Virtual Presence — How to show up, when we’re on camera.
  • Peter Watts

Virtual Presence — How to show up, when we’re on camera.



“I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.”


— Norma Desmond¹


On March 12th, 2020, Jimmy Fallon arrived in studio to prepare that night’s edition of ‘The Tonight Show’. By mid-morning though, he and his production team made an uncomfortable decision. That night, they would tape with no live audience. As COVID-19 spread through New York, it had become too dangerous for an audience to gather.


Fallon and his crew weren’t the only ones facing this choice. Top-rated shows from coast to coast realized they couldn’t continue. America’s most famous faces, who fed off the adrenaline of live audiences, went solo.


For Fallon, that change came within the space of a morning. That night’s show had a production team but no audience. For the presenter, the instant feedback and energy of the audience were gone. Fallon handled it well². He still had his crew there for support and reaction. Commentators said they liked the new energy — it seemed intimate and natural.


Six days later, by Tuesday, March 17th, Fallon didn’t even have his crew. He, like so many of us, was ‘sheltering in place’. For a crew, he had his wife acting as a camera operator and sound engineer. His two young daughters (and family dog) didn’t seem to find Daddy quite so funny as that studio audience. All this was happening while, as Fallon freely admits, the entire tiny team was trying to figure it all out live³.


"Let's put on a show!" ...So we're just kind of learning and baby-stepping our way towards just putting some entertainment out there just to give us something else to talk about…”⁴


We’re all having the same experience.


Where we’ve been face to face, we’re now remote. Where we’ve received communication cues directly, we’re now working through a webcam. Where we’ve been using skills developed across careers, we’re now learning a whole new shtick.


Our journey into the how-to mechanics of virtual communication is trial and error. We’ve all had to get used to new ways of working.


Rather than flounder with the trial and error of figuring it out, here are six practical how-tos. How to show up, and do our day job. How to present, persuade and lead when we're on camera.


Sound convincing.

This advice comes from Jesse Schell. “Sound is what truly convinces the mind is in a place; in other words, hearing is believing.⁵” Schell is a successful video game designer. He’s the Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon. He knows what he’s talking about.


Our first thought with video conferencing is how we look. We forget to think about how we sound. This is odd considering that until only ten years ago, sound was pretty much all we had. When you made remote contact with someone, you would call them. It was all about voice, and now voice has fallen from fashion.


But your voice is carrying your thoughts and conveying your meaning. We’re on a video call, but people in that call are still listening to us. Your voice needs to be heard — cleanly and clearly.


Background noise and muffled sound are distracting. Headphones with built-in microphone noise reduction are essential. You don’t need top-of-the-range — you just need to be able to clearly capture your voice while eliminating next door’s leaf-blower.


To start, choose cabled headphones.


What headphones can’t do is correct you slipping and sliding over your words. Here’s where the discipline of basic vocal warm-ups is still a good one. Some sounds can be tricky to make. Plosive consonants⁶ like p and t are especially treacherous.


Try this simple vocal warm-up before virtual sessions. Slowly and repeatedly say the phrase ‘Topeka Bodega’. This makes sure you crisply hit all the consonants. The first couple of times there’s a strong chance you’re going to wind up tongue-tied, but persist. As you hit those consonants you’re giving your mouth and lips a pre-talk warm-up.


Put yourself in the right light.

Lighting, as photographers will tell you — is everything. We can do a lot at home to help it.


Keep light sources in front of you, and try to keep them diffused. If you have a bright desk lamp, point it at the ceiling so the light ‘bounces’ and lights you softly from above.


Another trick is to position two table lamps in front of you, one to each side of your screen. Make sure they both have the same brightness. Experiment with positions until you see your face lit evenly from both sides.


Be careful about letting bright light sources, such as windows, appear behind you. The result reduces your image on screen to a dark silhouette. The audience might think you’re in the witness protection program!


Finally, beware of grease! You want to shine for all the right reasons. The glow from your screen gleaming back from your nose and forehead would not be one of them. If you’re aware that on camera you tend to shine, have a couple of face wipes on hand.


Keep your camera at eye level.

It was the first piece of graffiti many of us learned to draw — half a face peeking across the top of a wall. No hair, big eyes, and a huge nose hanging down over the edge of the wall itself. “Kilroy was here”.


Many of us are recreating that doodle right now — every time we video-conference.

A badly placed laptop, with its screen pushed back at an angle, produces a very effective Kilroy. To the outside world it looks like the bottom of your face is missing.

Most of us use cameras that come built into our systems. Position them at eye-level. This might involve some light engineering. You may have to use books, briefcases, or boxes to lift the laptop off your desk, but it’s worth it.


Having your camera at eye-level means the audience looks straight at you in a more natural way. A far better view than up your nose or at your ceiling, which is what happens when the screen tilts back.


Humans are visual creatures⁷. Body language and posture give us cues about how others feel. When those cues are off camera, that contributes to Zoom fatigue⁸. Think about a face-to-face meeting. How comfortable would you feel about a colleague who kept their hands and arms constantly out of sight beneath the table?⁹ Probably not very.


If you have the space, push back a little from your desk so that your upper arms and upper torso come into shot. Humans speak with their hands. Pushing back from the screen makes your hand gestures visible to all on the call.


You’ll recognize this position - it’s News Anchor 101.

Immediately, you look more natural to the person on the other side of the screen. Gaze at the camera, not the screen.


Ever heard of Cyber-Psychology? I hadn’t either. It’s the study of how humans interact with technology. How we interact online. Want to know how much the other person (or people) believe you? How much of what you have to say will they remember? In fact — how trustworthy, intelligent, and friendly will they think you are? Ask a Cyber-Psychologist.


We’re influenced by the amount of time you spend looking at your camera, rather than your screen.


Face-to-face, humans spend a part of the time looking at each other’s eyes. On average, the person speaking will rest their eyes on their partner’s face around 40% of the time. The person listening, will return that gaze around 75% of the time.


When we fail to do this, and don’t make eye-contact, we’re seen as defensive¹⁰, evasive¹¹, or inattentive¹².


Experiments have shown¹³ that when we look at our screen and not our camera, we reduce the amount of information our audience retains.


In the experiments, a virtual sales presentation was made to two groups. For one group, the salesman made eye-contact by looking at his camera. In the second, the salesman kept his eyes on his screen, appearing to eliminate eye-contact.


The second group — the non eye-contact group — experienced a 21% reduction in the amount of information recalled.


21% may not seem like a lot, but it could be crucial. (100%)

21% may not seem like a lot, but it could be crucial. (79%)


It’s important to look at the camera, but not all the time. Over-gazing, by looking into your partner's face continuously, has the exact opposite effect¹⁴. The scientific term is ‘interfering with cognitive processing’. For the rest of us, it’s just weird. Whatever you call it, it reduces the audience’s ability to recall information.


Looking at the camera and not the screen isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many of us look at the screen in front of us — that’s where we see the faces of the people we’re speaking with. It’s also where we may see our deck or our notes. Staring instead at the bright little dot beside the camera feels counterintuitive.


In time, technology will fix this problem. Work from Intel¹⁵ and Apple will bring us video processing that adjusts your camera gaze. As your eyes rest on the screen, the software magically adjusts to make it appear you’re looking straight at the other person.


That tech isn’t here quite yet though. For now we need to compensate manually.


Get into the habit of regularly glancing at the camera, and holding that glance for short periods.


This opens an important point about how to layout slides when using a presentation. Complex slides, filled with text and charts, compel you to look at the screen. Taking a quick glance and coming back to the camera becomes impossible.


Keep slides clean and simple. Keep bullets points short. Let bold headlines do the work for you.


Know what your background says about you.

As more webcams have switched on, we’re seeing other people’s personal spaces. We get a glimpse into personality and character that was previously unseen. Those backdrops make us more real. In a way, we’ve become human.


COVID-19 saw us enter virtual workspaces as one of two creatures. Some, (if we had prior experience), came in with a backdrop as clean and sterile as a doctor’s exam room. We believed this was professional. In reality, it just made us look like we were speaking from one of those booths where you get your passport photo taken.


Others took a more natural approach. Their backgrounds showed everything from morning dishes to the unmade bed!


Today, both groups meet in the middle. We are where we are, we’re doing this from our homes. Not everyone has the luxury of a room they can dedicate to being an office space. Despite that, there’s still a few points to consider:


First, people do see the backdrops we’ve chosen to put behind ourselves. Wittingly or not, they add to the story about us. That in turn, influences what people think. This can create occasional amusing results, as anyone who has seen RoomRater on Twitter will know!


Next, pay attention to what appears in the camera frame. Check positions of plants and the pictures. One misplaced plant pot and it looks like you have an unnatural growth.


Norms are shifting. While your space needs to be clean and tidy, it doesn’t need to be super-professional, office slick! It’s OK to see a fur-baby wander round in the background — again, it makes us seem more real.


One last thought. Green screens. Green screens are less than perfect. And, (IMO) it usually looks like you’re hiding something!


Resting grumpy face. We all have one, and it ain’t pretty.

Sorry folks. When we’re unobserved, our faces relax… and they usually relax into a Grumpy-Cat frown. Think of those photos when the camera caught you in a quiet moment. You want to deny that it’s you, but the reality is… welcome to your resting face.


Sitting around a meeting-table with the team, your face animates. When you’re sitting in a room by yourself, your face relaxes and morphs into the human Grumpy Cat.


This impacts communication — and it’s a two-way street. First there’s the person you’re talking to. They see your resting face, and read it as fact. They then think you’re upset about something, and it’s something they said. You could be agreeing with them, but the message sent is different. At the same time, we react the same way when we see someone else's resting face.


To fix this, sit further back from your desk. When right in front of the screen we rest on our elbows. This causes first a slight slouch, then a relax, and then a visual grump. Sitting upright without the temptation to lean on your elbows, you’re more likely to stay alert.


Keep an open, interested expression. This is the practice of active listening.


Another useful habit is summarizing what’s said. This keeps everyone on the same page and reduces misunderstandings. If in doubt, seek verbal feedback rather than relying on visual cues. A quick "How does that sound to you?" eliminates grumpy face worries.

The rules have changed.

As humans, we’ve been building our communication skills for generations. We started when our most ancient ancestors sat around a fire, in the dark of a cave, and exchanged stories. We still do the same thing. Instead of a fire, we have a screen. Instead of cave paintings, we have PowerPoint.


40,000 years¹⁶ of cultural evolution and mental wiring got re-wired in the space of four months. Humans don’t adapt that fast. Our rules of engagement have shifted. We constantly balance and judge, both with our conscious brain, and our subconscious. We are all professional communicators. And we need to remember an old rule of presenting, ‘Take pity on the audience’.


That rule was always held up as a reminder to edit, edit, edit. To keep language plain and illustrations clear. To keep it short.


Today, that old instruction gets a whole extra level strapped onto it — to keep it natural. We may use sophisticated technology, but our brains haven’t had time to catch-up.


Virtual communication is a tremendous asset that’s here to stay. But it’s more than technology. It’s the human mechanics of how we interact. We have to learn new routines, and new habits, as we settle into our new business campfire.



Peter Watts is a Senior Instructional Designer and Facilitator. He works on both fassforward's Live, Live/online and tailored programs. Peter is fassforward's lead instructional designer for Live/online experiences which deliver mission-critical leadership and communications training, globally, at scale.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.

Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.


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