Last summer I was contacted by a major international news channel wanting to interview me about a very important business story – it would be the lead item on their next bulletin.
I was sunbathing in my garden at the time, but no-one was really going to be distracted by my flip-flops, my “I love Mauritius” T-shirt and the stripy sun-lounger I was reclining on were they? After all, it’s what I had to say that was important and I managed to “wing” that okay….
Alright, so I made up that story – of course it would not have been acceptable to have done a media interview like that.
So why, just because we’re in lockdown, with journalists and organisations having to use video-conferencing platforms like Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams to conduct interviews or broadcast their news and views, are so many of them neither appearing properly or preparing properly?!
And I’m not just talking about inexcusable “nostril shots” or the almost ubiquitous “double chin” perspective.
On Monday there was possibly the most excruciating example yet of how not to do a livestream on Youtube using Zoom.
It was the second online media conference of so-called “Independent Sage” – a panel of 12 scientists who have formed a shadow version of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, because they’re concerned about a possible lack of transparency from Sage.
But anyone tuning in at the start of yesterday’s livestream would have witnessed a shambles – either no sound, or “echo-ed” sound, where the speaker’s words were relayed again a few seconds after their initial utterance.
Very quickly the comments viewers were posting in real time became the story, not whatever erudite views the scientists were offering.
I found it impossible to take anything they were saying seriously and it arguably did their case more damage that not saying anything at all.
I was left with the thought that if a bit of video-conferencing was proving tricky, beating Covid-19 was going to be well,….let’s leave it there…
So whether you’re planning to convey potentially life-changing scientific thought, or are just about to have a Zoom meeting with colleagues about the latest widgets you’re manufacturing, here are some key factors to bear in mind:
1. In a normal TV interview you would never have the camera below you, so don’t do this with your laptop or phone. Stick it on some books, so the camera is at your eye level (or even slightly above, but not way above, as David Davis did in the “Independent Sage” stream). If the ceiling is filling the shot, you’ve failed. Don’t sit so close to the camera your head fills the shot either (one of the scientists yesterday had just his nose and eyes visible during some of his answers). Nor should you sit so far away we can barely hear you. And if you really want to sound amazing, consider buying a USB microphone.
2. Don’t let your eyeline wander (and I’ve seen plenty of reporters do this too on Zoom…). It’s so easy to be distracted by what’s going on outside your window, or simply to gaze at the ceiling for inspiration or look at that little live image of yourself, as you think, “My hair has got soooo long in lockdown..”. Don’t. Keep focusing on that tiny dot that is the lens. It might look like a pinprick, but it packs a cannon-load of power. Talking to your audience in this case does not mean looking at them – look at the camera.
3. Don’t let your guard down when you’re not speaking. Work on the premise that if you can see you, we can see you. This includes when you’re waiting for others to join a Zoom meeting or livestream. (I recently saw a former Prime Minister’s director of communications preparing to appear on a webinar, seemingly unaware he was already public; and then there was the national TV news journalist who thought it was okay to lean back in his chair and have a good old stretch while someone else asked a question.) If you wouldn’t do it in a TV studio, don’t do it at home or in your office when you’ve joined a meeting.
4. Forget virtue-signalling your intelligence with a bookcase in the background packed with esoteric tomes, or, worst still, numerous copies of your own magnum opus. We’ve tuned in for your words, not your surroundings. If you can’t be anywhere that’s not messy or distracting, consider using Zoom’s virtual background option (it’s under “Settings”). And think about the lighting – don’t sit in front of a window, especially on a sunny day, or have a bright light behind you – your face will be in shadow.
5. Make the most of the audio choices, for example, you can mute audio whenever you join a meeting (again look under “Settings”), so you can join quietly (and then remember to unmute), or, if you’re the host, you can mute everyone while, for example, you’re doing your intro, so the audience doesn’t hear all the background noise as everyone settles, and then unmute them. And watch out for that feedback loop when your words come right back at you – it might be a participant has their speaker levels too high.
Clearly there are as many ways to improve your online interview or panel performance as there are ways to use video-conferencing – let’s face it, who hasn’t been invited to a virtual pub quiz, online yoga work-out or digital “Friday drinks” gathering during lockdown? – but even just these five tips should make a big difference and ensure your words, not your wardrobe or wallpaper, make an impact.
Just think of them as five little bits of sage advice…