It was a noise that could not be unhear. As the Zoom meeting moderator continued on gamely and politely last week, one attendee repeatedly issued a hog-like nasal snort, so loud and frequent that it distracted from the topic at hand.
Many of us are taught that only the person who has not sinned should cast the first stone, and when it comes to making inappropriate breathing noises, I surely have sinned, having suffered respiratory blockages since a young age. So, in raising this, I do not mean to cast aspersions on someone for whom snorting may have been beyond control.
But there is one critical difference that separates me from the snorter, and that is my facility with the mute button. Fifteen years of podcasting has taught me an essential skill that translates well to our new reality of daily Zoom meetings — knowing when to mute myself and, equally as important, knowing when to unmute myself.
So as Zoom becomes our new conference room, water cooler, and happy-hour gathering place, allow me to share ten video conferencing blunders you can easily avoid.
1. Don’t snort. On Zoom, the mute button is your friend. Whatever noises you might make, it is there to keep you from sharing them. It is in the lower-left corner of your screen and looks like a microphone. Let’s be blunt. Some of us snort. Some of us are heavy breathers. Some of us talk to ourselves out loud. Thankfully, through the miracle of the mute button, we need not share any of that with our fellow conferees. But there is an important proviso attached to the mute button, and that is that you must not forget to unmute yourself when the time comes to convey your brilliant contribution to the meeting.
2. Don’t look bored. When videoconferencing with the senior partner or a key client, try your best to look interested and engaged. The trick here is all in the eyes. If, rather than looking at your computer screen, you are reading texts on your iPhone, they will see your inattentiveness. Keep your eyes focused in the general direction of your webcam, and no one will ever have to know how bored you actually were.
3. Don’t forget you’re on camera. There is a lesson for all of us in the heart-wrenching tale of #PoorJennifer. On a Zoom conference last week, while all the participants were arrayed in gallery view, she apparently forgot she was on camera as she carried her laptop to the bathroom, placed it on the floor, and proceeded to use the toilet, for all to see. Video of the mishap made its way to Twitter, where it had 7 million views before being removed. The lesson here is remain mindful of the fact that you are on camera. And if the call of nature cannot last until the meeting ends, remember that you can easily turn off your camera –- right there next to the aforementioned mute button.
4. Don’t play Solitaire. The meeting moderator is sharing her screen, showing a PowerPoint on your practice group’s business development plans. But your eyes are focused on your second screen, where you’re amusing yourself with a game of Solitaire. Suddenly, the moderator asks you, “Why aren’t you paying attention?” How did she know? Turns out, Zoom has a sneaky feature called Attention Tracking. It allows the meeting host to see when a participant does not have Zoom in focus for more than 30 seconds. The good news: It only works during screen sharing, so you’re free to multitask the rest of the time.
5. Don’t share the wrong screen. The moderator’s presentation is over, and now it’s your turn to share your screen. On one monitor, your PowerPoint is ready to go. On the other, well, there’s still that game of Solitaire. When you select the Share Screen button in Zoom, it lets you select which screen or open window to share. I can’t tell you how many times presenters have mistakenly shown me their email inboxes or something else I shouldn’t have seen.
6. Don’t ignore your background. Makeshift home offices are the new normal. That means you may be working at a desk where you see your computer, but others see your unmade bed or kids’ dirty laundry. Before you get on a videoconference, turn on your camera and see what others will see. In Windows, click the Start button, then Camera. On Macs, use the Photo Booth app. If it ain’t pretty behind you, you might want to consider a Zoom virtual background. Palm trees beat laundry baskets any day, but you’ll need a fairly recent computer for the virtual background to work well.
7. Don’t take a call. Amazing how often this happens. We hear the participant’s phone ring, see the iPhone to the ear, hear the quick explanation that they’re on a conference and can’t talk, and then hear and see the extended conversation regardless. If you were in a face-to-face meeting, you would not take the call. Why take it on Zoom? If you must, remember the points above about muting your mic and video.
8. Don’t forget about lighting. On a Zoom video conference last week, a principle speaker was a faceless silhouette against a floor-to-ceiling window. The view was spectacular, but not of the speaker. Check your lighting in the same way that you check your background. Avoid bright backlighting if you can. If you can’t, put a light on your desk and shine it at your face.
9. Don’t forget to alert your housemates. Sure, it’s cute when the little kids come in and want parent time. But it’s not so cute when your significant other yells from the other room about your failure to pick up your dirty clothes. Before you join a conference, make sure those you live with know. And if the room you’re in has a door that locks, then lock it.
10. Don’t forget to moderate. For all the potential blunders I’ve described above, the worst videoconferences, like the worst face-to-face meetings, are those where the moderator fails to moderate. Set an agenda for the meeting in advance. Cut people off who go on too long. Keep things moving. And if you can end it early, by all means do.
Just don’t forget to click “End Meeting.”
Robert Ambrogi is a Massachusetts lawyer and journalist who has been covering legal technology and the web for more than 20 years, primarily through his blog LawSites.com. Former editor-in-chief of several legal newspapers, he is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inaugural Fastcase 50 honoree. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAmbrogi).
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