This is not a complete guide to how to use Zoom or similar face to face on line conferencing software. Rather, this is a list of pointers, many of which you would not get from the software’s manual (were there a manual). As far as I can tell, most people don’t know many of the things I cover here, but these are things that will make you a better Zoomer, Skyper, Meeter, Hangouter, or whateverer.
Give permission so you don’t need forgiveness later
When you start a meeting, you are often asked to give permission for the software to use your video and your audio. Some people get annoyed at this, but you need to know that this is feature, not a bug. You really do not want to grant permanent permission to any entity to have access to your video and audio.
Now that I think about it, you should probably be covering your camera with a Post-It Note between uses. But don’t forget to remove it when it is time to use it.
Massive muting avoids mutiny
The single biggest problem with multi-person on line conferencing is that people have no idea what sorts of noises they are making, and transmitting sometimes way too efficiently, over the microphone. Gentle tapping on the keyboard becomes pounding like the proverbial feet of the Russian Army. Moving something around on your desk can sound like the Concord take off. That one last time. And, most annoyingly, consider the times you turn your attention to the person in your room — your spouse, your kid, even your pet — and have a lengthy conversation with them about how you are out of toilet paper, or whether or not that last cookie is yours, or whatever. The entire group can hear you, mainly you, they stop, and they listen, and they wait and figuratively tap their feet. Because you forgot about the meeting and so you forgot to mute your mic.
A partial solution to this is to always have your mute on, until you need to speak (for more guidance see below). But then, remember to turn your mute back on when you do want to speak. Else, you’ll be yammering on and on and others will be interrupting you and acting like you are not even there and totally ignoring you! Then by the time you realize your mic was off the whole time, the conversation has moved on to the next inane thing. A YouTube video of that happening could be funny, though.
If you are running a meeting, pre-mute everyone, and remind them about their mic and what kinds of noises they make, unknowingly. Then, when someone joins the meeting late, take a moment to remind them as well (but see below for more information on that). Also, make sure to tell them how to unmute themselves. I had a recent meeting where one of the participants, a Zoom first timer, sent me an email asking to be unmuted near the end so he could add his two cents.
Consider getting an external microphone and using headphones. A good set of earbuds with a microphone, or if you like the DJ look, must go all the way and get a set of YouTuber headphones. Generally speaking, using headphones or earbuds will reduce the potential for feedback and other bad noises.*
You’re not going to like the way you look
I have a collection of screenshots of people Zooming that is totally hysterical but that I can’t show you our I’d lose friends and relatives. Just how many nose hairs does Aunt Betty have? I didn’t realize that Emanuel’s forehead was so interesting, but good thing it is because that is all I can see of him. My colleague Jane in Indiana is a demigod, I can tell because of the huge halo surround her body. Or is that just the giant window with the sun blaring through it in front of which she is sitting? I had no idea Ahmed’s face was so freaking big!
Lighting should be shining on you from your front, not from behind you. You want your camera positioned at your eye level or slightly above, pointing at your face, not some other thing in the room. Not just the top of your head. You don’t want the camera shooting up towards you with your head bent down looking at it. Just do that and look at yourself. See the quadruple chin? That is because your head has sunk into your neck because your laptop is on your lap, your screen pointing up at a steep angle so your built-in camera can get your face, but you are looking down your nose (nice nose hairs, by the way). Just stop that.
Sit in a chair. Have your laptop on a desk or table in front of you, probably on a book or two so that the camera is eye to eye with you. Make sure there is a gap between the top of your head and the top of the visible image of you in the software, and make sure your shoulders are visible, at least. Make sure the background is dark, foreground is light, and that what can be seen in the background is not something you don’t want people to see. Or maybe it is something funny or apropos, just not something that ruins either the image or your reputation.
Take a shower, comb your hear, wear a clean shirt. And, just in case you have to stand up for a moment, wear pants. Please.
Consider getting a separate free-standing camera (a web cam) that can be placed somewhere other than on the front of your laptop. You want a small tripod perhaps like this or similar. I suggest a Logitech Webcam, but DON’T BUY IT NOW. With everyone using Zoom all at once, webcams are the new toilet paper. They are sold out, but you can get a $50 one for $300 if you want. Just wait on that, but later consider it.
What did you say, Private? It wasn’t private!
In Zoom, and this may be true in other software, there is a chat function that includes a “private” chat that is person to person. The point of this feature is to allow you to have a side-bar conversation with someone else and not distract the larger group. The point of this feature is NOT to have an actual private chat. It turns out anyone can see this private chat of yours, and this is a feature, not a bug. If anyone clicks on “save” in the chat box, both the “To everyone” conversation and the private conversations are now saved, and visible in that saved document. This is great for keeping meeting minutes. Or, blackmailing your friends and co-workers.
You shouldn’t be saying anything privately that you can’t say publicly anyway, but especially using the Zoom “private” chat.
Be like a Boyscout, but in a good way
Before using any meeting software, be prepared. Have a pre-meeting, and try to get everyone to join in. Maybe two meetings. And don’t expect your first meeting to go well, or to give everyone a fair chance to participate.
I have an analogy. For the longest time, only a few people knew how to drive, or ever wanted or needed to drive. Then, one day, everybody had to drive, so everybody got a car and a learners permit more or less on the same day. Chaos. There are some of us who have been using on line conferencing software on a regular basis, for years. To the rest of you: Welcome to our world!
Get a wing-person, or be a wing-person
For larger, or more complex, or more important meetings I recommend a two-leader approach. One person (in your organization this can be the secretary or communications committee chief, perhaps, whoever takes minutes) initiates the Zoom meeting (meaning, does the invites, sets it up, and acts as “host”). A second person chairs the meeting. The host is in charge of making sure that participants’ names are showing (if someone calls in, that has to be fixed by replacing their phone number with their name), and that everyone is muted, and that people are reminded to unmute and remute. The host force-mutes or throws off the meeting any participate who, probably through no fault of their own, is disrupting the meeting. Yes, folks, if suddenly you are talking to your spouse about the day’s plans and can’t manage to mute yourself, you should be bounced off the meeting, get an email from the host telling you why and welcoming you back.
There is another thing I think the people running the meeting can do, but I’ve not done this, so I can’t advise in detail. In Zoom there is a lobby, or waiting room that you can force people to wait in before being allowed into the meeting. It is very common for people to show up at a meeting late. They should be forced to wait in the meeting room until they have been given the guidelines and norms for the meeting. Otherwise you’ll have 80% of the participants doing everything right, and a too-large number (which is 1 or more) of participants talking to their dog and writing their thesis on a loud keyboard as they pretend to be in the meeting. Or sending scurrilous private notes to others. Or whatever.
Norms and Guidelines
By now this should be obvious, but in case not: At the beginning of each meeting, take a minute to go over a few norms and guidelines. Like, how to get permission to speak, if that is necessary, the muting rules, etc. Ideally, a five or six bullet point text file can be on hand and transmitted along with the meeting invite, and then also put on the chat box. But you will have to tell people that the chat box exists and how to get it. And, much of this can be done in the waiting room.
I hope this helps you, and I hope you add in the comments your own tips and tricks.