Thursday, 14 May 2020 12:00

Dr. Strange Times (or how I learned to stop worrying and love ‘the Zoom’)

Written by Stephen Johnston

zoom meeting

The phrase ‘new normal’ seems here to stay. This means that for the foreseeable future, programs such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype will be ‘must-have’ tools for language professionals like us.


This is bad news for folks like me who are…well…technologically and photogenically challenged, shall we say?

So I thought I would break down some of the mistakes I’ve made as I adjusted to this new way of working. I hope that you can benefit from my ineptitude. Here goes.

I didn’t download the program before I used it
This seems like a no-brainer. But I clicked on an email invitation link 30 seconds before a meeting, only to be bombarded by program download pop-ups, set-up choices and computer re-booting. Hard to participate in a meeting when you’re cursing at your screen. Not that I would ever do that.

I didn’t practice with my program
I bought an official Zoom license (shout out to my business partner Steve Schwartz who initiated this), and thought I was set. Then I entered my first meeting and realized I hadn’t set optimal parameters to my liking. This meant I was fiddling with settings when I should have been participating. Before I ran my first workshop, I practiced some dry runs with my wife to make sure I could start, run and end a meeting seamlessly, including things like sharing my screen and sound, and so on. This taught me an important lesson, which I immediately forgot when I started using Microsoft Teams, only to be faced with a new interface. I looked like an amateur (see above).

I sat in the dark
I work in a home office with the blinds closed and a warm legal lamp to my left. I do this on purpose because I’m weird, and I don’t want the real world intruding on my headspace when I’m writing. But this means that during my first video meetings, people saw a dim outline of my upper body and face, deep in shadow. To remedy this, I turned the lamp to my face. This did an excellent job of lighting up the left lower part of my jawline, so that I looked like a camp counsellor with a flashlight under my chin telling a campfire ghost story. Not cool. So I opened the window blinds to my left (the horror, the horror). This immediately sent a blinding shaft of white light onto my left side, giving half of me a pale, ghost-like appearance, with the other half still in shadow. Remember I told you I’m not photogenic? Well, this was downright scary.

The answer is to move to a room where you can have direct lighting – preferably daylight – in front of you. But what if it’s dark outside? Then think about buying a ring lamp. I knew about ring lamps from YouTubers, who use them to illuminate their faces in a uniform way while they’re pretending to ‘react’ to songs they have heard one gazillion times, for fun and profit. And such. But I digress. These ring lamps really do work – you can adjust the colour and strength of the illumination, and when placed correctly in front of you, they provide clear visibility in an even way. They vary in size and price, but hey, you can charge them to your business, and they do help.

I looked down
I held some of my first online meetings on my laptop, which I placed on the desk in front of me. As one does. This meant that I was looking down on the other participants like I was examining an ant on the sidewalk. I’ve seen others do the same. It is very disconcerting, somewhat reminiscent of that famous upwards shot in Citizen Kane, and even a little spooky.

Now I place my laptop or webcam just above my eyeline. It forces me to look up, which has two main advantages. My face is illuminated properly and my double chin isn’t as prominent. My 16- year-old self just cringed. 

I didn’t look at the camera
One of the hardest things to achieve in virtual meetings is eye contact. I spent many meetings looking at the faces of participants on the screen or – even worse – looking off to the side at my second screen. It looked like I wasn’t paying attention, or that I was bored, or that I was working on other things. None of which were true. Okay, maybe I was a little bit bored during all that talk about budgets, but I certainly didn’t mean to appear that way. Also, be aware that your eyes are extremely visible in on-screen meetings. Test this out: video chat with a friend, then have them look at the screen and move just their eyes left and right. They will look shifty and strange. That’s how you will look too. 

So I learned to look at the camera. This means that when I am listening and talking, I am almost always looking directly into the camera, which means I am looking directly at the other participants in the meeting from their perspective. It kinda sucks from my perspective, because I lose that ‘personal contact’ feeling from my end. I spend little time looking at the people I’m talking to, because they are below the camera on the screen. But the important thing is that they see me looking that them: I appear interested and fully engaged.

I had a messy background
During my first online meetings, I didn’t think at all about what was behind me. And because I was usually in my office, what was behind me was a large wall-to-wall bookcase overflowing with double-layered books, souvenirs, messy boxes of papers and files, random Post-its and whatnot. After a few comments, I cleaned up the bookcase, adjusted the camera for an optimal angle, and the comments stopped.

Now, I am fully aware that bookcases are a hot topic of online ridicule, as all media types strive to put at least a few books behind them to look erudite. So I have experimented with two solutions. The first works well – a ‘blur the background’ option in Microsoft Teams. I really like it. The second doesn’t work so well…yet. It’s the ‘choose your own background’ option in Zoom. They have a small variety of cheesy pictures, or you can upload an image, like your business logo, which I tried. The problem is that you will look like you are cut-and-pasted onto the screen like a bad 80’s movie. Perhaps this will improve.   

Other things I have learned
I am now running more online training sessions than ever. Here is what I have learned:

  • Stay still. If you are shifting and moving about, you will distract others.
  • Don’t answer the phone (put it in silent mode). It’s rude, just like in real life.
  • Don’t interrupt (clearly a major disruptor in online meetings).
  • Put participants on mute if it is a large meeting.
  • Insist that everybody use their video option. This is especially important in training sessions, where people feel they can ‘hide’.
  • Call out people by name for input. This makes participants feel involved.
  • Put a sign on the door indicating that you are in a meeting. This will prevent interruptions. (And in my case, it will also prevent teenagers from blaring hardcore rap music in the adjacent bathroom. Disruptive. Highly entertaining and amusing for the other participants. But disruptive.)  
  • Wear pants. You might have to get up.

What have you learned?
I’d love to hear what others have learned about online meetings as we all navigate this ‘new normal’ together. Join the discussion on the SENSE Member Forum and let me know!

Read 1211 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 23:09

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