Relentlessly intentional: Practices for effective virtual meetings

Drawing of Zoom window

Holding a successful virtual meeting can be challenging, especially when the goal is to collaborate or brainstorm. It’s hard! The good news is that if you approach it intentionally and do the work, you can do it successfully.

The dirty secret is that many in-person meetings don’t work particularly well, either. People don’t like meetings for a reason. Discussions are undirected, topics are missed, decisions aren’t captured, time is wasted. When meeting in person, it’s easy to coast and let the high-bandwidth of face-to-face communication compensate for deficient meeting leadership. And it’s often easy to feel like the meeting accomplished something, when in reality, it didn’t.

The key to holding a successful virtual meeting is to be relentlessly intentional. If you call a meeting, you have a responsibility to the people you ask to attend to not waste their time.

The following is a toolbox of practices you can choose from to maximize your chance for success. Let’s break them down to before, during, and after the meeting.

Before the meeting

The short version: Accomplish as much of the meeting as you can before the meeting. Specifically, I recommend:

1. Ask: Does this meeting need to exist?

If it’s a status meeting, can it be handled through Slack updates? An email? Can it be handled by collaboratively updating a confluence page? Instead of a live demo, can the demo be prerecorded and dropped in the status page?

Put another way, can this meeting topic be better handled through asynchronous communication?

Don’t be afraid to cancel a standing meeting if there’s nothing to talk about.

2. Pre-publish an agenda, and ask attendees to contribute

An agenda is essential for any meeting, but especially crucial for virtual meetings. Write a solid agenda and publish it in advance (we use Confluence). Define the purpose of the meeting. List specific items for discussion. Send the agenda to meeting participants, and ask them to write their updates or agenda items in the meeting agenda before the meeting.

This does a few things. It gives structure to the meeting, lets people know what to expect when they arrive, and helps keep discussion usefully on topic during the meeting.

And also, critically, writing a concrete agenda requires you to clearly define what the meeting is about, not least of all to yourself. What problem are we trying to solve? What background information do we already have that can be shared ahead of time? Spelling all this out forces you to think more rigorously about both the problem and how best to discuss it.

Your goal is to reduce the number of words that need to be spoken aloud in the meeting itself.

Examples

For example, I hold a weekly coordination meeting for our engineering teams. Team leads write their updates ahead of time in a shared meeting notes page. In the meeting, people read the notes silently. (Reading is faster than speaking!) Discussion launches off of that.

This sounds strange, and feels strange the first time you do it, but it is recommended by Edward Tufte and practiced at Amazon and Microsoft. From What You Do Is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz:

To convene a meeting at Amazon, you must prepare a short written document explaining the issues to be discussed and your position on them. When the meeting begins everyone silently reads the document. Then the discussion starts, with everyone up to speed on a shared set of background information.

If you have to talk about something complicated, you want to load the data into people’s brains as quickly as possible so you can have an intelligent, facts-based conversation about the business decision you’re trying to make.

This works for collaborative meetings as well. For example, we hold a recurring Incident Response Program meeting. The goal is to learn from recent customer-impacting incidents through a discussion centered around pre-written, detailed incident reports. Each incident report is written in Confluence and collaborated on asynchronously before the meeting through editing and commenting on the page. The incident reports are detailed and complex. Writing (and reading) the IRs before the meeting saves time, provides shared context, and enables a focused, targeted discussion about big-picture issues, instead of wasting valuable time recalling and reconstructing a detailed timeline of events necessary for the real discussion.

3. Create a meeting-specific Slack channel for standing meetings

A meeting Slack channel is useful for notifying attendees of new agendas, raising pre-meeting questions and discussions about meeting topics, and as a launching point for post-meeting parking-lot item breakout discussions. It can facilitate valuable side conversations.

Running the meeting

First, start on time, every time. When you call a meeting, you have an obligation to everyone involved to use their time wisely and frugally. Starting on time fulfills that obligation and sets the tone for the rest of the meeting.

One of the hardest things about a virtual meeting is that video conferencing adds friction to natural conversation. In Zoom, everyone is a tiny box, video and audio can be laggy and low resolution, and audio can cut out if too many people speak at once. These tiny boxes share screen real estate with the concentrated distraction power of the internet, or at the very least, the work the attendees were engaged in 10 seconds before the meeting started.

Humans are social creatures who find satisfaction in being together in a shared space. A virtual meeting just doesn’t feel as good. Even if it accomplishes its goal, it can feel unsatisfying.

These three techniques can help:

1. Act proactively and intentionally to facilitate conversation

When running a virtual meeting, it is incumbent on you to actively facilitate a productive discussion. It is your meeting—drive it. Don’t just sit back and passively allow things to happen.

  • Ask people to turn on their video. If someone’s sound is quiet or breaking up, inform them. Spend a little time improving your video-conferencing setup.
  • Clearly articulate the goal of the meeting and its agenda.
  • Purposely move through the agenda. Redirect tangents back to the topic at hand.
  • Ask clear, meaningful questions to guide the conversation.
  • When someone yields in a conversation “collision,” make sure to circle back to the yielder.
  • Aggressively move side discussions to the parking lot. Assign a specific owner for each item to coordinate a breakout discussion in the meeting’s Slack channel.
  • Also, be energetic! Sitting in front of tiny boxes on a computer screen is not as engaging as sitting in the same space as other humans.

2. Use simultaneous editing

Instead of brainstorming verbally in an informal back-and-forth, consider brainstorming on a Google Doc or Confluence page using simultaneous editing.

One type of meeting where this has proven powerful are retrospectives. In a virtual retrospective, people write in their ideas for what to start, stop, and continue directly on the page, at the same time. Each participant can see what the others have written and vote on it.

When we conducted retrospectives in person, people would write their ideas for stop, start, and continue on sticky notes. The sticky notes then had to be collected, collated, and counted. Simultaneously editing a shared document makes this easier. We have found that virtual retrospectives are more generative, more focused, and take less time than in-person retrospectives.

3. Take notes. Capture all decisions. Close strong.

Take detailed notes. It’s easier to be distracted in a virtual meeting, so it is crucial to capture everything of importance. A good technique here can be to leave the page open on a shared screen and invite other people to contribute.

This is particularly useful for capturing decisions and action items. Capturing decisions—clearly marked with background reasoning—can save literally hours of rehashing the same conversation months later. Tasks should be assigned to a specific person.

Close the meeting strong, with energy. Don’t just let it putter out. Recap any significant decisions and action items. Thank people for coming.

Again, virtual meetings naturally tend towards low energy. Closing strong is an act of leadership that can help people feel more excited about the project, and more closure at the outcome of the discussion. People remember how something ends much more clearly than the middle, so a strong close influences how people feel about the entire meeting, and therefore also the substance of what was discussed. Yes, all of this is about feelings. But humans are emotional creatures. Motivating people to their best work is leadership, and leadership is precisely the responsibility you signed up for when you called people together for a meeting.

After the meeting

The effectiveness of a meeting is measured by its output. A meeting’s output is its real-world consequences—things that happen that would have not otherwise happened in the absence of the meeting.

All of this occurs after the meeting. That means that post-meeting follow-up is a critical, first-class component of running a successful meeting. Make sure to:

1. Coordinate breakout discussions

A lot of the value of an in-person meeting comes from the informal breakout discussions after the meeting ends, as people file out the door. This is not something that happens in virtual meetings.

Actively coordinate breakout discussions (such as parking lot items). It is useful to do this in a public Slack channel so the conversations are visible to everyone. Anyone can join if they are interested or have something valuable to contribute.

2. Publish the meeting notes

After you have finished updating the meeting notes and capturing action items and decisions, post it in a Slack channel, or if there isn’t one, email meeting participants and relevant stakeholders.

If this is a recurring meeting, have a standing agenda item to follow up weekly on action items. If it’s not, the responsibility to follow up falls on you.

Relentlessly intentional

Holding a successful virtual meeting is harder than holding a successful in-person meeting. Things that “just happen” in person have to be made to happen by you. You need to communicate asynchronously, push as much of the meeting before the meeting, actively facilitate conversation, and follow up to make sure things happen.

Elsewhere on the web

Action Produces Information and Decisiveness is Just as Important as Deliberation. “In theory, the most difficult challenge in decision making is making the right decision. In practice, I’ve found that the most difficult challenge in decision making is executing a decision you do not want to do.”

Why Is This Idiot Running My Engineering Org? “When people begin to take on leadership roles eventually they have to decide how they are going to handle fear. When you are the leader, you are the person who is held accountable for failure. The higher up you go, the more you are accountable for and the less you have control over it. Trust in you team is important, but your perception and acceptance of risk even more so. Leaders with a low tolerance for risk do not become leaders with a high tolerance for risk if you change their employees looking for trustworthy ones. Everybody wants to have this implicit, instinctual, don’t-need-to-think-about-it-and-never-doubt-it-for-a-second trust. That’s the gold standard. But most relationships of trust are formed because you just choose to set aside your doubts and trust, not because you have these great reservoirs of faith.”

Remote teams and the half-life of social capital. “We all know that being nice to each other is better than being mean. It seems self-evident. So it’s reasonable to wonder: Why bother thinking about this at all? Is it all mere academic over-thinking?”

Magnitudes of exploration. “Fewer technologies support deeper investment in each, and reduce time spent on cross-technology integration. Narrow standards simplify the process of writing great documentation, running effective training, providing excellent tooling, etc.”

Making the decision right

Project Orange Traffic Cone versus Project Halibut

One idea I’ve found surprisingly useful is summed up in a single sentence: While it is important to make the right decision, it is more important to do the work to make the decision right.

This idea puts the focus on implementation as the fulcrum of a successful decision. It shows why quickly making and acting upon a good-enough decision can be better than spending a long time analyzing and searching for the perfect decision. And it shows why Agile’s iterative approach to minimizing decision size can be so effective.

I’ll discuss this by way of engineering management, but the principles apply widely. I won’t discuss the process of reaching decisions, even though I believe that almost everyone can benefit from trying a more systematic and rigorous approach.

1. There are no “right” and “wrong” answers

When making a decision in a complex environment (i.e., the real world), there usually isn’t an objectively “correct” answer. This can be hard to accept: in school, we’re assigned math problems, and those problems have clear and correct answers, printed in the back of the book or marked up in red by a teacher.

Decisions in real life (mostly) aren’t like this, especially as you advance in your career and face decisions of greater importance and ambiguity. Which technology stack do you choose? Do you prioritize Project Orange Traffic Cone or Project Halibut? Do you stay at your current gig, or jump ship to a new one? Complex decisions like these rarely have unambiguous, objective, correct answers.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the consequences of a decision are sometimes known only much later. Even then, it may be impossible to evaluate it against the possible alternatives that were available at the time. And it can be hard even to know how to evaluate a decision, even in retrospect. Sometimes a decision was wrong from day one. But other times, a decision becomes wrong because of a change in circumstances.

Second, sometimes there isn’t a 100% right answer, only answers with mutually exclusive tradeoffs. (“Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.”)

Third, in almost any complex decision, the different people involved will bring different facts and judgments about relevance. Marketing can have very different ideas of what information matters in a product decision than engineering.

And fourth, there can be disagreement about what the desired high-level objective of the decision even is. For example, suppose you decide to work on Project Orange Traffic Cone over Project Halibut. That decision is intended to achieve a high-level goal: to deliver the product that will be the most profitable. Or perhaps the product that is most useful to customers. Or that best fits into the company’s higher-level strategy. Or something else. Different people judge success (or failure) differently, in sometimes mutually exclusive ways. You can work to achieve alignment on this, but people will often have criteria that are important to them, tied up in their own goals or the perceived impact on their relative status.

2. The output of a decision is its consequences

The purpose of a decision is to create consequences in the real world, so the best way to evaluate a decision’s effectiveness is through those consequences.

It’s useful to think of a decision as if it were a “black box”: input (a situation in the world and the people and processes involved in making a decision) flowing in, and the output (real-world consequences) flowing out:

A decision as a black box

This is what a decision looks like from the outside to someone uninvolved. How a decision is made—what happens in the box—is irrelevant to its observable consequences. For example, if you decide to hire someone for your team with great qualifications after a rigorous interview process, and then three months later, this person bails on you, that’s not a successful consequence. It is not a successful decision.

Yes, the decision-making process matters! But those processes have limitations, and what ultimately what matters are actual results. Customers don’t care about your decision-making process. Decisions are a means to an end, and that end is real-world consequences.

3. At the moment you make a decision, it is impossible to know if it is good or bad

A decision is measured by its output (real-world consequences), not by a theoretical accounting of whether it is good or bad. So you can’t evaluate its quality until time has passed and those consequences are clear. Of course, in some situations, you may never know if the decision was the best choice out of the available options since you can’t run the counterfactual.

4. A decision itself changes nothing

A decision doesn’t have any observable output—real-world consequences—unless you act on it. Merely changing your mental state does not create consequences in the real world. The execution of the decision is part of the decision.

Chris Voss touches on this in Never Split the Difference while talking about negotiated agreements:

“Yes” is nothing without “How.” While an agreement is nice, a contract is better, and a signed check is best. You don’t get your profits with the agreement. They come upon implementation. Success isn’t the hostage-taker saying, “Yes, we have a deal”; success comes afterward, when the freed hostage says to your face, “Thank you.”

Let’s say you decide to buy a new car. Until you sit down, do research, visit dealerships, and finally write a check, what you have is an intention but not a decision. Considering the concrete implementation is a good way to clarify your decision-making: you can’t decide to buy a BMW if you don’t have the money and don’t qualify for a loan.

In the Effective Executive, Peter Drucker writes:

Converting the decision into action is the fourth major element in the decision process. While thinking through the boundary conditions is the most difficult step in decision-making, converting the decision into effective action is usually the most time-consuming one. Yet a decision will not become effective unless the action commitments have been built into the decision from the start.

In fact, no decision has been made unless carrying it out in specific steps has become someone’s work assignment and responsibility. Until then, there are only good intentions.

Converting a decision into action requires answering several distinct questions: Who has to know of this decision? What action has to be taken? Who is to take it? And what does the action have to be so that the people who have to do it can do it? The first and the last of these are too often overlooked—with dire results.

How many meetings have you been in with energetic discussion, everyone’s excited, decisions were made, and then … nothing happens? No one took responsibility for action items. No one followed up. In the end, all you had was good intentions.

5. You will spend more time living with the consequences of a decision than deciding the first place

This is the crux. You and the team decided to tackle Project Orange Traffic Cone. Even if you followed a rigorous process, thoroughly discussed the question with the team and with stakeholders to gain consensus—all things that take time—the development team will spend far longer implementing that decision (building Project Orange Traffic Cone) than the time it took to reach the original decision point. So how you act is as crucial to the outcome as the “rightness” of the decision itself.

So let’s talk about execution.

Execution is where you make the decision right

For example, let’s say you made the “wrong” decision and worked on the “wrong” project. Maybe Project Halibut theoretically had more financial upside than Project Orange Traffic Cone. So you blew it? Maybe. But there’s still a high chance that delivering Project Orange Traffic Cone quickly, nailing the implementation, and listening to user feedback and iterating is more profitable than a late and haphazard implementation of Project Halibut. Skill and rigor and energy of execution can sometimes—although not always—make up for a suboptimal initial decision.

The output of a decision is its real-world consequences, and execution is the forge where those consequences are constructed. Execution is where a decision becomes real, and where operational excellence, skill at craft, rigorous project management practices, communicating an elevating purpose, and even the psychological safety and intrinsic motivation of a team become determining factors. It’s time to do the work.

Feedback and iteration are part of execution

Once a decision has been made and committed to, it is effectively a sunk cost. It is done. But… And here is the critical point—that does not mean marching blindly forward. Listening to feedback about the decision, observing the real world, and adapting are all critical to implementing the decision.

Peter Drucker, again in The Effective Executive:

Finally, a feedback has to be built into the decision to provide a continuous testing, against actual events, of the expectations that underlie the decision. … Even the best decision has a high probability of being wrong. Even the most effective one eventually becomes obsolete.

To go and look for oneself is also the best, if not the only, way to test whether the assumptions on which a decision had been made are still valid or whether they are becoming obsolete and need to be thought through again. And one always has to expect the assumptions to become obsolete sooner or later. Reality never stands still very long. Failure to go out and look is the typical reason for persisting in a course of action long after it has ceased to be appropriate or even rational.

Another way to think of this is that action generates new information, which then allows you to make better decisions. The information you create by acting is often very high quality and more valuable than insight generated through passive analysis. A trite example is that you can learn faster about product/market fit by launching an MVP and getting real customers to use it than you can by doing a lengthy abstract market analysis.

Once you are acting, you are generating new information. Even if your initial decision is wrong, you can almost by definition make a better second (or third, or fourth) decision because you now have more high-quality information and real-world feedback to work with.

Work to minimize decision size: Decision making and Agile

Agile as a methodology and philosophy is focused on compensating for the impossibility of humans making correct, up-front decisions in the face of complexity. Instead, Agile encourages making a series of small decisions, acting on those decisions, and continually adapting and iterating based on real-world feedback from real users. It recognizes that shipping software creates new information about what software you should be building. If you can minimize your time to ship, you can get that information faster.

In other words, you should minimize decision size: avoid big decisions in favor of a sequence of smaller decisions. This is captured in the first three principles of the Agile Manifesto:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

In scrum, a team works in two-week sprints. At the beginning of a sprint, the team decides on a high-level outcome and selects the work to achieve it. After a sprint, the team holds a retrospective to reflect on how they worked and then plans the next sprint—deciding the subsequent outcome to achieve. Structured reflection and iteration are built directly into the execution.

Another feature of the two-week sprint is that it is a forcing function on decisions and execution. It’s hard to ship software when you can always add another feature, fix another bug, polish things a bit more. When you have a sprint deadline, you must make decisions about tradeoffs quickly, which allows you to generate new information through acting.

Conclusion

Deciding is inseparable from doing. And ultimately, it is the doing that makes the difference.

The purpose of making a decision is to change something in the world and make something happen that would have not otherwise happened if you did not act. It is one thing to make up your mind that something should change—problems are not hard to find—and another to do the prolonged hard work of building something in the real world. It’s one thing to have an intention and quite another to get out of your chair and act.

The world doesn’t need more good intentions; it needs more useful actions. It needs people to build, execute, and to create the future. It needs people to do the unglamorous plain old hard work of taking the mind-stuff of a decision and making it real. It needs people to act in small ways with integrity every day. It needs people to make decisions right.

Orange Traffic Cones

What I’ve been reading

  • Charles Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. Mann is the author of two other great history books, 1491 and 1493. One of the things that struck me was the sheer amount of grueling, monotonous, detail-intensive hard work that Norman Borlaug did to cultivate his new dwarf wheat variety that has kept literally hundreds of millions of people from starving. He should have failed, and if he knew more about the field he might never had tried, and in fact he had to hide much of his work from his supervisors. So much of what we take for granted in the modern world is hard earned.
  • Ryan Singer, Shape up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. I found this book fascinating as kind of an alternate-universe Agile. So much of Agile adoption in the wild is cargo culting, so seeing many of the same problems solved with a different twist with different language is valuable to contemplate, even if you do not explicitly adopt anything in the book.
  • Chris Voss and Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference. Applicable to more than just negotiation.

‘No’ is a reaffirmation of autonomy

“No” is the start of the negotiation, not the end of it. We’ve been conditioned to fear the word “No.” But it is a statement of perception far more often than of fact. It seldom means, “I have considered all the facts and made a rational choice.” Instead, “No” is often a decision, frequently temporary, to maintain the status quo. Change is scary, and “No” provides a little protection from that scariness.”

“So let’s undress “No.” It’s a reaffirmation of autonomy. It is not a use or abuse of power; it is not an act of rejection; it is not a manifestation of stubbornness; it is not the end of the negotiation.

In fact, “No” often opens the discussion up. The sooner you say “No,” the sooner you’re willing to see options and opportunities that you were blind to previously. Saying “No” often spurs people to action because they feel they’ve protected themselves and now see an opportunity slipping away.”

Today, I coach my students to learn to see “No” for what it is. Rather than harming them or those they negotiate with, “No” protects and benefits all parties in an exchange. “No” creates safety, security, and the feeling of control. It’s a requirement to implementable success. It’s a pause, a nudge, and a chance for the speaker to articulate what they do want.”

Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference

When beginning a difficult conversation with someone, it’s easy to take someone’s initial reaction as their final decision. This has been a useful reminder to me that reaching common ground is possible in more situations than I think.

This is a useful book. I will have more to say about it.

Elsewhere on the web

Writing to Understand. “… writing it down often forces us to have differently shaped or more complex thoughts than we would in our head. In particular written or spoken thoughts tend to be more coherent than those in your head… [This] forces you to have thoughts you were skipping over when you tried to have them in your head, and spelling out those detail can help you make sense of them.”

Be impatient. “Being impatient is the best way to get faster at things. And across a surprising number of domains, being really fast correlates strongly with being effective.”

Why Aren’t We Talking More About Ventilation?. “How is it that six months into a respiratory pandemic, we still have so little guidance about this all-important variable, the very air we breathe?”

The TikTok War. “This understanding of China’s belief that it is fighting an ideological war explains why the severe curtailing of freedom that happened in Hong Kong this month was inevitable; if the Party’s ideology is ultimately opposed to liberalism anywhere, “one country-two systems” were always empty words in service of China’s rejuvenation, and Marxism’s triumph. To see that reality, though, means taking China seriously, and believing what they say.”

All of Zoom is a stage

Video conference meetings are hard to love. At a first approximation, everyone hated meetings even back when we could sit together around a long table in a small room. (Remember that?) Now meetings don’t even have the advantage of giving participants a single shared physical experience to loathe. It’s hard to be a meeting these days.

And it goes further than that. One of the most challenging things about working remotely is that we lack the physical presence and face-to-face human contact that build social connection and trust. You can’t read a room if there is no room.

And so we have video conferencing. It’s the best mechanism we have to build human connection from afar, even if it like looking through a drinking straw.

Because video is at such a disadvantage to real life, it is critical to do the work to make it as good as possible. If the human on the other side of the call can see you clearly, look you in the eye, and not strain to hear you—if you remove as much mental overhead as possible—you have a much better shot of communicating clearly.

Communicating clearly is worth spending time and (some) money on. This is especially true for external-facing roles, like sales, where you represent your company, but it’s also important for anyone who spends more than an hour a day on video. The time will come when you need to have a difficult high-stakes conversation over video, and you will be glad that you prepared.

How you look and sound on a video conference call is literally how others see you. So be one half-step above what’s required. A small investment in time and money can have an outsized effect on how professional—and competent—you appear. And the bar is not that high. So many people do it so badly—how many noses have you looked up in dark rooms?

You can go out and spend thousands of dollars creating your own studio, use an expensive SLR as a webcam—the works. But looking and sounding better doesn’t have to be difficult or costly, even if you’re in a noisy space with kids running around. Here’s how I do it.

First, equipment.

Equipment

  • Headphones. I like the AirPods Pro ($230). They sound great, they cancel noise, and I can wear them comfortably for hours. Noise cancelling is a must when you have kids running around. These are the most expensive part of the rig, but you can pick any headphones that are comfortable and you like. It’s really up to your preference.
  • Microphone. A good microphone, well positioned, is the most critical component of the setup. Your voice needs to be easy to hear. I use this cheap lavalier mic ($16). Yes, AirPods have microphones, and they are an improvement over your built-in computer mic, but they like any bluetooth microphone they do noticeably compress audio. A wired microphone sounds better. You can go crazy here, but this will make you sound better than 80% of people out there. For presentations, I use the AudioTechnica ATR2100x-USB, which sounds fantastic but is bulky and gets in the way during routine calls. I’ve also read good things about the Sennheiser SC 160, which would double as headphones. Honestly, even the wired headphones that come with your iPhone are going to be better than your laptop microphone.
  • Krisp ($40/year). This software is surprisingly good at filtering out background noises. I routinely do calls where my kids are screaming in the background and the person on the other end can barely hear them, if at all. It’s also really good at removing the sound of typing if you like to take notes. The downside is that it slightly reduces the fidelity, but on balance, it’s an enormous improvement if you don’t have a quiet room. I cannot recommend this enough.
  • Camera. Laptop cameras are universally terrible. I use the Logitech c920 ($80), but that is hard to come by these days. Amazon is full of cheap knockoffs that are probably ok. If you want better quality and spend more money and time to get it, you can get an adapter and use an SLR as a webcam, but that quickly gets costly.
  • Light. Lighting is important. Get at least one light that has adjustments for both color temperature and brightness. I’m fortunate that my natural lighting is good, but even so, my face is too dark compared to the background. This light ($36) is cheap and hokey but does the job. I have it clipped to my monitor stand. There are a bunch under various no-name brands on Amazon.
  • Webcam Settings utility (mac). This is a great little piece of software that adjusts white balance, brightness, zoom, pan, etc. for your webcam. I adjust white balance, turn off backlight compensation, and zoom in a bit so I’m framed better and more tightly.

Now that we’ve discussed equipment, let’s talk about how to use it.

Look people in the eye

When I was in 5th grade, I was fortunate enough to be assigned as part of a mentorship program a local newspaper columnist. He was a great guy, a journalist of the old school, and my mother took me to visit him in his home study. One thing I vividly remember is that it was lined with hundreds of signed baseballs. It was the coolest room I’d ever been in. But the thing I remember more was that my mother reminded me many times to look him in the eye when talking to him. And she was right! I was a nerdy kid and I was not good at this.

Most adults naturally look people in the eye when talking in person, but I’ve found that as soon as people start talking in a video conference, all of the sudden the looking-in-the-eye rate plummets. People put the video conference window off in the corner of the screen, out of the way, so people look at that and it looks like they are distracted and not paying attention, even if they are.

If the purpose of a video conference call is to replicate as closely as possible an in-person meeting, then you must look people in the eye.

So first, camera positioning. Place the camera at the center of your monitor, just above eye level, and look directly at it. A common mistake here is people use their laptop, sitting on the desk, so the camera ends up below them, pointing up. It’s not a good look. If you are stuck using a laptop camera, get a laptop stand or put your laptop on a stack of books.

Second, place the video window in the top center of the screen, as close to the camera as possible. That way, you can look at the other person like you naturally want to, and it appears to them like you are looking them in the eye and paying attention. It’s critical that you look like you’re paying attention. Close any unnecessary application windows. That will help you actually pay attention.

Physical space. You’re not the only thing on camera! Is your dirty laundry on the bed behind you? Is there a stack of open cardboard boxes to the side? Fix that. Tidy up. If you can’t, use a tasteful Zoom virtual background. I’m not a big fan of virtual backgrounds—I think the weird blobby border effects around the human shape are tacky and distracting. But it’s better than a messy room. Note that your background does not have to be minimal and spotless. Mine isn’t (see below). But it should be respectable and undistracting.

(If you want to take things to the next level, get a green screen. They aren’t that expensive, and it makes the Zoom virtual background experience much better. I don’t do this, and don’t recommend it unless you have a lot of external-facing client meetings or you just like having a giant bright green sheet behind you.)

Next, lighting. You can read a lot about technique, but the main point is that at a minimum you want to be lit from the front, at as close to eye level as you can. Even if you have good ambient light, a light in front of you can fill in the shadows on your face and make you stand out against your background. At first, it will feel weird to have a light shining in your face. But you’ll get used to it. I position mine a bit up and too the side to avoid reflection off of my glasses. Use all the natural light you have available.

Camera adjustments. Proper white balance can make a big difference. Between adjusting the color of the your light and adjusting the white balance of the camera, you can make yourself appear much more natural and less like a carsick android.

Webcam Settings Panel 1

If you have a 1080p or higher resolution camera, you can also zoom in and pan a bit to frame yourself better, if you need to, without negatively effecting the video that most people see. My monitor is far back on my desk, so I zoom in a bit.

Webcam Settings Panel 2

Here’s a before shot of the raw image from my camera before adding lighting or making any settings adjustments:

Zoom self view, before

The positioning is not bad, but the rest needs work. Afterward turning on the light and adjusting the camera, it looks like this:

Zoom self view, after

Conclusion

Putting this much effort into crafting your virtual conferencing appearance is an exercise in artifice. You are constructing an unnatural environment to appear natural. It’s a bit of a lie. But it’s in the service of putting your best foot forward and creating the best possible human-to-human communication.

Appendix: In which people take this much further

If you’re fascinated by the mechanics of this (like me), these are worth reading:

A power of facing

‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’. It’s oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.”

Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters

Who you tell yourself you are is a story you tell about yourself. The facts that don’t fit that story can be the most important to reckon with, and the hardest.

What I’ve been reading

  • Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters. A look at Orwell in the context of his time, and how and why he holds up so well. What struck me is what Hitchens calls Orwell’s “power of facing,” in other words, the ability to look directly at unpleasant facts.
  • Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night. I didn’t much care for her previous work, All the Birds in the Sky. This one is a great read. It also has a great title.
  • Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. A classic.
  • Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-1947. Covers a lot of ground that previous books I’ve read about WWII haven’t. War is very costly.