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How to Shine Brightly During the Pandemic (But Not Too Brightly)

“I’ve been a Toastmaster for roughly two years now and up until March, I never had to worry about what the picture window in front of my desk did to my round, cherubic cheeks. In the last eight months, however, I’ve added pro at lighting, make-up, and background-interior-design to my ever-growing public speaker toolbox.”

 

That’s from a terrific Working Wit blog post by Erin Hallstrom, digital and content strategy director for Putman Media—and a great follow. Her column earlier this month was titled Lights, Camera, Work: A Non-Influencer’s Guide to Virtual Meetings. Her main point is that as much as we like to play down virtual meetings and joke about our wardrobe choices and blank walls, they do matter.

 

“As much as my mother told me growing up that looks didn’t matter, the fact of the matter is, they do. What your clothing, your home, and how well the light reflects off of your tired, low-hydrated skin can say a lot about you.”

 

Here are some suggestions from Hallstrom and others on improving your virtual meeting experience:

 

Adjust how your Zoom call looks. Instead of trying to focus on everyone in a Zoom meeting at once, shift from gallery view to speaker view so you only have to focus on one person, Fast Company’s Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests. Cover up the portion of the screen showing your face with a Post-It note so you’re not distracted by yourself. “Research shows that when you’re on video, you tend to spend the most time gazing at your own face.”

 

Go all in on your background. How many Zoom calls have started with someone commenting on a background or two? There are many places where you can download the virtual backgrounds. But perhaps you want to hang something behind you that you’re proud of or passionate about. I have a French aqueduct with Tour de France cyclists riding over it in the 1920s! Of course, bookshelves rule—makes us look smart—so that could give you some incentive to find that book you put down five years ago because you didn’t have time.

 

Avoid the default to Zoom. A Harvard Business Review article suggests switching to Slack. Lesley Ellen Harris of Copyrightlaws.com, who preceded us all on Zoom with her Zoom On Ins, did this. “One thing I did in my last class this spring was a Slack Live Chat…similar to a Twitter chat but private,” Harris wrote to me. “My students really liked it and what’s great is that there’s a record of it and people can continue to discuss the issues… It worked for that group of students. We’ll experiment with it further this fall.”

 

Light up your life. “Four different light fixtures, one screaming match with a mini-blind cord, and dozens of YouTube videos later, I found the precise angle and diffusion to keep me looking my best, no matter what time of day or night,” Hallstrom wrote. She also mentioned something I know well, the reflection of your glasses. “Nothing says ‘hey, I’m reading off of my screen’ quite like the illumination of your screen in your glasses… There’s a lot to be said for a well-placed lamp and a perfectly-angled camera.”

 

Say yes to dressing up (a bit). “Since people would only be seeing me from the shoulders up, I concentrated on shirts that had a flattering color, neckline or (and this was a new one for me) shoulder silhouette,” Hallstrom wrote. “This all sounds extremely egotistical, but I definitely noticed an uptick in the number of people who paid attention when I talked once I paid attention to what was on my outside.”

 

Choose a workstation. If you have a desk at home work from it. Or a room with a door that you can close (for the times that you do want to keep the dog or cat out). Though I was told (on Slack) this morning that Oct. 29 is National Cat Day—seems a little broad for the niched days we get now—and we should send Marketing our cute photos.

 

Limit your direct eye contact. If you’re uncomfortable with how you look on video calls, take some time to adjust your camera settings or the lighting in your house, said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Or change your view. “What we’ve done inadvertently is design every default on every videoconference system to increase the amount of direct eye contact you get from very large faces constantly,” he said at the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival. “If you think about your real life, when somebody is very close to you and looking you in the eye, one of two things are going to happen. You’re going to get in a fight—or maybe you’re going to have a meeting experience.”

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Try Phone, Slack and Single Focus; Overcoming Your Zoom and Gloom

“I wanted to be the band on the Titanic,” comedian Paula Poundstone said in an article in The Washington Post this weekend about Zoom fatigue. She was posting almost daily bits and “Quarantine Corner” updates through April on Instagram but stopped by late May. “But the Titanic sank faster. It just occurred to me now that that’s what was wrong with my plan.”
Lesley Harris of Copyrightlaws.com was kind enough to email me last week suggesting this trending topic. Funny, because she was using Zoom before most of the rest of us—holding her SIPAward-winning 20-minute Zoom on Ins over lunchtime in 2019 and early 2020. As many as 450 people were registering for her sessions. Copyrightlaws.com holds many courses and certificate programs, so Zoom is a staple, but Harris is trying to mix it up.
“One thing I did in my last class this spring was a Slack Live Chat…similar to a Twitter chat but private,” Harris wrote to me. “My students really liked it and what’s great is that there’s a record of it and people can continue to discuss the issues… It worked for that group of students. We’ll experiment with it further this fall.”
In an article How to Combat Zoom Fatigue at the end of April—wow, that was already a thing then!—Harvard Business Review had these three suggestions:
Try not to multitask. This is much easier said than done—I’d say nine out of 10 people have told me they are working harder since the pandemic started—but it will help. “Researchers at Stanford found that people who multitask can’t remember things as well as their more singularly focused peers.” It’s funny, if we look away on Zoom it looks like we’re not paying attention. But sometimes it’s easier to concentrate that way. Whereas when we look straight at the camera we can do other work. So it’s inherently evil in that respect.
Reduce onscreen stimuli. “Research shows that when you’re on video, you tend to spend the most time gazing at your own face.” I knew I should have shaved this morning. They say we even process the backgrounds people have—it’s true. How many Zoom calls have started with someone commenting on a background or two? I love radio and find that I listen best in the car because of the limited distractions. Some recommend not using video at all occasionally on Zoom, though that can be construed as being technology deficient..
Avoid the default to Zoom. The article suggests switching to Slack—as Harris did—or even a phone call. Remember those? The HBR author makes a good point: “In situations where you’re communicating with people outside of your organization (clients, vendors, networking, etc.)—conversations for which you used to rely on phone calls—you may feel obligated to send out a Zoom link instead. But a video call is fairly intimate and can even feel invasive in some situations.” It really depends on the situation. When I interviewed the keynotes for SIPA 2020, seeing them helped me build rapport. But other times, it does feel awkward.
A couple other ideas:
Gamify or poll. I’ve heard positive feedback about doing a quiz or trivia game, or taking a poll to break up a webinar or keynote talk. In a story on Health.comClaire Gillespie writes that “she still has weekly video chats with [her] family, but we’ve turned them into quizzes—and it’s made the experience more enjoyable and less tiring. We take turns to talk, there are no awkward silences, and when the quiz is over, we say our goodbyes.”
Adjust how your Zoom call looks. Instead of trying to focus on everyone in a Zoom meeting at once, shift from gallery view to speaker view so you only have to focus on one person, Fast Company’s Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests. Cover up the portion of the screen showing your face with a Post-It note so you’re not distracted by yourself. And, if you’re uncomfortable with how you look on video calls, take some time to adjust your camera settings or the lighting in your house, said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
Hmmm, fancy lighting or post-it notes. I must have those little yellow things here somewhere.
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A Baseball Watch Event Hits a Virtual Home Run. Here’s Why.

There was a wonderful Zoom event last week, out of which I believe brought some excellent lessons for putting on virtual events—even though it was a very popular subject and a few drinks were on the respective tables. It was the 2019 World Series Game 7 Reunion Special featuring coaches and players from the Washington Nationals who were all simultaneously watching a replay of their victorious Game 7 win over the Houston Astros in late October.
The biggest lesson to come out of this Zoomcast is to take advantage of a medium’s strengths. Zoom, or similar platforms, can put a whole bunch of live faces on the screen, have them speak in turn and give viewers that reassuring Brady Bunch feel. Facebook allows people to comment a mile a minute, but most importantly feel a part of things. Here are a few other lessons:
Have a smart, well-respected moderator. The event, which took place on Zoom but was available for fans to watch on Facebook, actually had two good moderators—Dan Kolko, an announcer for MASN which carries the Nationals, and Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ longest tenured player and a hugely respected presence in the community. Zimmerman proved that he easily has a life after playing, prodding the players to speak and react throughout—even leaving a question on the table when he needed a bathroom break. And when there was a lull, he then added his own experiences.
In these times, a dash of humanity goes a long way. Earlier that day, Zimmerman had begun a new charitable effort—Prosforheroes.org. “The goal is to ensure that health care professionals have the tools they need to stay safe, including supplies, reliable equipment and healthy meals for themselves and their families every day.” The gofundme page is already up to $309k. This had more than a dash of humanity, but small businesses don’t need anything of that size. Just allying yourself to one of the great causes out there can be a good thing. “We’ve taken part in this and you can too.”
Give your audience points of engagement. When I watched Education Week’s Online Summits, there were virtual conversations taking place everywhere between registrants and Education Week editors and invited speakers. For the Game 7 Special, fans watching could comment on Facebook and that became part of the show. I’ve read about other virtual events with surveys or polls in the middle, and, of course, questions to post on the chat line. We want to engage!
Do all or some part of it live. At the Nationals celebratory parade in November, second baseman Brian Dozier became famous for taking off his shirt on stage. So, of course, he had to enter this event shirtless as well. It brought the most laughter of the whole Zoomcast. I doubt any of your speakers is going to come into your event shirtless, but people still appreciate spontaneity. Maybe that’s a speaker making reference of something that happened that morning or telling about her current situation. I’ve watched some of Bob Coleman’s live daily shows, and they feel urgent.
Offer a little behind-the-scenes information. The players started talking about the conversations they were having with the umpires at the end of the game. The catcher Yan Gomes said the umpire told him in the bottom of the 9th to try to relax. (Gomes told him, “I’m okay, just call some strikes.”) Zimmerman said the umpire at first base, with just one out to go, congratulated him—a baseball no-no until the last out is recorded. Try to tell some similar-in-style stories that your audience might not get to see.
Home is where the heart is. We saw lots of dogs, a few kids, some crazy backgrounds, a Japanese boulevard—baby shark himself Gerardo Parra came on from Japan where he signed this year—and a few man-caves. People understand that most speakers are home now, and while your events will be more business-oriented, personal items can add to the atmosphere.
Divide and conquer. The Game 7 Special was unbelievable fun for us fans, but at 4 hours-plus, it did clock in a little long. I actually watched over the weekend in 40-or-so minute pieces. That felt just right—even though I wasn’t able to also watch the game. Remember, what you’re doing now has an afterlife. I get a sense people are watching at all hours these days. You can do episodes or parts and then post everything for later. If it’s good, people will watch.