6 unconventional tips to be less awkward on Zoom

In March I moved across the country to start a new job. Because social distancing was already in place, the company decided it was best if everyone worked from home. This meant I had to introduce myself over Zoom to my future co-workers

Of course, the very first word out of my mouth was sliced in half by a pre-pubescent voice crack. I didn’t have a witty recovery on hand so I nervously fumbled through the rest of my introduction.

As if the mental drain of my move wasn’t enough, I kicked off my career with a confidence shredding moment of awkwardness. 

Between onboarding and meetings with my manager, I had spent an unhealthy amount of my time staring at people (and my own face) through a tiny camera before that.

Not to mention, my throat was spent after so much talking. 

But the real problem is, I’m not comfortable speaking on Zoom

And I know I’m not alone. 

Put me on a stage in front of hundreds of people and I can calmy deliver a speech — even if it’s top of mind. Put me in front of five people on zoom and I’m awkward, rushed, and downright terrible. 

It’s natural to feel self-conscious on video. In the history of the human race, we have only scratched the surface of how these virtual modes of communication affect our psychology.

We need to understand why Zoom and virtual communication is a struggle before figuring out how we can improve. As Lydia Smith wrote for Yahoo, a lot of the discomfort starts with your own face:

“Spending hours video chatting with family, friends and colleagues means we’re also spending more time than ever looking at — and scrutinising — ourselves. Not only are we staring at ourselves from notoriously unflattering laptop angles, the so-called ‘flaws’ we never usually notice are suddenly far more obvious.” 

We aren’t used to seeing ourselves speak. Now we’re watching it for hours on end. I started noticing weird things I do with my facial expressions and criticizing my smile —habits I never cared about before.

There’s research supporting this type of “editing” behavior. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, found that we are more muted emotionally and physically when communicating through a screen. 

When you talk to someone in-person, nonverbal cues help your brain comprehend what is being conveyed to deliver an appropriate response.

These cues lay the groundwork for emotional connection and intimacy. Zoom impairs these abilities, putting extra stress on your mind.

This can be especially draining for someone who relies on non-verbal cues to effectively communicate.

So, what can you do?

Instead of focusing on your flaws and thinking about what you should be doing, here are several things not to do on Zoom

1. Don’t improvise everything 

Want to know the greatest cheat code in Zoom? Scripting what you want to say. Not word for word, but in a bulleted list.

On Zoom calls where I have to speak, I keep a tab open to glance at for ideas and to stay on track. This also eliminates any “uhms” and guesswork which can come across as unprofessional. 

2. Don’t dress like a bum

I know the theme of sweats and a t-shirt is trendy right now. But Florida photographer Larry Becker recommends being strategic about your clothes, adjusting your webcam positioning for better angles, and giving yourself “soft, people-pleasing light.” Seeing a better appearance of yourself will only boost your confidence.

Fellow Ladders writer Kaitlyn McInnis offers a great breakdown of your clothing to ensure you remain professional and collected throughout every video meeting. 

3. Don’t stare at yourself 

It’s tempting to watch yourself speak inside your tiny video box.

While I haven’t found studies analyzing the long-term effectiveness of self-reflection and video chatting, researchers have spent time studying what happens when you look in a mirror for a long period of time.

People who have a negative self-image may experience a “paralyzing effect” when looking in the mirror, which can be amplified in video. If you find it hard not to watch yourself, try using Speaker View instead of Gallery View which will minimize your image.

4. Don’t speak to the room

It sounds obvious, but focusing on one person will help you relax and come across as more conversational. On the first day of my new job, I found myself scanning everyone’s face at once which became distracting and overwhelming. When it was my turn to speak, I had already spent thirty minutes scanning the virtual room, which as we discussed earlier, is mentally draining. Instead, try and speak to one person. Look them in the eyes and build a natural speaking flow as if you were physically with that individual. 

5. Don’t be a mute

My biggest enemy for a while was the mute button. I wanted to keep my background noise low, but this also made me less inclined to speak. With a new company, I found myself trying to balance both sides. It is better to be unmuted and active with your team than muted while trying to be “less distracting”. 

6. Don’t forget to warmup 

What is your routine before working out or getting into a creative flow? If you’re like me, it involves some caffeine, a certain style of music, and a dedicated shift in my behavior. I recently started listening to music before jumping into a Zoom call and it has substantially changed my level of participation. I also recommend warming up your voice by speaking out loud and even warming up your face so you don’t come across as stiff and rigid. 

As we continue working in isolation, our ability to communicate through a screen is more important than ever. 

Six months later, I don’t know if anyone remembers my voice crack over Zoom (my girlfriend who was also in the room definitely does…). But I use each of the mentioned practices daily and have noticed a significant improvement in my Zoom confidence. 

If you struggle with Zoom like I did, it’s an important platform to learn. We don’t know what the world will look like in a year from now, and we could very easily be relying on virtual communication for the rest of our lives.

It’s better to work through your discomfort while companies are still accepting of the Zoom learning curve than get left behind as we continue to evolve our methods of communication.