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'People Paid More Attention'; How to Shine Brightly During the Pandemic (But Not Too Brightly)

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by Ronn Levine

What do I remember from my four Zoom calls yesterday? Hmmm. Well, Lydia Richards, our professional sommelier for our upcoming BIMS conference, sat in front of a wonderful Chat Noir poster. (Actually, she’s going to be amazing.) Another person had an impressive bookcase. Had he really read all those books? Someone else’s lighting was off; I could hardly see her.


Thinking back to AM&P 2020 last month and all that impressive content, I recall that Aline Lin, CEO and creative director of Astriata, conducted her session on data-driven insights from her awesome office with a brick background and oak bookshelvesand perfect lighting. It truly enhanced her excellent content.


As much as we like to play down all the bright living rooms and dark studies—and vice versa—that we see in virtual meetings and joke about our wardrobe choices and blank walls, they do matter. How many meetings have you been on where someone starts by complimenting someone’s background?


“I've been a Toastmaster for roughly two years now and up until March, I never had to worry about what the picture window in front of my desk did to my round, cherubic cheeks,” wrote Erin Hallstrom, digital and content strategy director for Connectiv member Putman Media in a terrific Working Wit blog post titled Lights, Camera, Work: A Non-Influencer's Guide to Virtual Meetings. “In the last eight months, however, I've added pro at lighting, make-up, and background-interior-design to my ever-growing public speaker toolbox.


“As much as my mother told me growing up that looks didn't matter, the fact of the matter is, they do. What your clothing, your home, and how well the light reflects off of your tired, low-hydrated skin can say a lot about you.”


Here are some suggestions from Hallstrom and others on improving your virtual meeting experience:


Adjust how your Zoom call looks. Instead of trying to focus on everyone in a Zoom meeting at once, shift from gallery view to speaker view so you only have to focus on one person, Fast Company's Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests. Cover up the portion of the screen showing your face with a Post-It note so you're not distracted by yourself. “Research shows that when you’re on video, you tend to spend the most time gazing at your own face.”


Go all in on your background. We have a CFO who always features the special day of the year it is—from Shoestring Potato Day to yesterday's National Happy Hour Day. Now we look forward to it. Perhaps you want to hang something behind you that you’re proud of or passionate about. I have a French aqueduct with Tour de France cyclists riding over it in the 1920s! Of course, bookshelves rule—makes us look smart—so that could give you some incentive to find that book you put down five years ago because you didn’t have time.


Avoid the easy default to Zoom. A Harvard Business Review article suggests switching to Slack. Lesley Ellen Harris of, who preceded us all on Zoom with her Zoom On Ins, did this. “One thing I did in my last class this spring was a Slack Live Chat…similar to a Twitter chat but private,” Harris wrote to me. “My students really liked it and what’s great is that there’s a record of it and people can continue to discuss the issues… It worked for that group of students. We’ll experiment with it further.”


Light up your life. “Four different light fixtures, one screaming match with a mini-blind cord, and dozens of YouTube videos later, I found the precise angle and diffusion to keep me looking my best, no matter what time of day or night,” Hallstrom wrote. She also mentioned something I know well, the reflection of your glasses. [Did people see me tipping my head just so today to avoid that?] “Nothing says 'hey, I'm reading off of my screen’ quite like the illumination of your screen in your glasses… There's a lot to be said for a well-placed lamp and a perfectly-angled camera.”


Say yes to dressing up (a bit). “Since people would only be seeing me from the shoulders up, I concentrated on shirts that had a flattering color, neckline or (and this was a new one for me) shoulder silhouette,” Hallstrom wrote. “This all sounds extremely egotistical, but I definitely noticed an uptick in the number of people who paid attention when I talked once I paid attention to what was on my outside.”


Choose a workstation. If you have a desk at home work from it. Or a room with a door that you can close (for the times that you do want to keep the dog or cat out). Though I was recently told (on Slack) that Oct. 29 was National Cat Day—seems a little broad for the niched days we get now—and we should send Marketing our cute photos.


Limit your direct eye contact. If you're uncomfortable with how you look on video calls, take some time to adjust your camera settings or the lighting in your house, said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Or change your view. “What we’ve done inadvertently is design every default on every videoconference system to increase the amount of direct eye contact you get from very large faces constantly,” he said at the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival. “If you think about your real life, when somebody is very close to you and looking you in the eye, one of two things are going to happen. You’re going to get in a fight—or maybe you’re going to have a meeting experience.”


Ronn Levine is editorial director of SIIA. He can be reached at