For decades, only news anchors and talk show hosts had to worry about how to look on video — and they had entire crews to help them look and act their best. Not so anymore, with Zoom meetings and video interviews now available to (and expected from) anyone and everyone. Even broadcast interviews are being conducted more frequently via remote video calls – no trip to the TV studio required.
It’s easy to get self-conscious when you’re looking at yourself onscreen. You just want to be professional, which makes it even more frustrating to notice during a call that your chin looks huge or your desk is messy. Luckily, there’s an easy step-by-step process to follow to set up your virtual self for maximum success. All it takes is a little preparation.
Set the Scene
You likely already have taken care to look your best for the interview. But remember that where you film yourself is just as important as how you’re dressed. Our eyes want to be distracted when we're watching something, which is why studio sets you see on television are simplified; they're designed to keep the focus on the subject. A home or even an office isn’t naturally organized for that purpose, but you can still use those backdrops to tell a compelling story about who you are and what you have to say.
Before your video interview, test out what your screen will show. Make sure your camera frames you appropriately; your whole head should fit inside the window. If possible, your camera should rest a little higher than eye level. This will save you from looking like you’re avoiding eye contact onscreen.
Choose your backdrop conscientiously. Check behind you for:
- Distracting objects and colors.
- Art on the wall that might stick out from behind your head.
- Books that don’t fit with how you wish to present yourself.
- Doors or hiding places from which children, spouses, roommates, or pets might emerge.
These factors might require you to change your plan and choose a new spot to take your video call. Above all, be sure that visually, you can keep the focus on yourself and on your message.
Get the Light Right
Of course, how you look won’t matter if viewers can’t clearly see you. A computer screen produces light, of course, but you may wind up as an eerie face floating in murky darkness if you don’t think about lighting.
While these considerations may seem overly technical, they can help you look your best, and avoid distracting viewers from your main message.
Lighting is actually not very hard, and you don’t need much special equipment to get it right. Understanding a few basic principles can help.
- Keep your lights in front of you and above you. Too much light behind you looks like you’ve entered witness protection. This is why you don’t want to give interviews or talk on video in front of a window, as lovely as the backdrop might be.
- Natural light is best, but if that’s not an option, an incandescent white bulb is great, too. The wrong lights can turn you strange colors — for instance, your computer screen might tint you with an alarming shade of blue.
- There is such a thing as too much light. If you’re looking blown out and hard to see on your own screen, remove some of your lighting and focus on one direction to light from. The quick guide above from The New York Times’ Wirecutter has good tips from one of its video directors.
Manage Your Own Soundcheck
Perhaps the most intimidating part of any video engineering is navigating sound. Guides to your video chat’s audio panel may feel a bit like This Is Spinal Tap’s famous “These go to 11” bit.
You may not be able to test what your counterparts hear beforehand, but you can lay the groundwork on your end.
- Get familiar with your microphone, whether it’s an external device you connect to your computer or the computer’s internal mic. You can test sound on each of these before a video call or interview, either within the chat software or with a friend on a separate receiving device. Be sure that you’re not sitting too far away from the microphone to be heard clearly, or so close that it shares every noise or breath.
- Check out the audio landscape of your recording area, just like you examined the visual environment. See what you can do to reduce noise from elsewhere in your space or from outside, especially if you live in a high-traffic area.
- Plan to not multitask as you interview. If your microphone can pick up your voice, it will also pick up your keyboard, your phone alerts and your bouncing knee.
- If you wear distinctive jewelry, consider whether it makes sound as you move around normally. Anything that clinks or clanks will get in the way of what you’re saying or trying to hear.
Once you’re satisfied with these three factors, you’re most of the way there. Plan to show up fully for your interview, with the same focus you’d bring to a media studio. That includes dressing the part; nothing shatters the illusion more quickly than standing up and showing a business suit on top with sweatpants on the bottom.
Assume that someone will see your whole self — and in fact, that person is you. When you take an at-home video conversation seriously at every step in the process, you free yourself up from worrying about technicalities. After that, all that’s left is for you to communicate your message.