Looking and Sounding Good

OK, I know some people may think “I’m not vain – I don’t care what I look like…” The reality is that we all need to care! If you want to be respected (and reflect well on your colleagues), you have to look professional on Zoom. If you want to teach effectively, your students have to be able to hear you. If you want to be effective in a Zoom meeting, you need an internet connection that doesn’t freeze up over and over. So, here are some key points to:

Improve your Connection

If your Zoom calls never freeze and you never lose connection and it’s all good, then skip this section.

If you notice that one person in a meeting is freezing a lot, but everyone else is fine, that’s the fault of their connection, not yours. Don’t worry about it.

But… if you’re noticing that everyone except you looks frozen, or if people tell you you’re freezing or you’re getting notices that you have a poor connection, or you’re dropping out of calls completely, then the problem is on your end. You may have a poor connection.

Go to https://fast.com (or https://www.speedtest.net/) to check your internet speed. The first number it gives you is your download speed – this matters for watching streaming video, and doing things like email or Facebook. After it runs the download speed test, click on “show more info” to check your upload speed – this is key for video conferencing. Zoom can work at 800 kbps to 1 Mbps. I find anything 3Mbps and up can work well for participating in Zoom. If I’m running a meeting or teaching a class, I like 12Mbps and up. If I’m streaming video, then the more the better – I get 80+ when plugged into ethernet.

Steps You Can Take to Improve It

If you can hook your computer to your router with an Ethernet cable, then do! If you need to be on wi-fi, try moving around the house to find a better signal.

If you’re still having challenges with freezing:

    • Try shutting down every other program on your computer that might be taking processing effort to free your whole system up to focus on the Zoom call. (If you haven’t restarted your device in a few days, it’s worth trying that too.)
    • You can also try turning off your camera to reduce the demand you’re putting on the connection.
    • Also think about what else in the house is putting demands on your wifi. If your bandwidth is limited, then during important calls, encourage housemates to limit their own use of streaming video and video chats (if possible). Also consider putting all your assorted devices (phones, tablets, TV’s) in airplane mode so they’re not pulling on your data by downloading updates in the background.

And, of course, another thing to consider is changing your internet provider or changing your service plan to get more bandwidth. It would increase monthly bills for your household, so is not an option for many, but if it’s affordable, it could make sense during this time that so much of our life may need to take place online due to pandemic.

Change How You Look to Others

  • Check your appearance. This one is easy – what you look like to yourself on the zoom screen is what you look like to other people. Don’t get hyper-self-conscious about checking every detail of your appearance but do generally have a sense of how you look. And learn from other people. In a meeting, if you notice someone has a particularly nice set-up, or is looking particularly awkward, what can you learn?
  • Look better on screen by changing your set-up. Lighting is super important. If you’ve got a brightly lit window behind you, you’ll be a dark silhouette. If you have stark lighting overhead, parts of your face will be shadowed. Light in front of you will wash you out. So, play with the lighting and lamps as needed to get it right (again, you can do this in a test meeting or just start hosting your own empty meeting any time to test it out.) Camera angle is super important. Some people will set their device up on a stack of books to get a more flattering angle. There are lots of videos with more tips for looking good on zoom.
  • Look better on screen by changing your setting: You can also change a setting… next to the video camera icon, click on the up arrow. There’s several things you can adjust. Many people like using the “touch up my appearance” button. This is kind of like the old movie-making technique of smearing vaseline on the camera lens – it just smooths your image out a little.
  • Think about your clothing. Solid colors work best. Black can be too dark, white too stark. Avoid really busy clothing – plaids, stripes, dots.
  • Think about your background. Looking at people’s houses and bookshelves in their Zoom background has become quite the hobby. What do you want people to see? What don’t you want people to see? Is clutter behind you distracting from the image you want to present? I know some people who hang a cloth behind them or put up a folding screen to block things out. I teach so there’s a blank wall behind me to avoid distractions, and it also means my sound is much better than when I had my back to a big room and there was nothing for the sound to bounce off of.
  • Use a virtual background: You can display a picture behind you to hide your actual room and make it look like you’re sitting on a beach. (Note: not all meetings have settings that allow you to use virtual backgrounds.) Next to the camera icon in the command bar, click on the up arrow. Click on “Choose Virtual Background” – you can use one of their images, or upload any photo, gif, or video you want. If your actual background in the room you’re in is really cluttered, this may not work well, and you might have weird fuzzy edges or parts of you may blur in and out. For the best results have a “green screen” – hang a plain green cloth behind you – this will help the virtual background work better. If you have a weak computer and a weak internet, it won’t work well.
  • Mirror image. You may notice that the writing on your shirt, or the writing on a book you’re holding up is mirror imaged in the view of yourself that YOU see. Don’t worry – it looks right to the other participants.
  • Consider a new webcam. If your camera image just isn’t great, you could consider buying an external camera to plug in. Or, you could consider a Facebook Portal for Zoom calls. It’s a separate device that has great audio / video quality and can also be used for things like streaming video, browsing the web, or as a digital photo frame.

Change how you sound

  • Check your Sound. Your computer or mobile device likely has a “voice recorder” app or voice memos. Try recording yourself talking. Then play it back. Can you hear it easily? If you turn your speaker volume down to 10 or 20 can you hear it? Great. If you have to have your speaker volume at 90 to hear it, that means the people on the other end of the call might not be hearing you well. Now create some background noise. Record again, then listen so you can see how much of it gets picked up.
  • Improve your mic. Some computers have decent microphones built in, most are not great. If your recordings are poor,  consider buying a mic. I’ve been happy with one I happened to own for podcasting – a Samson Metorite. The Samson Go is a newer model of that mic but I haven’t personally tested it. I also have a headset that I’m happy with – a Plantronics 270. At $99, that’s pricey for a casual user, but I teach classes online, so it was worth the investment for me to be able to hear my students well, and have a good noise cancelling mic. (Note: those product links are Amazon affiliate links, and I do get a small referral fee at no cost to you if you click through on them and end up buying something.)
  • Check your Zoom settings. If you know you’ve got a good mic and people say they can’t hear you well, double-check your settings in a zoom call… at the bottom of the screen, next to the mic icon that you click on to mute and unmute, you’ll find an up arrow. Click there, and it will take you to audio settings, and you can adjust the volume level for your mic.

More Zoom Tutorials

You can find more tips in my Zoom Guide, including Zoom Basics, Becoming a more skilled Zoom participant and Hosting a Meeting.