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Video was here to stay before COVID-19 but with the increased pressure of social distancing we're now seeing more businesses adopting video. Video can add value by allowing us to have a more effective conversation than a phone call alone (most communication is non-verbal and totally lost on the phone); it can provide new revenue streams and can reduce travel which, in turn, reduces costs and environmental impact. Video is good. How can you put your best foot forward on your next video conference call or sales pitch?
People make careers out of video/audio production but we can pull some key components out of that world to make our video presence more professional without buying a bunch of gear or going back to college!
Let's get value from our video gear!
For more detailed information listen to the audio version of the podcast or watch the livestream recording.
- Effective Use of Resources
Two Part Series
Episode 036 (last one) - Getting Value Out of Video Conferencing
Episode 037 (this one) - Getting the Most for Your Video Conferencing Money
Before We Go Any Further...
Don't sweat this stuff! You almost certainly have what you need to improve your video already at your disposal. If you don't... just do what you can and if some portion of your video is limiting you then you can make an educated investment.
Four Components of Video
As surprising as it might seem. Audio is the most important component of your video. Viewers are more likely to turn off good video with bad audio than they are to turn off a bad video with good audio. Who knew?!
The key component here is getting your microphone close to your mouth. This will improve clarity and reduce the ambient noise the is introduced into your signal.
You can do this by using a set of earbuds with a microphone that came with your phone if you have one. This doesn't have to be a great mic. It's more important to get it close to your mouth than it is to spend a lot of money on a high end microphone.
We are using video to connect as much as possible without being in person. That connection becomes more difficult in situations where the video is too dark or grainy. Luckily, as important as good lighting is... it's pretty easy to fix.
- Avoid using overhead office lighting. This will put a shadow on your eyes and mouth... two critical points of human connection.
- If possible put your main ('key') light about 45 degrees off of the camera and 45 degrees above your subject (typically us in video conferencing). This will provide a professional look.
- Try to get your light as bright as possible and as close to you as possible without having it in the frame. Cameras generally need as much light as you can give them to get a good exposure with minimal noise. If you watch the video version of this you'll see me switch to my Macbook Pro's camera at time 44:14 and you can immediately see the noise that this camera introduces due to the lighting in my studio which was set up and tested for my dedicated cameras.
- Only light what you want your 'audience' to look at. Conversely, if you don't want people to pay attention to something... don't put light on it.
- Natural light is great if you can do your video calling in a room with a good window and the weather and time of day are good for video. For the sake of consistency I recommend avoiding a dependence on natural light in favor of a controlled environment.
- Practicals - these are small LED or spot lights used to direct the eye of the audience to a specific element in the scene. In retrospect they are not really important for making a good business conference call and I kind of regret bringing them up. Don't mess with these unless everything else in your video world is just killin' it.
You can get a serviceable lighting setup by using a table lamp and a bright LED bulb or a utility light clamp with an LED bulb. These are less than $10 at Home Depot (as of 4/23/2020) and will handle a 150 W bulb. If you put a high power LED bulb in there you'll get a great light and never get close to 150 W.
When I really think about it the "Video" section could actually be very last which is ironic I know. You know what... let's just do that! I'll come back around to video in a minute.
As video becomes more mainstream it's going to be critical that we start treating it just as professionally as we would an in-person interaction.
Everything your audience sees, whether that's a colleague or your customer, becomes part of the message you are delivering.
Turn on your video and look at every corner of the frame to see what shows up. You can fix problems by changing the position of your camera, moving things around in the room or zooming the lens if your camera supports that.
Software 'backgrounds'... yeah just don't. Sorry to be a buzzkill but unless the software background you are using is part of your marketing message then you're probably just distracting the other participants in the meeting from the subject at hand. If you choose to use a software background... get a good green screen to put behind you and do it right. Otherwise they look pretty unprofessional.
"Don't use a video background that is more interesting than you or your message!"
One software feature that both Zoom and Skype now offer (and maybe others) that you might make use of is the blurred background. This can be a quick way to reduce the impact of a busy environment if you don't have the ability to tidy it up for video. A nit-picky downside is that the blur features tend to overly a uniform amount of blur over the entire frame (except the subject) which is not how our eyes or cameras work so they don't look natural but maybe an option if you need it.
A quick word on treating for sound. Most homes are not great studios and since we already found out earlier that audio is the most important part of your video what can we do about it?
The short answer is any flat surface is going to reflect sound. Walls, wood & tile floors and windows are the big ones. To help with this we can close the curtains and put a rug down on the floor. If you don't have a rug... just keep a blanket near your video setup and throw that on the floor while your on video then put it away when you're done. You don't have to go crazy and it will make a huge difference in the clarity of your audio.
Video - Redux
Okay... I guess we can talk about video now.
The most important thing here is that, in general, a camera with a large lens is going to perform better than the small (practically microscopic) camera on your computer, phone or tablet. There's a lot that goes into this but it isn't really important (size of the sensor, size of the lens, distance of the lens from the sensor, focal length, viewing angle... more and more photography/videography jargon). If you have access to a camera with an HDMI output you can use that for your video conferencing and you'll get a much better result.
Whatever camera you're using get it positioned so that the camera is about at eye level and when you're on the screen your eyes are about 1/3 of the way down from the top.
This will improve the look of a tablet, phone or computer camera if you can't use a dedicated camera.
The small cameras also have another feature/bug. As a result of their size and configuration they can dramatically distort any object that gets close. The closest thing to the lens will look disproportionately large. For example if you're really interested in what someone is saying and you naturally lean in... you guessed it... your nose inflated.
What about web cams? If you have one try it. It's likely to have a larger lens than the built in cameras do. If you don't have one I would prioritize a cable for attaching a dedicated camera (if you have one) to your computer before a webcam.
- Test your software & setup with trusted friends.
- Be on time to online meetings.
- Check your setup a few minutes before every call.
- Mark your camera so you remember where it is and to look at it. That's your connection to the other people on the call!
- Wear plain clothes. No stripes, checkers, plaid, paisley etc. These patterns create artifacts on video that reduce the overall quality of your video.
- Don't shortcut your wardrobe (wear pants) 'nuf said - I hope.
- Stand up when on video if possible. Just like any presentation you will open your chest and abdomen, feel and appear more confident and present.
Okay, this was the longest livestream I've done so far and probably the longest episode of Up and to the Right. There's a lot to think about. Don't overthink it. Because there are so many things that impact the quality of a video call - that means that even if you can't do all of them there are still a lot of improvements you can make without spending money.
Audio - can you use a mic that's close to your mouth?
Lighting - do you have an old shop light or lamp that you can put a high output LED bulb in like a 120 W equivalent? Change the position of the light and see what works best for your situation.
Environment - Clean it up, blur it or reposition your camera to change the shot. Remember that everything in the frame is part of your message now.
Video - Sadly yes... use any camera but the one the computer or phone company told you was great for video calls :(. Seriously though... do you have another option? Try it. If not get that laptop camera to eye level!
Practice, try new setups and ask for feedback from friends. Practice.
Sorry about that diversion about 'practicals'. Like I said above, don't worry about detail lighting unless you just want to nerd out on video.
What are your tips for great video conferences? Put a comment in and share them!
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