Several ways to make your Zoom calls less painful for other people

Anyone who has worked remotely for any period of time has been on a Zoom call or other video chat with colleagues which was an absolutely painful experience. Maybe you couldn’t hear other people well or the presentation was a pain to read or you’ve had to deal with constant interruptions from people who haven’t muted their microphone.

Since so many people are transitioning to remote work either temporarily or permanently, here are a few tips to make sure that you’re not the person ruining the Zoom call.

If you’re an executive, you might want to pay double attention since a lot more people are going to be listening to you than other people.

Make sure people can hear you when you need to be heard

While a lot of other items on this list can be less important, you should never skimp on audio if you can help it because a video call is largely just an audio call with some extra features. If people can’t hear you clearly, it really doesn’t matter how good your presentation is, whether or not you look like a model, or if you’ve recorded the session.

Invest in audio equipment

This is probably the number one piece of advice that I could give to anyone who does video calls or video presentations frequently. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a big, important meeting and the key presenter is using a pair of free earbuds they had in a drawer or even worse the computer’s built in microphone to speak into. As someone with an audio processing disorder, this drives me nuts and causes me to tune out of an entire meeting because it is simply too hard to understand the presenter.

You don’t need a whole expensive podcasting setup to make yourself easy to hear. If you are on video calls frequently especially to give formal presentations, investing in an inexpensive podcasting microphone is definitely a worthwhile investment. However, any headset with a direction boom mic that sits right near your mouth is going to give you a huge improvement in your audio quality. I bought a $70 gaming headset when I first started at GitHub to do phone support five years ago and the only reason I don’t use them now is because I do have a standalone microphone and an entry level set of audiophile headphones.

If you’re regularly traveling, I definitely understand if you don’t want to carry a microphone or a headset around with you. However, there are plenty of headsets that are small and comfortable that still have a boom mic. Using these headsets over the pair of earbuds that you found in the bottom of your bag will help you be understood much clearer.

Also, if you’re worried about paying for this equipment out of your own pocket, see if your company will allow you to expense the equipment. Some will allow it and some won’t but if the company has a large amount of Zoom meetings, it’s something that they really should do. In my opinion, you really can’t call yourself a “remote-friendly” company if you’re not paying for all of your employees to have decent audio and visual equipment.

Think about the space you’re in

The environment you’re in deeply affects how audio is picked up by your microphone. Try to find a quiet place to join the call from if you can, especially if you’re a presenter. No one wants to try to hear you over the rush of the traffic or the din of the coffeeshop you’re in. Also try to avoid big open rooms with lots of echo as the echo is often picked up by the microphone.

Also, let’s agree to stop trying to have video calls in conference rooms, shall we? Look, I know that they make all sorts of fancy microphones and gadgets to make it seem like video calls work in a conference room, but they don’t. You can rarely hear or see who is speaking and it’s just an awful experience for anyone who has to try and understand you. If you want to take a call in a conference room, you need to make sure that every single participant has their own microphone at the very least but ideally you’ll also want to have the camera centered and zoomed in on the person who is talking. At that point, you might as well all be sitting in separate, more comfortable rooms where you can control the environment better.

Of course, if you’ve invested in a headset with a boom mic, your environment will matter less because of the relatively small distance between the mic and your mouth. By using a headset, you can eliminate a lot of the surrounding noise and prevent echoing. You still want to be a little conscientious though because no headset is perfect.

Make sure you’re not heard when you don’t need to be

This doesn’t need it’s own section but this happens so much that I’m giving it one anyway. If you’re not speaking, put yourself on mute. In presentations, the host should ideally mute everyone but it is your responsibility to check that you are muted whenever you are not speaking. Fortunately, most video clients like Zoom have a feature that allows to to start off every call as muted and I encourage everyone to take advantage of that feature.

Not only are interruptions rude, they can drastically alter and derail the flow of a meeting. They can cause a speaker to lose their place, listeners to miss important information, and might cause you to be heard saying things like, “this meeting is a complete waste of time” which is honestly a less damaging thing than what I’ve heard on some Zoom calls from someone who wasn’t muted. So just mute yourself unless you’re speaking. It’s better for all of us.

Make sure people can see you

People don’t need to see you all of the time during a Zoom call, especially if you’re not speaking, but if you are seen, you might as well be seen well. Not only does seeing someone’s face give us a sense of closeness, there’s a lot of communication clarity that is added with the capability to see someone’s body language or read their lips. As someone with an audio processing disorder, I use lip reading a lot to help me understand what speakers are saying.

Let there be light!

This is another one of those situations where you don’t necessarily need anything expensive but a little forethought and a couple of inexpensive tools can go a long way.

In my office, I have placed my desk in a little nook which is fairly dark as the only light that comes in is from the big floor to ceiling window behind me. Obviously, this creates a situation where I’m not seen very easily without help, especially on dark, overcast days.

While you can still see me from the glow of my monitor, the image is blurry and fairly dark.

Compare that to this shot where I’m properly lit. The image still isn’t the best quality because I’m using the built-in camera from my computer, but it’s still a lot clearer and you can more easily read my expressions.

For this lighting, I’m using two Melpro 15W floodlights (not an affiliate link) that my best friend got me for my birthday. A two pack is $50 on Amazon right now and they are easily worth the money.

If you still don’t want to pay that or you want something a little more portable, get yourself a cheap, $5 clip-on ring light. Even a little extra light can go a long way to improving your image quality in Zoom calls.

If you really want to go deep into lighting though, there’s a wealth of information out there to help you look professional. Check out this comprehensive guide on video lighting by the blog if you’re interested in going down that rabbit hole.

What’s in the background?

When you’re on a video call, people are generally trying to see you and not your background. Noisy and distracting backgrounds can be funny when used intentionally and deeply infuriating when not.

Many people choose to use digital backgrounds or a filter to fog the background which is a perfectly fine way to solve this. However, I will never forget the tips that I got from a former colleague at GitHub who presented the Zoom background as an opportunity. He talked about it as a stage that you could use to cultivate a certain aesthetic while also being useful. One of the things that he had set up for his background was a large, readable clock to keep people mindful of the time that was passing in a meeting which he said helped to keep people on track.

I’m still working on cultivating my video background but I absolutely love that idea and will probably work on doing something similar when I next reorganize my office.

Invest in video equipment

This is going to be a bit of “do what I say instead of do what I do” since I’m still using the standard camera on my Macbook as it’s good enough for my day-to-day work. However, if you’re fully remote, give presentations frequently to large groups of people, or produce things for public consumption, investing in a good video camera is an exceptional idea. I haven’t done a ton of research into different cameras for myself yet but when I was working at GitHub, there was a particular Logitech webcam running about $170 that a majority of my coworkers seemed to have and the difference was extremely noticeable.

Is that it?

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive guide by any means but it should be enough to help improve the Zoom experience for all of your coworkers in significant ways. There are definitely more things that you can do but these are what I can think of off the top of my mind.

Are you a frequent video call user? Do you have additional tips? I’d love to hear them! Let me know what they are below and maybe I’ll do a follow-up article including those suggestions.

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