Webcam Etiquette: Tips from the Other Side of the Conference Call

By Kate Lister on 22 June 2011 0 comments
Photo: claudiobaba

Just when we all got used to being heard but not seen on VoIP calls, teleconferences, webinars, and video conferencing have all come of age. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

In a recent videoconference I witnessed behaviors for which my grammar school teachers would have scolded me. Attendees slouched in their chairs, picked at their cuticles, and generally seemed bored and distracted. I can hear Mrs. White across all these years: Sit up straight! Stop fidgeting! Pay attention!

Now, I might have understood the behavior if the meeting had been with people new to the concept, and unfamiliar with the unblinking eye of the webcam. But this particular meeting was with people from a company that sells video-conference services!

For your next appearance, here are a few dos and don'ts to consider before you step — or sit — in front of a camera .

They Can See You Now!

  • You really do need to get dressed, at least from the waist up.
  • If you opt to go al fresco below the belt, be darn sure everything you’ll need for the call is within reach.
  • Those mascara smudges are a dead giveaway that you haven’t showered.
  • When you roll your eyes, shake your head, or otherwise gesticulate, they CAN see you, remember?
  • You can’t chat with the person next to you, make another phone call, send an IM, or answer emails while someone is talking — the mute button is no longer your ticket to guilt-free multi-tasking.
  • If you’re making a presentation, be sure you know when the audience can actually see and hear you.

By the way, did you know that some web conferencing tools show the organizer when you’re working on other things? Now there’s a wake up call!

Warn the Family

  • Warn your spouse before the green light goes on. If your imagination fails you on the risks here, do a YouTube search on “embarrassing video conference.”
  • The number one complaint among teleconferencees is background noise. Although you love your kids and pets, their cries, screams, barks, and meows are distracting and unprofessional, regardless of which of them does it. You might even want to put a note on the front door asking visitors to not ring the bell.
  • Close any windows (the real ones, not the computer’s) that might expose listeners to a weed whacker or lawn mower sonata.

Turn Off Your Reminders

  • Do you really want your co-workers to know when your next teeth cleaning is scheduled, when you’re meeting the bankruptcy attorney, or that your massage is confirmed for 3pm?
  • Even beyond the potentially embarrassing personal reminders, an unexpected pop-up might expose competitive data, passwords, or other information that was intended for your eyes only.

Plan for the Worst

  • Be sure someone involved in the meeting is available by phone or email before and during the session. Have phone numbers and email addresses for the other participants handy in case you have trouble getting logged on. There’s nothing more frustrating than being all dressed up with nowhere to go.
  • If you need computer files for a demo or webinar, have a paper backup in case the interface fails.
  • Write down, on an actual sheet of paper, the call in number and password for the conference. If you get dropped due to a computer hiccup, you won’t be able to check your email for that information.
  • If what you’re doing is really important, have someone else — someone already logged in and briefed — who can continue where you left off it the power goes out when the Big One hits. Alternatively, log in from two places, such as a desktop and portable computer, so if one fails, you can quickly switch to the other.

Practice Being “On Camera”

  • Preview how you look “on camera.” You may need additional lighting to avoid looking like Bela Lugosi.
  • Know where the camera is and look at it, not down at your desk or at the screen which makes you look like your nodding off.
  • Check out what the camera sees in the background and adjust accordingly.

Close Unnecessary Applications

Conferences that involve desktop sharing expose you to a whole other set of risks.

While some desktop sharing software tools allow you to share only certain applications or documents, it’s a good idea to close any that are unnecessary before the meeting.

Take a fresh look at your task bar and web browser menu:

  • Having World of Warcraft as a top icon might not sit well with the boss;
  • That browser bookmark that allows you to speed your way to may not bode well for your career;
  • Don’t forget to turn off any recent search helpers so if you have to do a live web search, whatever auto-fills the search box isn’t potentially incriminating.

And, as always, plan ahead:

  • Think about what applications or documents you might need during the session and open them in advance. This will not only save time, but it will also reduce the risk of others seeing things they shouldn’t as you root around your system trying to find what you need.
  • If you’re using multiple screens, be sure the conference software is tuned to the correct one.
  • Practice transferring control of the desktop back and forth between presenters.
  • Turn off all sounds including your telephone ringer and other alerts, computer beeps and pings.

Finally, quadruple-check that the audio, video, and screen-sharing portion of the session has really ended before you start spouting off about what a waste of time that meeting was. Cover up your webcam just to be safe.

We have the tools. We have the technology. They’re not perfect, but if we all learn how to use them, we can make the road less traveled the way to work.

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