11 Video Conference Characters and How to Avoid Them

Have you seen these video conference characters?

If you have been in even just a few virtual meetings, you already know that there are some characters that always seem to keep showing up.  They may have different names, or be tuning in from different locations, but nonetheless, you’ve seen them before. 

And the way they project themselves in the virtual meeting detracts from their ability to contribute, collaborate, and influence others.  If we hope to project ourselves as leaders in these meetings, we don’t want to be doing what they do.  So today we’ll take a look at eleven of these video conference characters, and what they (and we) can do to project ourselves more effectively as leaders in our virtual meetings.

11 Video Conference Characters and How to Avoid Them

Picking the Place

Video Conference Characters - The LostThe Lost in Space. Our first character sets up in an area so full of clutter that it takes attention away from where it should be: on him and what he’s talking about.  Avoid the messy kitchen, or the cluttered office if possible, and go for a relatively clean background.

A variant of this is the artificial backdrop that platforms like Zoom provide.  If you want to use that feature, it can help to be relatively close to the camera and have a fairly plain background so you don’t end up looking like you are disintegrating electronically.

Video Conference Characters - The DistractedThe Distracted.  Along these same lines, try to set up so that there is nothing going on behind you.  Maybe you remember not long ago when a commentator on the news suffered an embarassing interruption when his kids charged into the room.  Millions of people shared his broadcast, but that had nothing to do with what he was saying, and everything to do with the commotion behind him.  It’s just best to avoid having anything going on behind us if at all possible. 

And if there’s a door back there, maybe lock it!

Video Conference Characters - The SeasickThe Seasick.  One more thing about the setting, and it’s for when connecting via smart phone.  The more you move that phone around, the more distracting it can be to everyone else.  Soon they’ll be searching for something to hold on to, instead of trying to grasp the issues.  So either prop it up somewhere, or get a simple tripod

While you’re at it, be sure to set it in landscape mode.  When you use portrait, the software on many platforms squeezes that image into a landscape shaped box, so you will appear smaller than everyone else, and harder to see.

Shining the Light

Video Conference Characters - The Secret WitnessThe Secret Witness. This is like when they interview someone in a documentary but need to protect their identity, so all you see is a silhouette.  That happens when the brightest lights are the ones behind you, like when sitting in front of a window.  For best effect, arrange things so that any natural light is in front of you, or slightly to the side so people can see your face clearly.

Video Conference Characters - The LurkerThe Lurker is another video conference character that keeps showing up.  This is a version of the Secret Witness, and it happens because ceiling lights can have the same effect if we have a laptop in our laps and the camera is aimed upwards.  Keeping the camera level can help to avoid catching those bright lights up high.

Video Conference Characters - The Blue ManBlue-man. Really it could be any color – this comes when we rely on only our computer monitor to light our face – whatever color is dominant on the screen will also reflect on us; if it happens to be blue, people might start wondering about your health. 

The best solution is to set up so plenty of natural light falls on your face, or add a simple light so everyone can see you smile.  And for best effect, avoid a bare bulb and harsh light; use a lamp shade to soften and diffuse the light so you look more like your natural self.

Setting the Camera

Video Conference Characters - The NoseyThe Nosey.  Now that we have the lighting about right, we should think about positioning.  Most web cams on laptops have a wide-angle lens, which is fine except that it can have a distorting fish-eye effect if we get too close.  It’s best to back away from the camera a bit so they can see more of us.   But not too far, or you become….

Video Conference Characters - The Distant CousinThe Distant Cousin.  Some settings, like conference rooms, have camera systems installed.  The problem with these is that everyone is so far away you can’t tell who is talking, let-alone read any non-verbal signals they may be sending.  If at all possible, limit the number of people on any given camera, and set the distance to allow for viewers to see the top third of your body for best effect.

Video Conference Characters - The SnobThe Snob.  Distance isn’t the only consideration; camera angle is important, too.  Whether it’s the low profile of many laptops, or we’re using a phone, if it is placed much lower than eye level, it appears we are talking down to everyone else in the meeting, and they are treated to an unflattering view of our nasal region.  Best to bring the camera level up to avoid this problem.

Video Conference Characters - The SupplicantBut not too far up or you end up looking like the Supplicant.  Like a child looking up at a parent and asking for permission to stay up past bed time, this angle makes us appear weak and subordinate, and statements we make have a tacit question mark at the end.

The best solution all around is to set the camera at eye level, the same as it would be if we were meeting face to face.  Take a minute to prop up that phone, or stick a few books under the laptop to make that happen.

Video Conference Characters - The PreoccupiedThe Pre-Occupied.  Here’s one more look that can sabotage how we project leadership through the lens.  It happens when our camera and whatever we happen to be looking at are not in the same place.  Maybe you are using more than one monitor, or your web-cam is not over top of the screen you are working from.  The effect is that you aren’t looking directly at the camera, and to everyone on the other side of your screen, you won’t appear engaged in the conversation. For better connecting, make sure when you are speaking, you are facing directly towards the camera.

Video Conference Characters – The Takeaway

I’m sure you recognize more than just a few of these video conference characters.  And now that we’ve given them names, I bet you find yourself seeing how many of them you can identify in your next meeting.  As you set up for your next video conference, take a moment to check the settings so that you don’t become one of them.

To recap, set up in a place where the background does not distract others, shine a soft light on your face so it shows up well, set the computer camera at about eye-level and far enough back that your upper arms are visible, and if using a mobile phone, put it on a steady base of some kind in landscape orientation.

Video Conference Characters - The InfluencerIt is surprising how just a little attention to detail can make such a big difference in how you project leadership visually.  But now that you know what to look for, you can generate the kind of video conference character we do want to see:  The Influencer.  And that’s you!

Lead On!

Note:  This post includes content from my most recent online course:  Leading Virtual Teams – Keys to Leadership Success in the Virtual World.  For free preview videos and to learn more about the course, I hope you’ll check it out.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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