I recently confirmed that high quality audio makes you sound smarter, which is exactly what I always wanted: a way to look smart without having to actually work for it. This discovery led me to an internet rabbit hole on how to look and sound good online, with this guide being the end result. If you are trapped inside online-meeting purgatory like me, hopefully this guide will give you a small edge in your next important meeting.
I divided this guide in three sections:
- Video: while video is not as important as audio, it's the easiest one to improve. You may not know exactly how to better equalize your voice, but identifying which part of your face needs light is easy.
- Audio: you can live with bad video (or no video at all) but bad audio is a different issue.
- Delivery: once you are clearly seen and heard, let's talk about how to improve your message.
Before we start, a couple words of meta-advice: by caring about how you look and sound you are already ahead of everyone else who just turns their computer on and shows up. And since you can't improve when you don't know what is there to improve, your first step is to go get some feedback. If you can't find someone willing to have a meeting with you then you should at least have a test meeting alone. For instructions click here: Zoom, Teams, Jitsi.
As this guide points out you should ensure there is no strong light coming from behind you. Ideally you want a three-point lighting setup but a good compromise is a general strong light source (such as an open window or room light) plus diffuse light behind your monitor (either point a lamp towards the wall behind your monitor or a full-screen, white document opened on your screen). The next step up are ring lights, but we have other, more pressing issues to worry about first.
Your background comes next. Most meeting software nowadays includes a "blurry background" filter that you can use to hide what's going on behind you. These filters don't work as good as I wish they did, but they have nonetheless been a blessing for those of us sitting in shared living rooms. Still: consider re-orienting your camera (or your desk!) to keep a clear, distraction-free background.
Which brings us to the final point: the camera itself. Whichever camera you have around is likely to be fine. A more expensive camera will give better results, but they might not be worth the cost. Pro tip: if you have a DSLR camera laying around, it may also double as an amazing webcam too. Check your manual.
Pay attention to the camera angle. Keep your camera at eye level either by repositioning your webcam (if it's an external one) or by getting yourself a laptop stand (which you can also build out of cardboard). Say no to cameras looking at you from below!
Audio is tricky: it is more important than video during conferences but it's harder to tune adequately. Let's get the obvious out of the way: ideally you want a quiet room for your meeting, but there's only so much you can do with the rooms your apartment already has. So let's not dwell on that.
Unlike video, where you can get far with what you have, in audio you really, really want to have a better microphone. You don't have to go pro (in fact, an expensive mic can easily backfire by being too sensitive) but you should at least get a decent, dedicated one. If you have no idea of audio then I would recommend a USB mic - I have had bad experiences with microphones picking up line noise and USB should help with that. And since using your speakers is guaranteed to cause echo sooner or later, save yourself the trouble and get some headphones too.
If you want to tweak your voice even more you can try a software equalizer. There are plenty of guides around courtesy of the internet, but getting into details goes beyond this guide.
Once you have optimized your environment as much as possible, it is time to talk about delivery. That's a topic by itself, so I'll limit myself to two tips:
- Dress appropriately and keep a neat background. Bookshelves are particularly nice. If you show a messy room your audience will assume you are also a messy person with messy ideas, and no one wants that.
- You don't have to go and get a voice coach, but it might be worth your time to watch a couple videos on the topic. I have personally learned a lot from the Broadcast Voice Handbook but you might be better served by more casual online courses. Youtubers have created an explosion of content on that area, so it should be easy to find.