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How to Look and Sound Good on Your Videoconference Call

Michael Kretschmer, video conference call
Michael Kretschmer, prime minister of Saxony, speaks via videoconference with Hubertus Heil, the federal minister of labour and social affairs, in Germany. Robert Michael/picture alliance via Getty Images

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The pandemic is forcing millions of shelter-in-place workers and students to use a wide variety of videoconferencing tools for meetings and classes. This abrupt shift has caused innumerable faux pas, outright hilarity, and when it comes to technical problems, hair-pulling exasperation.

Due to audio and video problems – some self-inflicted, others due to the tools themselves – these online meetups often lack productivity. No matter which conferencing software you use, there are some steps you can take to ensure better video and audio, particularly when you're calling in from home.

1. Pick the Best Sonic Location for Your Call

With spouses, kids, roommates and pets often also around, distracting noises and sounds are a given. The first step is to find a quiet spot away from the chaos. But it doesn't have to be an empty room.

Rhett McClure, a professional videographer and technology consultant, in Lincoln, Nebraska, says that audio can be tricky depending on the location. "Audio behaves a lot like light. If you can conduct your remote conference from a smaller bedroom with lots of objects to absorb reverberations, your sound will naturally sound better than a giant room with bare walls," he says.

2: Use a Microphone – Or Your Smartphone

There are a lot of fancy gadgets for videoconferencing, but sometimes, simpler is better, particularly when it comes to microphones.

"Wireless headsets have come a long way since the early days, but no matter what, wired microphones will always provide better sound quality with less interference," he says. "Wired mics are better bang for the buck and usually don't need to be charged or a separate power source."

If you have a USB microphone, get it close to your face like a podcaster for the best quality and volume, and use the foam windscreen even if you're indoors. No freestanding mic? McClure suggests muting the microphone on your laptop and calling in on your smartphone to the conference. (You can still follow the video from your laptop).

"Most smartphones have way better noise-canceling capabilities built in than your laptop [does]. If your phone is relatively decent it is probably the best device you own for videoconferencing," he says.

3. Add Some White Light and a Flattering Camera Angle

"The best lighting is bright, diffused through a curtain, or bounced off a light-colored wall," McClure advises. "If you can get a bright light source opposite from a blank wall, it will look much better than aimed at a window." You can also put a piece of white paper or a white tablecloth on the table you'll be sitting at to get that bounce from a light source on your desk(Tom Ford gave that tip to The New York Times.)

Camera position also matters. Point the camera in a safe direction so that other participants aren't distracted watching your spouse fold laundry in the background. And preview your own appearance, too.

"For a more flattering angle, use a laptop stand or a stack of books to get your recording device to approximately eye level," he says. At least you won't have a tired droopy look from looking down at your screen.

4. Think 'Still and Quiet'

Stay still during the call. Streaming video has come a long way in terms of quality, but clarity and sharpness improve when you're not rocking back and forth all over the place.

And finally, there is the one feature that trumps perhaps every other when it comes to remote conferences – mute. If you're not speaking, tap mute.

This has a couple of powerful functions. First, it cuts out all ambient noise that could affect audio quality. A bit of paper shuffling and typing might seem innocuous, but these distractions can make it much harder for people to understand the conversation, especially if multiple people are unmuted and making the same kinds of "ruckus."

Second, mute prevents you from interrupting the meeting with random unintentional noises, from knuckle cracking, to pencil tapping, to your kids screaming over the TV remote.

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