Is Zoom breaking my career?

We’re all getting a little too comfortable on camera during this pandemic. While the economy is experiencing a sharp rebound – Friday’s terrific jobs report showing a drop in the unemployment rate to 10.2% – we’re still in pandemic mode for the long haul.

More companies, such as Google and Uber, have indicated they are working remote through June 20201 at least. Which means we all need to get better on Zoom, Meet, or Teams.

There has certainly been a feeling of camaraderie and casualness around these video chats for the past few months. The occasional child running on screen has been endearing. Men’s hair growing like rowdy Chia pets has been amusing. And the overall sense of your team’s shared burden in this weird fight against a mysterious virus has been heartening.

But make no mistake, the reality is, your career is still at stake on Zoom.

As this strange new world becomes the new normal, the yardsticks and performance measures are changing, and the rewards are going to be handed out based on how well you perform in the new environment.

Promotions, reviews, compensation changes – if they’ve been delayed this year because of coronavirus, that makes next year even more important to your future success in the $100K+ Club.

Right now. This August. In the dog days of summer. Now is the right time for you to invest a few hours in upping your video call game. If your career is judged by how you look, behave, and perform on camera, then it makes sense to put in the time to get better.

Your camera has got to be at eye level

Do not force your boss to look up your nose. The biggest mistake I see people making on video calls is the laptop camera, low-angle, Nostril Exploration shot. It’s not a good look; there’s a lot going on in there that the world doesn’t need to see.

Instead, you want to appear as if you’re looking straight into the eyes of your audience, just like you do in real life.

Get an adjustable webcam, such as the popular Logitech line or others.

Failing that, set your laptop on a stack of books or a small box to get your camera to eye level.

Either way, a steady gaze helps you get your clever points across more effectively.

Lighting should be attractive

You may have scraped by until now with just the room lights, an extension cord, and a spare lamp.

If you’re going to be on video for the next few months or years, it makes sense to invest in lighting yourself attractively.

I’ve used both the large Neewer ring light at home and the smaller Neewer ring light when traveling this summer. Ring lights are… ring-shaped, which reduces shadows on your face, and gives a more evenly lit effect. These Neewer lights are the bestsellers on Amazon and they’re cheap, effective ways to make yourself look professionally lit without needing to know much about lighting.

Some also swear by this Lume Cube panel, but I haven’t tried it.

I suppose we’ve all been learning about backlighting this year. Having your back to a sunny window or your overhead room light turns you into The Silhouette That Speaks From The Dark

Avoid this by having your lights, especially the ring lights mentioned above, positioned in front of you, and at a slight elevation.

Ensuring that your facial expressions are clear to people on your video calls is now more important than ever. Missed nuances, or misunderstood body and facial language, can hinder your ability to communicate effectively.

Be well-lit to be well-understood.

Check your stage

When you’re on camera, you’re performing. Is your stage setup making you look good?

The fewer distractions in the background the better. Common mistakes include having doors, windows, and mirrors in your shot. Equally bad are too many different pieces of furniture, odd or overly eclectic art or posters, and strange room fixtures that defy explanation.

Simple, tasteful, and boring, is a far better alternative. Review the room behind you to make sure it’s not taking away from your presentation on camera.

Check your sound

The default microphones on modern laptops are often fine. I work in tech, so the usage of gaming-caliber headgear is common. 

Whatever you’re using, ask your colleagues if they’re sure you’re coming across crisp and clear on your calls.

Stay aware

I’m a big water drinker. I’m not going to make it through an hourlong call without a sip or a guzzle.

It doesn’t look great on camera, to be honest. So I try to be casual about it, or take water breaks when the main speaker is deep in the middle of her presentation.

Being aware of how you’re coming across on camera is important for you: how often you’re scratching your ears or nose; whether you’re doing repeated “ummms” and “uhhhs”; whether you’re slouching or bouncing or stretching too much; all of these mannerisms impact how compelling your video presence may be.

Not many of us were “On Air” for a living before the virus, so it’s kinda unfair. If you’re in project management, or systems engineering, or tax accounting, you may have never been on camera before the crisis. So expecting you to know the ins and outs is definitely asking too much.

At the same time, this is now our new normal. Your performance, your compensation, your annual reviews and promotions into next year, will be impacted by how effective you are despite the coronavirus.

If being mindful of your on-camera presence is new for you, set aside the time it takes to learn enough to be good at it.

Equipment check

Finally, it might be a good idea to get a small group of your peers together to do a “Team Equipment Check”.

Is my lighting OK?

Is my sound good?

Is this background attractive and not distracting?

Any feedback your colleagues can give you when the stakes are low saves embarrassment when the stakes are high.

And while you’re at it, you might ask for any other bit of advice they have for improving. Welcoming feedback, asking for help, being coachable in this strange new world, and being willing to get by with a little help from your friends, are what it takes for us all to succeed in this new world together.

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