to a buyer, or having an internal meeting with your team – and they require no additional tools other than your eyes, mouth, face and body. Okay, maybe a ring light, but that's it.
I recently spoke with Wendy Saltzman, CEO of Philly Power Media, about how we can all put our best foot forward when it comes to engaging with others in a virtual setting. And Saltzman knows a thing or two about being in front of the camera. She’s a three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist who has had a 23-year career in television before striking out on her own to coach executives, entrepreneurs, celebrities and sports figures on how to enhance their presentations, whether in-person, or as is more often than not the case these days, virtually. During my interview with Wendy, she provides some key insights on how to step-up your engagement in front of the camera. (Editor's note: I have both the podcast link and video embedded here, but if you have the opportunity, definitely watch the video below so you can see the visual examples Wendy provides).
“The first thing you have to realize is that you’re no longer talking to a human,” says Saltzman. “The one thing that most people are comfortable with is sitting in a room across from one person and having a conversation. Obviously, the larger that group gets, the more uncomfortable people get. Public speaking is the number one fear in America. Adding to that, now we are just talking to this little inanimate object, the camera. It’s harder to get feedback on what you are saying.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
"So for most people, it’s hard to transition from the energy and feedback you get when you are in the same room to all of a sudden now speaking in front of a camera, and yet still maintain that same level of energy and enthusiasm and excitement that they would have in-person.”
But this is the world we live in now, and as we continue to realize the efficiencies that virtual delivers, it will remain a part of how we interact long after the pandemic is gone. We may as well embrace it, and – more importantly – learn how to perform our best in this medium. So below is a summary of some best practices that Saltzman and I discussed during the interview.
Framing your visible space
When it comes to virtual meetings, you are the most important thing in that box that’s visible by the viewer, and so it’s important that your “virtual studio” be set up so that you are the main focus on the screen. Your entire world to the viewer is what fits in the box, so make sure it doesn’t contain clutter or anything that may draw the viewer’s attention away from you, such as an interesting painting, shelves with unique knick-knacks, or people and pets moving into and out of that visible space (cats in particular love jumping on desks and walking past cameras). Your background should not be more interesting than you are.
In addition, don’t sit too close or too far away from the camera. Viewers should see your head and shoulders, and be able to see when you gesture – they don’t necessarily need to see your hands all of the time, but rather the physical movement you make when you gesture, as it adds emphasis to points you are making. This is especially important if you are presenting products or showing something to the viewer on the screen. “You can also stand up,” says Saltzman. “Don’t feel completely constrained by the idea that you have to be in the box; it really depends on what you are doing. If you need to show something, you can widen it up a bit.”
Do NOT sit with your back to a window. You will show up in silhouette and will appear as if you are in the Witness Protection Program. If at all possible, sit with the window facing you so that the natural light is on your face. Otherwise a simple low-cost ring light will do the trick. I found one on Amazon for $40.
Camera angles: eye level is best
Eye-level is the best camera angle to use, and this can be achieved by simply placing your laptop on a pile of books or files (as Saltzman does) or even a milk crate (as I do). Of course, if you want to spend some money there are laptop stands that can be raised up to eye level, as well. Slightly higher than eye level is fine, but you want to avoid low angles, such a when keeping your laptop on a desk. I’ve seen more ceiling fans than I care to recount, and if your ceiling fan is on the screen, it means the angle is too low. In addition, low camera angles are not as flattering to our faces – not to mention the fact that they add extra chins!
Looking at the camera
Look into the camera when you are speaking whenever possible. If you look at the person's face on the screen, it won’t appear on their end as if you are making eye contact with them, and we all know the importance of eye contact during a conversation. “Video conferences allow a personal connection with the people to whom you are speaking,” says Saltzman. “But to truly connect, you do that with the eyes. So look at your camera as much as possible, especially when you are making your pitch and the interaction is minimal. Definitely don’t read from notes or slides; that seems extremely impersonal and the audience is going to tune out.”
This is where practice comes in. By the time that you are on-screen, you should have your presentation down cold. If you need to, you can place a sticky note with some bullets on your computer next to the camera as a reminder.
Dale Carnegie devoted an entire chapter to this topic in his iconic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and it’s even more relevant now in a virtual setting, as it’s the one way you can really show your interest and excitement to be interacting with your audience. “When you smile, you can actually hear that positivity in your voice,” says Saltzman. “That makes you more engaging and likeable on the screen, and people want to do business with people they like. Even if you are on the phone with someone, you should try to smile.”
How to avoid mumbling
According to Saltzman, some people who aren’t confident or are shy tend to keep their words inside their mouth, and that can result in mumbling your words. One way to prevent this to opening your mouth wider when you speak. How do you know if you are opening your mouth wide enough? Simple: If you can see both your upper and lower teeth when you speak, then it’s wide enough. If not, practice opening wider (Saltzman and I do an exercise to help with this in the video – you’ll get a kick out of it).
While gesturing comes natural to many of us in an in-person setting, some people tend to forget to gesture when they are in a virtual meeting. “Think of it as if you were sitting across from someone having a coffee, rather than sitting in front of a camera,” says Saltzman. “When you gesture, you take your viewers on a visual journey with you. And when you gesture while you speak, it helps with the natural cadence of your voice. It will also help you express and punctuate important words in a sentence, or emphasize a pause when necessary, and pauses can be extremely powerful. Passion and energy come through much stronger when you gesture.”
Bottom line is, it’s all about engaging the viewer, and doing what you can to make them feel like they are actually in the room with you, even if they are thousands of miles away. Think of the types of things you find engaging when watching someone on screen and examine what it is that accomplishes it.
We may be using technology as our primary means of communication for the near future, but never forget that there is a living, breathing human on the other side of the screen!
Those interested in connecting with Wendy for a coaching session can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org