Getting the Basics right...Technically
Like it or not, you and I are living through a unique period in history. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing us to adapt to a new “normal” in which we are learning new ways to communicate and connect with each other.
As Toastmasters, we have had ample opportunity, pre-pandemic, to connect with each other, to share ideas via effective communication skills. But in this world of new “normal,” which includes remote real-time video communications, we need to supplement our speaking skills with know-how in the technical realm of cameras, computers, and microphones because you can’t get your message across if there are annoyances distracting your audience.
As a Toastmaster and a videographer/audio engineer, I’d like to offer some basic tips: things I see from online meetings which I’d like to offer to fix. These range from no-cost options to low-cost additions to your webcam setup.
Yes, it’s a camera. Not a computer.
Most of us use our laptop or built-in camera as our webcam. Once you sign on to a web meeting, understand that your laptop is primarily a camera, and you should treat it as such.
- Clean the lens.
You’d be surprised how many people forget to wipe the camera clean.
- Position the lens at eye level.
Many times we are treated to a view of a person’s nostrils, looking up at their ceiling and even at ceiling fans and lights. You wouldn’t interact with people in the real world like this. In order to look “natural” to your audience, you’ll need to put your camera at eye level. Usually, this means raising your laptop around 10 inches off your desktop. You can do this by using a stand for your laptop or putting it on top of some boxes. Yes, this makes it inconvenient for use as a laptop, but remember: it’s not a computer while you’re using it as a webcam. To make your laptop still usable while propped up so high, consider connecting an external keyboard and mouse.
- Consider using an external camera.
The built-in cameras in our computers are usually cheap. Manufacturers have not invested a lot in these cameras: after all, computers are sold on their screen display quality, CPU speed, and graphics capabilities. Webcams are not at the top of the list of features in a computer. But if you buy an external webcam, you’ll almost always have a better quality camera because that’s the sole reason for the webcam being on the market. Some webcams also give you the capability to zoom, giving you more control over the framing of your picture. In the extreme case, you can use an external, “real” camera such as a camcorder or a DSLR with an adapter.
- Remember you’re working with a very close camera angle
You’re around 12 to 18 inches from your camera. This is very close! When you are this close to a camera, perspective is exaggerated. For example, if you move your hands or your body toward the camera, your size will be greatly exaggerated. You can use this for comic effect or for options that you don’t have in real life, to emphasize a point. Just be aware of it because it may distract unintentionally.
- Look at your lens, not your audience!
This is the hardest thing to do. We’ve all been trained to maintain eye contact. But when we try to look at each other in our “Brady Bunch” gallery view, we don’t look like we’re trying to maintain eye contact! That’s because we should not be looking at images of our audience, but at the camera lens. It’s hard to do because we’re addressing an inanimate spot in our laptop lid. But because we’re so close to the lens, we really do need to look at the lens, and not at our display, in order to make it appear that we’re gazing into someone’s eyes as in real life.
Cameras need light.
- The more light, the better.
Especially for cheaper, built-in cameras, the camera’s sensor is where a built-in camera lacks a lot of capability. When there is not enough light, the camera will compensate by increasing the “gain” in the sensor. But doing this increases the grain in the picture, making it fuzzy. Also, to compensate, the camera will increase the shutter speed, making the picture blurry when there is motion in the picture. Try experimenting with very dim light and very bright light sometimes. The difference is dramatic.
If you have a desk lamp, you can use it to put light on your face. Place it behind your laptop, and point it at your face. You’ll want it to be much higher than your camera, and off to the side of your camera about 30-40 degrees from the camera. If it’s too bright, you can diffuse the light by scotch-taping some fabric softener (“Bounce”) to the front of the light. This works because it’s made to withstand high heat.
- Look for a well-lighted room.
The ideal lighting situation is to have lights behind your computer. This is not typically how lights are set up in a room, and that’s why we see such bad lighting frequently.
- Don’t have a background that’s too bright or too dark
The automatic exposure controls of an automatic webcam will compensate for the overall brightness of your picture. If you have a dark background, the camera will think it’s a dark scene and will increase the brightness. If your face is much brighter than the background, then your face will be overly bright. If your background is too bright (this happens if there is a window in your background) then the camera will compensate by darkening the exposure, causing your face to be dark. The ideal situation is to have not very much difference between the light on your face and the light in the background.
- Consider investing in lights
There are many low-cost options now in video lights intended for web cameras. Search on the term “ring light” on your favorite online shopping website. These will do a great job of casting a nice, soft light on your face.
Ever wonder why everyone sounds so weird in a web meeting? It’s because a lot of audio processing is necessary to reduce room noise, to prevent cross-talk between several people, and to prevent echoes and feedback. There is a lot of amazing technology behind the audio processing. But it’s not perfect. And here’s the vexing thing: you don’t know how bad you sound! You can tell how bad you look. Only someone on the other end of your web meeting can tell how bad you sound because you can’t hear yourself. Because it’s easy to ignore the bad sound, you should pay close attention to your sound.
Here are some things you can do to help.
- Quiet !!
Look for a quiet room. Turn off your fan, your background music, and any other background noise. If the web meeting software detects noise, it will try to reduce these noises, sometimes distorting your own voice. In the worst case, your background noise will be transmitted, annoying everyone in the meeting…and you’ll be the last to know when someone points out that you’re the troublemaker!
- Position yourself close to your computer.
Your built-in microphone will pick up your voice better. And because of that, the web meeting software will be able to separate your voice from room noise.
- Consider using earbuds or a headset instead of relying on a built-in speaker and microphone.
The best microphone placement will be right next to your mouth. Your voice will be picked up distinctly, and any room noise will be rejected easily. Many low-cost options are available in wired earbuds, and wireless earbuds, in case you need to be mobile.
- Special Circumstances: “Use Original Sound” option
Some web meeting clients have an option to “use original sound.” This option turns off a lot of audio processing, which will result in better sound quality. This option is needed if you have a musical performance to do or if you have other special audio needs. However, if you use this option, you must have a quiet room, and you’ll need to do a sound test beforehand.
Of course, there are many speaking techniques that will help you be more effective online vs. in person. These are just some of the less-obvious tips that we don’t really think about. As you can see, many of these tips are simple ones, needing just a repositioning of your computer or using items you may already have around the house.
Written by: Stanley Ng ATM-S D101 Club # 2038 North Valley Toastmasters