Posted 07 April 2020

“Sorry, I think you’ve muted your mic”: Essential tips for video calling

For all its upsides and benefits, video chat is definitely not a perfect technology. In the process of planning and writing this article, Google Hangout links didn’t work, webcams were unknowingly switched off, rogue Mums walked in on calls, browser windows closed abruptly, and interviewees had to record the interviews for us when our phones failed. This is why – inspired by some well-known bloopers – we’ve created an essential guide in attempt to extract some vital learnings from them. So whether you’re gearing up for an important client meeting, virtual coffee or portfolio review, we’ve got you covered.

Before the Call

Location, location, location
First up, it’s a good idea to do some location scouting at home to ensure you’re happy with people staring at whatever corner of your house you’ll be sharing. “You have to know exactly what people are looking at,” says Sam Gray, head of communications at London-based animation studio, Passion Animation Studios. With animators and creatives working collaboratively across the world, by now the studio are already pretty used to working remotely on projects.

“If you’re in a pub with somebody, you’re not paying full attention to [what they look like] all the time,” Sam points out, “but when you’re on a call, you just have a frame, so everything you’re doing in that frame, someone is going to notice.” That means if you have laundry on the floor, the wrong angle will mean that everyone else can see it, too. A good way to test this is to use something like Photo Booth or set up a test call with friend – this way, you’ll know exactly where the perimeters are.

“When you’re on a call, you’re just given a frame, so everything you’re doing in that frame, someone is going to notice.”

Try not to position yourself somewhere too distracting like a busy kitchen, and if in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a blank wall. And remember that sitting behind a window will cast you in a dark shadow, whereas sitting in front of one will help lighten things up. If anything, social distancing will arguably make us all much tidier, knowing that our houses are now the backdrop to our working lives.

Beware of virtual backgrounds
Oh, and if you’re not convinced you have a serviceable wall, there is always the option to have a virtual background. Platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams make this really easy (and amusing). You can pick a solid colour, or play around with filters but – you guessed it – this comes at a risk. Just ask political director Lizet Ocampo, who after downloading some of the platform’s filter effects ended up turning herself into a potato, and couldn’t work out how to reverse it. She spent the entire meeting as a vegetable. It’s probably best not to risk it, but if you do, just know how to get yourself back to human form.

Political director Lizet Ocampo ended up turning herself into a potato on Microsoft Teams

Locate your charger: Do you have enough power?
When deciding on a location, it can also help to position yourself near a charger, in case your laptop runs out of juice during the call. One project manager we spoke to recounted the stress involved in seeing her laptop battery about to die while on a video call to a potential client: “I thought I’d turned the camera off, but I hadn’t. My laptop began to die, so I put it on a chair while I ran to see if I could get a charger. The potential client watched this all happen, probably confused as to why I was doing this weird back-and-forth sprint toward them. I then had to pick up the laptop and run through my flat to get it to the charger. They were like, ‘What a great tour of your house?!’ Thankfully, we’re on friendly terms and laughed about it – but it was still mildly mortifying.”

Check your camera angles
We’ve seen the likes of both Prince Charles and Sadiq Khan use everything from boxes to baskets to create comfortable makeshift workstations – and with good reason. You need to make sure that people can clearly see your face, and that your screen’s not positioned at an awkward angle. If you’re on a laptop but don’t have a stand, use boxes or big books to prop up your screen so that it’s level with your face.

A top tip for those using Google Hangouts: to ensure the top half of your head isn’t chopped off or that you’re not too close to the camera, click the three ellipsis in the bottom right and then change resolution to 720 (this will zoom out and gives a more flattering picture).

Prince Charles and his makeshift video calling station

Communicate with your housemates
We all remember the now-iconic viral video (below) of Professor Robert Kelly, whose live BBC interview was interrupted by his children enthusiastically bursting into his room. But regardless of who you’re living with, if you’re due to have an important call, it’s worth communicating with the people around you. Let your housemates or family know when your call is happening, for how long, and that you won’t be available during that time.

If you live with your family, you’ll know that Mums and Dads are particularly gifted at walking in at all the wrong moments – just ask filmmaker Duncan Cowles, whose Mum ended up accidentally starring in his highly revered short film, The Lady with the Lamp. While it ended up pretty well for Duncan, it’s not always the case.

Professor Robert Kelly’s live BBC interview ​was interrupted by his children enthusiastically bursting into the room

How to decide on what to wear
Getting to work in comfortable clothing is definitely one of the perks that comes with working from home. But that’s not to say it’s always the best choice for a video call. “People are probably paying more attention to what the top eighth of your body looks like,” notes Sam, “so make sure that you’re happy with someone’s possible first impression of you.”

This will of course differ depending on how well you know the person, or people, you’re about to speak to. Sam suggests that you prepare for every video call as though you were going in for a physical meeting with someone. “Ask yourself: Is this the kind of person I would make sure to dress nicely for?” This is especially important for students who are preparing for virtual coffees, interviews or portfolio reviews.

Remind yourself of the call’s purpose
Remember that preparing for video meetings isn’t too different to preparing for real ones. Take some time beforehand to prepare: Know what the call is about and what you want to get out of it, or say. And if you’re going to be presenting, or talking about something specific, have some notes in front of you. This also means that you avoid having to run around or try to find what you need during the call itself.

Duncan Cowles’ Mum ended up starring in his film, The Lady with the Lamp

During the Call

To mute or unmute, that is the question
If you’ve got a few calls under your belt already, you’ll know that the mute button can be the source of much frustration. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have to tell at least one person during your call that they’re on mute, as they unknowingly silently chat away at you. “It’s one of the things I’ve found myself saying more than anything else,” agrees Sam.

Some apps will mute everyone by default when you join a call, so it’s worth getting acquainted with the mechanics. No one knows this better than It’s Nice That staff writer Jyni Ong, who ended up accidentally muting the group’s managing director Alex Bec during a video call: “I had never used Google Hangouts before, so it’s safe to say that I had no idea what I was doing when I first entered the virtual portal housing all fifty-odd of my colleagues from the shoulders up. As the mega-call commenced, we were told to mute ourselves to ensure the best call quality possible. I froze. I didn’t know what to do and could see no obvious buttons referring to this endeavour.

“What I had in fact done, was mute our managing director for the whole call. Every single pore in my body opened up with sweat.”

“In retrospect, I realise my Chrome had blocked a number of preferences in its Hangouts virginity, including the ability to mute myself. I stumbled around the screen with my mouse and hit the closest thing which seemed like a mute button while many a colleague slacked me privately telling me to mute myself. What I had in fact done, was mute our managing director Alex Bec for the whole call. Every single pore in my body opened up with sweat. And somehow, in a frantic blur that I now wish to erase from my memory, I survived to tell this tale to you all.”

There are times, though, when being on mute can be beneficial. If you’re having a breakfast meeting, for example – being on mute means only you can hear yourself munching away on your Weetabix. And with everyone using different levels of WiFi, it can also work to your advantage to stay muted or even switch off video completely, to lessen the strain on the connection. If this is a particular problem for you, according to this BBC article, it can help to avoid using your microwave.

Another reason why planning what you wear in advance is of vital importance

Use earphones to catch any feedback
You may have noticed, but there are two types of people on video call: headphone people and non-headphone people. Some are fine to broadcast their call to open space, whereas other like the closeness of having their colleagues talk into their ear. This is really down to personal preference, but if you’re a non-headphones-wearer on a big group call, consider how it will affect the sound quality for everyone else.

“Feedback is a real thing,” Sam tells us. “It can really ruin the flow of a conversation. You’re already working within a situation that’s quite weird and stilted, so try not to add anything else to that which will make it more difficult.” You don’t want to make the experience distracting for the other people on your call, so use headphones to capture extra background noise, and make sure other people can’t hear themselves talking on the call. Whether you’re into AirPods or those big, DJ-style headphones, it’s a piece of advice worth listening to.

“You’re already working within a situation that’s quite weird and stilted, so try not to add anything else to that which will make it more difficult.”

Remember that you are constantly on camera
It sounds obvious, but when you’re on a call, remember you’re on – a – call! It can be all too easy to get comfortable, and forget that other people can see you. “I was on a call with a friend the other day,” Sam recalls, “and he very slowly started picking his nose. I was like ‘Have you forgotten that you’re on camera?!’ but it was just because it was somebody I’d known for fifteen years, and he was so relaxed that he thought nobody could see him.”

Large group calls can be prone to this too. By now you’re probably well acquainted with Jennifer from the ‘Poor Jennifer’ viral video who unknowingly broadcast herself on the loo during a large group call. We’re not entirely sure how this happened – she might have confused the mute with the camera button, but either way – it’s a memorable cautionary tale for us all.

After the Call

Keep your webcam closed!
We know that these days, social and work lives can blend a little easier, but try to adjust your mindset accordingly, at least for working hours. “People have become so used to their computers being personal spaces, but they’re now being used as quite public work spaces,” notes Sam. So at the end of your call, or at the end of the day, make sure your camera is covered. You can even use a sticker, some masking tape or buy a camera cover to ensure bloopers are avoided in case you’ve left the webcam on by accident.

Remember: It’s about feeling connected
Video call is still an imperfect technology. It’s our friend but also our foe. We love to hate it but we couldn’t do without it right now. Aside from the lagging, feedback and constant talking over each other, it’s a pretty magical thing. It’s connecting people from all over the world in a matter of seconds, and for that we’re grateful.

Sam agrees: “If this happened even five years ago, this would be a massively different situation. Today, you can call us and speak to us and share screens. We can share work and show you things in motion. But without this core video technology, none of that would be possible, and would dramatically impact our business.

“Luckily we’re all going to be world experts in all of those things by the time this is over. When we go back to work, we will be the generation who moved on video call technology by twenty years. But at this moment, it’s more about keeping teams feeling connected. Which is one of the most important things to do right now.”

Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Illustration by Joe O'Donnell
Mention Sam Gray
Mention Jyni Ong
Mention Passion Animation Studios