Video conference calls have become the norm these days and will probably stay that way as organizations reevaluate the need for people to report to an office five days a week. Just as Business Casual dress arrived on the scene decades ago before the “rules” were written, online video meetings have become commonplace and we’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly as people try to figure out the best executive presence practices for the medium.
I, like you, have witnessed some strange and downright shocking choices onscreen and thought, “I can’t believe they did (or said) that.” Eating, drinking, nail filing, bed making, bathroom trips, yelling at spouses/kids/pets are just a few of the things I’ve seen. I’m sure you have a few you could add to that list.
The problem is we can let ourselves become overly relaxed on these calls. I mean, we’re at home on our couch or at the dining room table wearing fuzzy slippers, right? And we can’t help it if the kids interrupt with a math question or the dog barks. I think those disruptions can be fine from time-to-time, it’s more about how we react to them. But when we’re at home, comfy in our happy place, we often reveal a side of ourselves others have never seen before, and yes, I mean the part with no pants. Or the part that screams (unmuted) at the cat.
Our brand, our executive presence, that we’ve worked so hard to build can be damaged, or knocked down a few pegs, in a single online meeting. Here’s a short list of some things to avoid. Have you seen any of these?
1. Dress for the audience. An employment lawyer told me about being part of an online hearing with a judge (in judicial robe) and watching a young attorney argue his case wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. A memo about appropriate wardrobe was blasted out to the attendees the next day. Think about who will be on your call and how they will likely be dressed. An internal meeting full of people who know your closet contents better than you may not need to be impressed. But meeting with anyone outside of the regular crew means you need to be thoughtful—and respectful—with your attire.
2. Don’t log on with a funny onscreen name left over from last night’s online cocktail party. I was guilty of this one and found myself languishing for a long time in the “waiting room” for an important meeting the next day because the host had no idea who I was. Learn from my mistake—change it back to your real name before you leave the party.
3. Conferencing in from your bedroom is just TMI. No one needs to see that particular room in your home, it’s just too personal. I’m not a fan of virtual backgrounds, but better to use one in this case. Another good option is to buy a foldable screen or something portable to throw up quickly behind you.
4. Many regrettable words have been spoken over a live mic. The best advice I can give is always to keep yourself on mute and only unmute when you want to speak. With Zoom, you can select an option in Settings-Audio to “press and hold Space key to temporarily unmute yourself.” That way, you’ll automatically be muted in meetings and can hold down the space bar when you want to speak and lift your hand up when you’re done. It’s a great insurance policy for filtering yourself and whatever is going on in your surroundings.
5. A banker I know shared that on a group call she had with an association, she watched as the incoming President got up from his chair, walk to the frig, pull out two beers, and walk back to his seat with one in each hand. Better options—turn the camera off any time you leave your seat and pour all beverages into a mug before logging on. Why a mug and not a glass? No one can ever see what’s inside a mug.
6. The best engagement tool we have in online meetings is eye contact. As in live interactions, observing other’s body language and facial expressions can reveal much about how they feel about things. But, most speakers make the mistake of looking at their own image and the other attendees as they speak, when they should be looking directly at the camera lens. I know, it feels awkward to stare at that little light when everyone else’s face is off to the side. But if you’d like to capture everyone’s attention and be considered a dynamic, persuasive speaker, look at the camera! Shoot for 99% camera time, 1% glancing at the others.
Your executive presence can take months, sometimes years, to develop. Don’t ruin it by forgetting you’re still “on” when you’re online!