Video-chatting tips from Al Roker and other pros

  • The transition of our personal and professional lives to video chat came swiftly and without much of an instruction manual.

    The transition of our personal and professional lives to video chat came swiftly and without much of an instruction manual. (Jamie Lee Finch via AP, File)

 
 
Posted5/16/2020 6:20 AM

The transition of our personal and professional lives to video chat came swiftly and without much of an instruction manual. Suddenly, Zoom, Skype, Facebook and Google Hangouts replaced our offices, coffee shops, restaurants, gyms and bars. It's enough to make anyone anxious, one reason some people hate video chatting.

But we're stuck with it, at least for now. So, we asked some folks who have spent years in front of the camera and behind it for tips on adapting to this new lifestyle.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That said, if you have a bad call, it's best not to sweat it.

"It's not the most important thing in your life, so don't treat it like that," said the "Today" show's Al Roker. "Unless you kill somebody on your Zoom, I don't think it's going to come back at you."

Preparing your mind

Before appearing on camera, Sunny Hostin, who co-hosts ABC's "The View," sips hot water with lemon and a bit of honey (from her own beehives), which she said "soothes my voice and my nerves." She also takes a moment alone to review her notes and any points she'd like to make during the call.

Drilling down on what exactly you want to say is a vital step, according to MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle.

"Less is more," Ruhle said. "We all have a tendency to share every thought in our head. Nail down the most important points you want to make in the segment, and find a way to present them."

And if you're feeling nervous, she said, "focusing on breathing is always the first step to calm any nerves. Try not to tense up. Stay relaxed. Smile. Don't focus on perfection. Own mistakes. Makes you more human."

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Setting up your camera

First, "make sure your phone or computer is either at eye level or above, so you're either looking directly at it or slightly up at it," Roker said. "So many people have it underneath them. Nobody looks good like that. Nobody! Nobody wants to look up your nose."

Hostin added that when you put your camera high, then "when you look at the camera it mimics direct eye contact and helps you connect with your audience."

To achieve this, MSNBC's Chris Hayes suggested getting "a stack of books, and put your computer on top. Take the five seconds."

Once you have your camera at the proper height, Ruhle says, "lighting is key. Make sure you have a lot of light in front of you, not behind you. You don't want the shot to be backlit. Even positioning a lamp in front of you can help make your shot brighter, with little effort."

Talk show host Tamron Hall suggests using a ring light -- a circular light designed to cast even light across the face. "It doesn't matter the brand or even the size," Hall said. "Added light helps lift your face. Given most of these video conferences are work-related, we all want to try to put our best foot forward despite what's happening around us.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And if you want to up your sound game, Dallas Taylor, the host of the podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, suggests wearing headphones with a built-in microphone during a call -- and best to keep the mic as close to your mouth as possible. If you have a microphone, turn off your computer's speakers and mute its mic -- otherwise, a feedback loop of sound might emerge. Becker also suggested to "add some pillows to an echo-y room to absorb sound."

Designing your look

Dan Bishop, a production designer who has worked on everything from "Mad Men" to "The Good Place" to "A Single Man," once Skyped with a potential collaborator who wore a rainbow Afro wig for no apparent reason.

His take-away? When setting up the backdrop of your call, "you should tailor it to your own individual personality." Sure, he said, it's best to "put a little depth behind you," if possible. That keeps it a bit blurrier and highlights you, instead of the wall behind you.

And it's best to keep things less busy. But self-expression tops all, he said. "If your living room is a bunch of competing patterns, it might get annoying to look at -- but that's what you're trying to say."

One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that "people will certainly begin scanning your background if the call goes on long enough."

Larry Becker, a photographer and author of "Great on Camera," noted that our clothing interacts with the space around us -- and it's important to strike a balance. An extremely light-colored shirt can blend into a light-colored room too much, or stand out awkwardly in a dark room.

"Webcams have a very limited capability in the wideness of the light spectrum that they can capture," Becker said, so best to avoid clothing and walls that are black and white -- the opposite ends of that spectrum.

Play around to see what works, Becker said: "If you look at yourself and your face is too dark, add some light in the room. If you've done that and your face is way too light or way too dark, try changing shirts."

Becker said large patterns on clothing are fine, "but if you've got tight, tiny patterns -- like a ribbed shirt -- they have a tendency to interfere with the camera's image sensor. ... They can make it look like your shirt is vibrating."

Still, it's important to dress comfortably, whatever that means for you. "I'm actually most comfortable with less makeup and less fussy hair," Hostin said. "Color really looks great on air and my personal favorite is yellow. Lilac too."

Well, maybe don't get too comfortable. "As a minimum, you should have lower coverings," Roker said.

Interacting on the call

Many people panic once they actually begin a video chat. The format can feel strange at first, but that feeling should dissipate. "Even on a Zoom birthday party, the first three minutes feel weird, but by minute 20 it feels normal," Hayes said.

To appear on screen like a TV professional, and to give the appearance of looking into someone's eyes, it's important to "look at the lens, not down at the picture," Roker said. "And just be conversational. If you've got a good vocabulary, use it. If you don't have a great vocabulary, don't start reading the thesaurus an hour before to find words you wouldn't normally use. People will notice that."

If you feel particularly nervous, Roker said to remember that "whatever you say, just know that someone else has said something far worse than you ever will. And either way, people have very short memories."

Everyone agreed the most important thing is, as Ruhle said, to "care about the people you are talking and listening to. Listen to what they're saying, and care." As Hayes pointed out, that helps take "the focus off yourself."

And just remember, "if you can just master the Zoom, you're so far ahead of everyone else," Roker said, before laughing. "I cannot get back all the minutes I have spent on Zooms with friends and family explaining to hold the phone horizontally, unmute your mic, turn on your camera."

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