The strong shift to making fuller use of digital presentation and meeting tools like Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc. is one of the most lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not a temporary measure; it is the way of the future. Mastering effectively presenting to a virtual audience is an essential skill for students and professionals alike. We’ve set out a few simple tips that will take your presentations to the next level.
Tip 1: Webcam Placement
Your camera should be placed at about eye level. This might require some set-up for your presentation. For example, if you normally work with a laptop on a desk, the camera is probably down at about your neck level. In that case, you’ll need to move your device to be up at eye level, perhaps putting it on some books. Don’t go too high though, having it well above your head also doesn’t look very good.
As you can see in these three examples, I moved my camera by only a few inches each time. On the left by having it two low it accentuates my double chin and also causes the otherwise properly lit scene to now make my forehead shiny. When the camera is moved up a few inches I start to look like a child looking up at their parents rather than a professional presenter.
Tip 2: Distance from Camera
What should be visible is from your mid-chest to the top of your head, without leaving too much empty space above your head. Too close and you end up looking like a disembodied head. Too far and it makes it hard to see you and is also probably negatively affecting your audio quality unless you’re using a portable microphone. The following example is as painfully obvious as it is common to see.
Tip 3: Lighting
Which of the following images looks the most professional to you?
Of the six images only the last one is properly lit. In the first image the only source of light in the room is my computer screen which causes my skin tone to look off and the image quality to be blocky due to how cameras process a (lack of) light. In the second image the only source of light is from a ceiling light directly above my head creating hard shadows and a shiny forehead. The third picture is similar but now that same light is behind me causing my whole face to be in a shadow while making my hair super shiny. In the fourth image I’ve thrown open the curtain on the window to the left of my desk, which has one side of my face blown out while the other is still quite dark. I tried to improve it in the fifth one by putting a light source to fill in the dark side of my face. That helped and in a pinch when we can’t control something like an external window it will help, but still the lighting does not look that good.
It doesn’t require an expensive set-up to be well-lit. It just requires that you make deliberate choices in where the light on your face is coming from and how it is getting there. Put simply, you want the biggest source of light to be shining straight at your face without getting there directly.
Let’s consider the two components of that rule. First, the primary (brightest) light should be shining directly at you. That means that it should not be coming from overhead lighting or a window that is behind or to the side of you. If possible and it is during the daytime you will want to be facing a window. If not you can use a simple, inexpensive light. Equally important is where the light is not coming from. If there is a bright light source behind you like a lamp or a window, turn it off or cover it up.
The second part is how the light arrives from its source to you. Whether using a window or an artificial light source, it is important that the light is diffused. In other words, it is not coming from a single small point, but rather a large, distributed point. Think of it this way: if you have an east facing window, early in the morning there’s going to be a very direct, hard light coming in as the sun shines straight through the window. But at noon as the sun shines straight down, the light coming in is softer and indirect since it’s bouncing off different objects before entering your house.
Likewise, when choosing a light source you want it to either pass through something–like a semi-transparent curtain–or to bounce off something that scatters the light so it has a more even distribution. If you’re using an artificial light you can use something that has a wide panel like a light-therapy lamp or a ring light instead of using a lightbulb which will concentrate the light in a small area. In the photos above I am using an 8-inch light therapy light with some printer paper taped on the front of it to make the light even more diffused – a set up that cost less than $20. Alternatively, you can point the light as a nearby wall so it reaches your face by first bouncing off of it.
Tip 4: Background
If your audience still remembers your background after the presentation, that’s probably not a good thing unless you’ve chosen to set up a really cool professional looking one. Short of doing that, your background should be uncluttered and free of distractions. If you’re presenting from a bedroom-office make sure the bed is made, dirty clothes are put away, etc. Turn off the lighting in your background area so that it’s darker and less noticeable.
Some software allows you to virtually blur or replace your background, even without having a green screen behind you. This can be useful when it is well implemented. The software works best when you are properly lit. If it is not working well, such as having limbs or parts of your body randomly appearing and disappearing it’s best not to use it or to improve your lighting or other factors so it is working correctly. Otherwise it is distracting from the presentation.
Tip 5: Filters
Some presentation software includes or allows you to add filters. At times this has led to hilarity, such as this clip that went viral in February 2021 when a lawyer showed up to court as a cat.
Obviously, that’s not how you want to give an important presentation unless you’re auditioning for the Cats musical. In general, stay away from filters. Some, such as Zoom’s “Touch up my appearance” filter, can be helpful when used in moderation. Let it do a “touch up” but not a makeover where you now look like you have plastic skin.
Tip 6: Audio Distractions
If you were in front of a live audience, would you leave your phone to be dinging and ringing all through the presentation? Of course not. So don’t do the same on a virtual presentation for your phone AND your device. Mute the notifications on your device so the audience isn’t distracted by them. For example, Windows has a mode called “Focus Assist” that allows you to do this with a single click.
There can be other sources of distraction as well. For example, a fan blowing on your microphone will kill your audio quality. But even one running in the background can produce an annoying hum like a mosquito flying around your audiences’ head. Be sure to test your audio beforehand (most tools have a built-in tool for this) and listen for any potential distractions that you can control.
Even if it won’t be visible to the audience, make sure to avoid behaviors like clicking a pen or playing with coins or keys [link to stillness article]. They may not see it but they’re likely to hear it.
Tip 7: Sharing Content
Make sure you are familiar with how you are going to share any content, such as presentation slides. Avoid sharing your entire desktop, only share the window that has the relevant presentation materials so you avoid embarrassing mishaps. If you are sharing content that includes audio (such as a video clip) make sure you are familiar with what settings you need to configure so it is transmitted correctly and the audience isn’t left watching a silent film.
Tip 8: Practice, Practice, Practice
Especially if you’re new to giving a virtual presentation, it can be a bit overwhelming to remember all the steps you need to take to enable your microphone and camera, share information, see who has raised their hand, etc. Doubly so if you are having to use different applications at different times. Practicing is your friend. Go through step by step of checking your audio, checking your video, and sharing your content. Making a set-up check-list on a sticky note can help a lot.