24 video conferencing tips to go from telecommuting zero to hero

Getting started working from home and facing your first video-conference? Here's some tips on how to make the best of it and not to screw up.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Over the years, I've done innumerable video conferences, webinars, and calls. But every time I'm still a little nervous. Here are battle-tested ways I and some friends and colleagues have found to do well at video -- or, at least, not mess up too badly.

Hardware and Software, Nuts and Bolts

  1. Does your gear work? Are you sure? Check your camera, your computer, your microphone, and your internet connection. Then check it again. Hell is doing tech support with your setup while everyone else is waiting and thinking, "Can you believe this guy!?"

  2. Oh, and while you're at it, make sure your video service is working well. With, conservatively, a few million new users using video-conferencing for the first time, I guarantee there will be failures and slowdowns. 

  3. Also, do your best to make sure your video-conferencing software is working well before the call. That means turning off CPU-heavy background applications, automatic alerts, and downloads You do not want your video to end up stuttering.

  4. Don't play with your computer or smartphone. You don't want to end up like Matthew Miller, head of the Fedora Project, who switched to another browser tab and forgot they were on camera. Whoops.

  5. You can use your built-in webcam and microphone, but if you want your video to impress, you want to get a decent external webcam, mic, and headphones

Organize, Organize, Organize

  1. Are you in charge of the meeting? Then organize it. Email an agenda beforehand, so the conversation doesn't wander all over the freaking place. Stephen Satchell, a developer at INE, remembers having "a video conference with no agenda or even an informative topic." The result? "It was rambling chit-chat for an hour, which, if properly done, would have taken 10 minutes." Don't waste time like this. 

  2. That said, put time in for idle chit-chat. I guarantee that no matter how much you want to have a laser-light focus on your latest gizmo's delivery date, the first few minutes of every conference call will include "How are the kids/parents/dogs doing?" and "Can you see me?". Plan for it and then move on to the meat of the meeting. 

  3. Got files or information to share beforehand? Then, Fabio Ramos, senior director of product marketing at 8x8, a VoIP company, recommends that you: "Share these with other participants beforehand if possible. You may share information during the call, but it may be distracting or difficult in some cases for others to use files while talking with you. Double-check that everyone has the materials and access they need."

Virtual Meeting Etiquette

  1. It's a business meeting! If you normally wear a suit and tie, wear them. A t-shirt with Linux commands? Go for it. Pants are optional. Just keep in mind that if you need to stand up to answer a call of nature, your CEO may not be as impressed with your Mickey Mouse shorts as your cat.

  2. Do not -- for the love of kittens and puppies -- eat during a conference. That pepperoni pizza may look tasty on the plate, but it doesn't look good on your face. Or, on your shirt.

  3. Which, reminds me, check your clothes for lunch remains before turning on the camera. Ketchup is not a fashion statement. 

  4. Be on time. Can't get there until five minutes late? You may be better off not showing up at all. No one -- and I mean no one -- likes "Beep! Steven has joined the meeting." Or so I've been told.

  5. Bob Suitor, IBM's VP of Quantum Computing, adds that besides starting meetings promptly when scheduled, you should strive to "avoid side conversations, and by all means wrap it up early if you can."

  6. Freelance writer Lisa McGreevy wants to remind you, "There's no need to make a huge deal if you accidentally drop off and have to reconnect. Just quietly come back to the room. Don't interrupt with, 'Sorry I dropped off, bad connection, I'm back now! Sorry!' That's more disruptive than the chime alerting you've reconnected."

  7. Are you talking? No? Then mute your freaking microphone. Rikki Endsley, an AWS open-source community manager, recommends you "behave as if you were in the room with the other participants." She added, "I was on a group call last year and we could hear a participant using the restroom because he clearly was not following these basic video conference rules." You do not want to be that person.

  8. Seriously. If you're not talking, mute your mic. Freelance writer Mitch Wagner remembers being in "an editorial meeting and someone else was presenting an article they were doing and one of the cats was pestering me to be picked up and I finally said, 'Will you shut up and leave me alone?" It did not end well. 

  9. Karanbir Singh, CentOS's project lead, would like to remind you: "Participate as if you were physically in the same room. And participate completely (aka, no checking emails or doing other work waiting for someone to say your name, etc). "People don't like it when they call on you and see you obviously typing away." I mean, they seriously don't like it. 

  10. Adrian Warman, the principal cybersecurity consultant at the UK Ministry of Justice, adds: "Be really clear about stages in the meeting, discussion points, and conclusions. Recap often. If you're in a voice-only call, or worse, some are voice-only, others are video, it's really easy to get lost."

  11. McGreevy sums it up: "Just pay attention. No eating a four-course meal, taking a phone call, texting, typing the whole time, watching videos, driving, turning your camera on and off 40 times ("be right back!"), etc. I see this stuff all the time and it's so distracting. Just. Pay. Attention."

Appearance is everything

  1. Lighting's important. With bad lighting, you're going to look bad. If you're in a room with a window, aka natural light, face the window. No window? Find a light to put in front of you. Never sit with your back to a window. Cinematographers can do great things with backlighting. You can't. You also don't want to sit under a bright light. You'll get shadows under your eyes, which will make you look tired, older. It's not a good look.  

  2. Make sure your background looks decent. You may like your kid's drawings on the fridge. Your co-workers? Not so much. You can even set up a dedicated video area with a green screen and all the trimmings. But many video-conferencing programs, such as Zoom, enable you to set up a virtual background, so your messy room is replaced by a much image of you on the International Space Station. 

  3. Look up, not down. If you look down at your camera, which is very common with smartphones, your audience will get a great look up your nose. And, oh, by the way, have you trimmed your nose hairs lately?

  4. Dogs, cats, and children should not be seen nor heard. That said, as Wagner reminisced: "When high-level SVP at a multi-billion-dollar vendor says that her two-year-old daughter was going to bed and insisted she had to say goodnight to me. So, I said goodnight to her. I don't care how much of a tough investigative reporter you are -- when the two-year-old girl wants you to say goodnight, you say goodnight." 

  5. Finally, Stephen Walli, Microsoft's principal program manager, reminds us that many of these foul-ups can be seen in all their glory in the classic "A Conference Call in Real Life" video. Watch. Laugh. Cringe. Learn. 

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