Fixing Zoom calls: Looking better and feeling better

It’s time to get serious about how we show up in remote meetings.

For a year, we slogged through it, but it was exhausting. Not only did we feel lousy at the end of the day, but other people rarely saw us at our best.

Now that it’s clear that the nature of work and meetings has changed forever, perhaps this is a good moment to embrace what’s possible.

I’ve put together a rig in my office that is noteworthy for two reasons:

  1. I can be present in meetings with far less fatigue.
  2. My Zoom presence is significantly enhanced, which makes it easier to get my point across.

Here’s a short sample.

And here’s a photo of what it looks like from my side.

Here’s how to do it.

First! It’s free, it takes about one minute and will change the way you feel at the end of the day. In Zoom, find the button for HIDE SELF VIEW. (Here’s a link). What this means is that as in real life, you won’t be able to see yourself. It turns out that looking in the mirror all day wears us out. You’ll have to change the setting at the start of every meeting (this should be high on their list of things to fix) but it’s pretty easy.

By hiding your face from your screen, you can focus more on everyone else in the meeting.

Second, also free: rearrange your workspace so that light is not coming from behind you.

The next steps cost more in setup and money, and I’ll cover them from easiest to most involved. Part of the magic of video meetings is that without a commute or fancy equipment beyond a phone or a laptop, people could join. But it’s become clear that it’s possible to deliver more fidelity and impact by investing in some tech.

Just as we don’t hesitate to buy a new outfit for a big meeting, or pay $500 for a plane ticket, these are investments, and in the scheme of your career, they’re pretty reasonable–and your boss should pay for them:

Get some LED lights. They’re incredibly cheap now (here’s a sample, but shop around.) Set them up to the left and right of your screen, a few feet behind it.

Get an external DSLR camera and hook it up to your Mac or PC. This is a much bigger commitment, but the difference it makes is startling.

You’ll need a camera, a tripod, and a capture box. Again, all three have alternatives, feel free to shop around. I use this capture box, but your mileage may vary. (And scroll down to the end of this post for a camera alternative)

How it works: The camera goes on a tripod and sits just above and slightly behind your computer screen. The HDMI output goes to your capture box and then into your computer. In Zoom, change the camera from your computer to the camera. Done. It also pays to get a power cable for your camera so it doesn’t run out on you. (You can add a microphone while you’re at it).

And then, there’s one last step, which has been the biggest leap for me since the self-view insight.

When you look at the camera in a zoom call, you’re not looking at the person you’re talking with. You’re staring over their head if you’re looking at the camera, or, possibly, you’re looking at them, but it appears to them that you’re looking at your keyboard. Either way, there’s no eye to eye connection.

This is unnatural. You’d freak out if you had a real life meeting with someone who never made eye contact. And it’s really tiring, because you end up spending your time not doing something humans evolved to do, which is look at each other.

The alternative? A beam splitter.

These are used for teleprompters. It’s basically a piece of fancy glass, at an angle, on top of a monitor or screen. Behind the glass is the camera.

You can look directly at the glass, and the camera behind it, but instead of looking at the glass and the camera, what you’re actually looking at is the teleprompter or the stuff that’s on the screen.

It’s magical.

This setup is now far cheaper than I expected. Here’s a typical beamsplitter with hood and mount, and here’s a monitor that should fit with it. Total cost under $300.

[or if you’ve already got a late-model iPhone or iPad along with a Mac, there’s a new app called Reincubate Camo, which is a much better product than the name implies. It allows you to skip buying an external camera and use the device tethered to your Mac instead. You’ll still need a tripod, still and you can probably make it work with the beamsplitter…]

The entire setup, all of the things that I’ve listed above, comes to less than $1,000–less than half of that if you already have a camera or use Camo. If you go to a meeting a day, that’s a few dollars a meeting over the course of a year.

It’s not for everyone, but if you are looking for the tools to be more productive, I hope it helps.