Project Management Institute

Essential Tips to Ace Your Next Videoconference

two people on dual zoom video chat screen

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Scott Ambler

Scott Ambler

Vice President and Chief Scientist Disciplined Agile, PMI

29 May 2020

Many professionals will continue working from home for the foreseeable future. While face-to-face collaboration is typically preferable, videoconferencing is a useful tool to stay engaged with your colleagues, especially when you follow these essential tips.

While face-to-face (F2F) collaborative work is often preferred, many of us now find ourselves in a situation where that may not be an option for the foreseeable future. Recently, many organizations have asked their staff to work from home. For those of us who have been working remotely for years, this is business as usual, but for many of our colleagues this is a new situation. We all need to get better at working remotely, and an important aspect of that is making video calls effective. Here are some tips that I've found to work well.

Joining a Call

The best calls are the ones that start well!

  1. Join on time. When you are late for a call, you are either making everyone else on that call wait for you or interrupting the conversation when you do join.    

  2. Announce yourself to a small group. When your call is with a handful of people, and when you're on time, then it's polite to join with a simple "Hi, Scott's here" or something similar.  

  3. Don't announce yourself to a large group. If the number of people on a call is large, and the limit for "large" in this case is likely 7 or 8 people, then announcing yourself as you join becomes an annoyance. 

  4. Join on mute. We all hate it when someone joins a call and a flood of background noise drowns out the conversation. Join calls on mute so that you don't disrupt the discussion in progress. Once you're on the call, verify that you're still muted.  

  5. Join with video turned on. We'd really like to see you! A lot of information during a conversation is communicated visually, so bandwidth permitting, it's preferable to have everyone turn their video on. You'll find that doing so will make your calls more interesting and valuable.

During a Call

It's the responsibility of everyone on a call, not just the person facilitating, to ensure that the call runs smoothly. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  1. Remain in the moment. I know it's hard, particularly if you spend a lot of time on calls, to remain focused on the current conversation. We're all tempted to check email or multi-task in some other way to alleviate the boredom. Then suddenly we realize we missed something important and either need to let it go or ask to have the information repeated to us.  

  2. Remain muted if you're not speaking. Sound quality is a critical success factor for calls. Although it takes a bit of effort to turn the microphone on and off, it can make a huge difference for the overall sound quality. A nice side effect of this habit is that it helps all of us to remain in the moment. 

  3. Dress like you're at work, because you are. We dress differently at home than we do when we go into the office. Although we're working from home and want to dress down, we need to remember we're still working so we should dress accordingly. My advice is to dress as if it's a "casual clothes" day at your office.  

  4. Go on mute. I really can't say this enough. 

  5. Introduce yourself when you talk. When you're on a call with people whom you infrequently work, it can be useful to start with something like, "It's Scott. I was thinking..." This allows people to clearly follow who is speaking. Although most video conference software will indicate who is talking at any given moment, you may have some people on the call who don't have a video feed, perhaps because they dialed in with a phone. 

  6. Look into the camera when you speak. If this was a face-to-face conversation, you would very likely look people in the eye when speaking. The videoconferencing equivalent of this is to look into the camera. This is harder than it sounds because it can be very tempting to look at yourself in the window showing your camera feed. 

  7. Speak up. We would really like to hear you. An interesting side effect of looking into the camera when you're speaking is that you're very likely aligned so that your microphone can pick up what you're saying. 

  8. Speak slowly. We often find ourselves on calls with people who have different accents and who may not be fully proficient in the language being spoken. If you find yourself in this situation, your colleagues will appreciate that you’re making the effort to be understood by them. 

  9. Did you remember to go on mute after speaking? I keep repeating this point because it's an important habit to adopt.   

  10. Remember that others want to participate too. We want everyone on the call to collaborate, which means we all need to recognize that we need to share the air time with others.  

  11. Be flexible. Many of us have kids, pets, and other family members who may sometimes make a surprise cameo during a video call. It happens, and frankly, it can lighten up the mood in many cases. On that same note, none of us are perfect. Sometimes we're late, sometimes we forget to go on mute, and sometimes our appearance many not be picture perfect.

Organizing Your Environment

Think about the last time you were on a video call. You were probably assessing not only your colleagues’ appearances, but also sneaking a peek at their work areas.

  1. Be aware of what's in your background. This can be hard to control, but do your best to tidy things up.  

  2. Point your camera directly towards you. This will make it easy for you to look directly into the camera when you're speaking and present you in the most flattering light. 

  3. Consider getting a headset. Although they can be uncomfortable at first, headsets can both improve the quality of the sound that you transmit, and, if you have noise-canceling headphones, make it easier for you to hear.  

  4. Be in a well-lit space. We've all seen those team members who look like they're working in a dungeon and that's mostly because of poor lighting. Natural lighting is best, and the easiest way to achieve that is to set up either near or facing a window. Otherwise, you may need to arrange light sources so that they project towards you.  

  5. Test your equipment before the call. If you're new to videoconferencing, or you've changed your setup, you might want to consider doing a quick one-on-one call with someone to test if everything is configured correctly. You don't want to force your boss to wait while you adjust our setup to get it working.  

  6. Familiarize yourself with the software. There are many videoconferencing packages available to us and they all work differently. If the software is new to you, or if you haven't used it lately, watching a quick training video is likely a good idea. 

  7. Be aware of the ambient noise. We've all been on calls where someone is dialing in from their car, from the airport, or from their local coffee shop. The ambient noise is often worse than they think and it can be very distracting. So if you can't avoid calling in from a noisy environment then, you guessed it, go on mute as often as you can.

Planning and Facilitating a Call

Nobody likes wasting their time on a call where nothing is accomplished. Effective planning and good facilitation can go a long way to making a videoconference successful.

  1. Have an agenda. People need to know why you are having the call so that they know what is expected of them. Perhaps more importantly, they also want to determine whether they need to be on the call at all. 

  2. Keep the attendee list short. Although this can be hard, I always try to identify who is required to attend, likely because they are actively involved in the topic of the call, and who is optional because they may need to listen in to be aware of what we're doing.  

  3. Prompt people to participate. Some people are simply introverted, particularly when they are new to videoconferencing. So, keep an eye out for this and occasionally ask someone who hasn't spoken lately if they have anything to add to ensure you’re hearing from everyone, not only the chattiest members of the team. 

  4. Schedule time between calls. A courteous practice is to have a five minute "nature break" between calls. The easiest way to do that is to adopt the practice of ending calls at :25 or :55 rather than at the bottom or top of the hour respectively.  

  5. Start on time. When I'm hosting a call, I will typically start the software a couple of minutes before the call is scheduled to begin so that we can start on time. 

  6. End on time. Be mindful of the clock. Many of the people on the current call may have something else scheduled, perhaps another call, immediately after this one.

Please feel free to share this article with others or print it out so that you can keep it handy.