Eleven Tips When Using Video Conferencing

No, I don’t want to see your dog!

Video conferencing is all the rage at the moment. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to encourage use of technology that has been around for ages and should have been used more. From offices, to schools to universities everyone is jumping on the video conference bandwagon.

But as someone who’s used video conferencing (Zoom specifically) for the last five years there are some things that are worth knowing to help better manage your experience, and the experience of others.

1. Test your set-up: Too many people come onto the conference not knowing how to use the basic features. We’ve been in lock-down for over two weeks. If you don’t know this stuff, learn it. From mute, to chat, to stop video. All of these are essential for a better experience. Zoom (quite popular at the moment) has a library of tutorials you can use as well as live training. You can also run video, and audio tests to determine how well your set-up works. Here is one on joining a meeting, another on meeting controls, and another on screen sharing.

2. Muting improves the audio experience: For in-person meetings you tend to keep relatively still and quiet. And certainly, you aren’t bringing your clock, fish tank, dog or radio into the meeting. Neither you are stacking nor unstacking the dishwasher. For a video conference, particularly where people are using headphones, all of these noises are amplified. And many mic systems work hard to manage and mitigate these background noises, often to the detriment of overall sound quality. So, if you’re not speaking, mute your mic. It’ll also mean little shuffles you make as the mic brushes your jumper, jacket or shirt, won’t be heard by all. Not to mention the constant thud of the keys and keyboard as you type that email (because you’re actually not paying much attention to the meeting anyway – see below on managing your surrounds).

3. Video enhances communication: There’s no point having a video conference if everyone is being asked to turn their camera off. That’s called a teleconference or a webinar. Both can be achieved using lower technology and easier participant management. Don’t set up a video conference if you intend on not using video. If you want a video conference, tell people to use video. Make that clear in the meeting invitation. Then make sure video is “on” when people join (it’s a setting you can adjust for each meeting) and then tell people to turn their video on if/when they turn it off.

4. Let people manage themselves: As the video conference host, let participants manage themselves. You wouldn’t tell people to shut up or prevent them from speaking during an in person meeting. Force-muting people is the equivalent in a video conference. Of course, it is okay to set the default meeting settings to mute on entry to the meeting along with having the video off. This means people will be able to enter the meeting quietly and can get settled before they turn on audio and video.

5. Make sure you manage the meeting: Don’t force mute people but do set the meeting up to work to your advantage. So, if you want people to enter on mute, set that in the meeting settings. If you want video off upon entry, set that too. Hate the “ding” when people arrive? Turn that off as well. Want the meeting to record? Turn that on. All of these settings can be adjusted in the meeting setup screen. And here’s the tutorial on setting up a meeting using the Zoom website. But there’s also one for using Google or Outlook Calendar (if you’ve got Zoom integrated into those programs). Oh, and if you want to see if people switch to a different (non-Zoom) screen during the meeting, you can do that too. As well as turn on (or off) the ability to use virtual backgrounds. Be mindful of the dial-in options for participants. Default Zoom settings tend to be US numbers. But you can make the default whatever you like.

6. Manage your surrounds: No, I don’t want to see your dog! I get it. They are fun. They break the meeting up. But no, I don’t want to see your dog. If the meeting is that boring, or overtime or poorly managed that a dog is a welcome relief, cancel the meeting. If you wouldn’t take the dog to the in-person meeting, they shouldn’t be in the video meeting. The same is true for other activities. Don’t check your email. Don’t send email. Don’t update a report. If these things wouldn’t happen during the in-person meeting, don’t do them in the video conference. Don’t cook. Don’t go to the toilet. Now, if these things need to happen while you’re in the meeting – mute yourself and turn off the video. In terms of the virtual background, don’t get funky trying to one up your friends. If you must, use one that keeps distractions to a minimum.

No I don’t want to see your dog!

Please keep video conferencing to the point.

If I wanted a social catch up, I’d arrange one.

7. Smart phones make sense: I have found that using my smart phone to attend video conference meetings increases my engagement with the meeting. It takes away the immediate distraction of apps on my computer. I have to hold my phone to allow the camera to be in the best position to capture my face – thus making me more mindful of being in the video conference. For Zoom, using a smart phone has the added advantage of using call-based audio (rather than data-based), saving on data, and improving sound quality for you and the other participants on the video conference. I also know that my smart phone earphones come with a decent mic.

8. Beware of the chat: The chat features are a really great way of engaging people. So use it. Share links, files, notes, etc. But, know that the chat could be saved and shared. So, the direct conversation you are having with another person about how annoying that dog is, or how you wish people would use mute. Yeah, they can all become part of the meeting minutes at the end. And everyone could see what you’ve written.

9. Polls and breakout rooms increase participation: Within video conferences, as I’ve eluded to above, it can be difficult to engage the audience. Polls are a useful way of bringing people back to the content of the meeting. And it is much easier than asking for a show of hands, or for people to type in the chat box. And, where you have large groups that you want to work through things in smaller groups, you can use breakout rooms.

10. Look at the camera: Unfortunately our cameras are not aligned with our screens. Laptops tend to point the camera up our nose. Smartphones have this problem less often, perhaps because we don’t try to use them to type while also doing the video conference (see my point about smart phones). Unfortunately, there are no screens where the camera is in the middle. Therefore, when you’re looking at yourself or others on the video you aren’t looking at the camera. Thus, we are kind of stuck with up-nose shots, or shots that go over the top of our head. For the most part, that is okay, but when it is your turn to speak, do your best to look at the camera. My mate Julian Mather has awesome tips about video usage, including one to help with looking at the camera. Basically, cut some sticky tape up into tiny arrows and place them either side of the camera lens. That way, you know where to look.

11. Use PINs: In light of the recent security breaches and zoombombing, it is advisable to use PINs for all Zoom meetings. There are a bunch of other features that you should also make use, including avoiding using your personal meeting ID (‘cos the meeting ID is the same every meeting); enable waiting room (that way you prevent attendees from joining the meeting).

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has been supporting research portfolios, programs, and projects for more than a decade. He knows the theoretical approach to project management as well as the practicalities of academic and research projects. He is a #pracademic. Richard’s strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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