It seems I struck a chord (#dadjokes) with my piece about how to soundproof your office for Zoom calls, and I've gotten a bunch of questions about the setup for the rest of my office. It's been a lot of trial and error, but I've landed on the ideal setup to deliver demos and presentations. This isn’t intended to be a “here are the exact things to buy,” as I’m not going to put up a bunch of Amazon affiliate links. But I’ll share a bit about the things that I use and why, and you can then figure out what's right for you.
- Camera position
- Standing Desk
Let's start with the background. I've written about this a fair amount, but backgrounds are incredibly important for video calls. The ideal background is one that showcases a bit of your personality but isn't busy or distracting. That way, it makes call intros far more enjoyable. Instead of “how’s the weather,” a good background is a conversation starter. Here's mine:
I've pretty much stuck to the music theme, but it has led to all kinds of conversations. Other bass/guitar players will either recognize the instruments or ask about them (the bass is a Jaguar, which is a relatively well known Fender/Squier design, but the guitar is made by a relatively small manufacturer called Schecter- one person recognized it, and we talked about guitars for about 10 minutes before getting to work). Or, sometimes people ask about the records behind me, and what they are, why I chose them. Each record has a story - for example, I’ve met a few of the bands (Dawes and Lake Street Dive), and when my son was born, “When Doves Cry” happened to be the song from the push mix that was playing, so Purple Rain had to be on the wall.
You could go the virtual background route, but I’m not a big fan as there are lots of situations in which they end up being quite distracting:
- If you talk with your hands like I do, the background may not be able to keep up.
- If you don’t have enough contrast with your background, either the background will “take over,” or parts of it will end up appearing.
- If you have a headset, sometimes Zoom/Teams/whatever can think that the headset is your head, so the “real” background is visible between your head and the headset.
There are times a virtual background is unavoidable. If there’s no way to make your actual background less distracting (i.e., if you don’t have a dedicated office and are working in a kitchen or basement), I’d highly recommend getting something to create lots of contrast between you and the background. You don’t need a green screen - I used to use a green sheet that I hung over a folding/room dividing screen, and that worked pretty well.
Lighting is one of the easiest ways to look better (or worse). When it comes to light, the key is that you don’t want any directly behind you as it ends up washing you out - especially if you are pale and bald like I am.
The ideal way to make lighting better is to have natural light to the front or side - a window is great if that’s an option. If not, or if you want to supplement, you can put lamps on the floor behind you or to the side.
Regardless of what the room light is, everyone should get a ring light. This is pretty much what it sounds like - a ring that lights up (usually it’s an LED). And everyone looks better with a ring light - it evens the light that’s on you, reduces any blemishes you may have (no judgment - we all have them), and illuminates your eyes. You can get one at Walmart or Amazon for about $20, and they’re worth every penny.
Also, like most stuff in this category, I think it’s all made by the same manufacturer, so whichever one has good ratings and is in your price range should be fine. I have one that has a second arm for a webcam, and that has different shades of light (warm/cool/etc.), both things I find to be very helpful.
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: external webcams are your friend. Most internal laptop cameras aren’t very good (yes, that includes MacBooks), and they also limit the angle your camera can be. External webcams are of higher quality and give you placement over where they are. You don’t have to get an expensive one (I use a couple, but my primary is a Logitech that cost $30-$50), and you definitely don’t need to get a 4K one.
When placing your camera, you want it to be eye level (so it looks like you’re looking at the audience in the eye). If you can’t use an external webcam for whatever reason, then put your laptop on a riser of some sort. This doesn’t have to be a fancy laptop stand - those old textbooks from college that you meant to throw out, recycle/sell but didn’t will work just fine.
And if you’re using an old Dell XPS that has the webcam in the keyboard? Sorry to say, but you need to get a webcam or a new laptop. No one wants to look up your nose.
I’ve had a back problem since I was 18 (thanks, football), and sitting for extended periods of time is a no-go for me. I recently got a standing desk adapter (one that goes on top of a desk, not a whole new desk), and it’s been life-changing.
A standing desk isn’t good just for health (since apparently sitting all day is killing us), but it will also make you a better presenter. I almost always stand in-person, even if I’m only presenting to one or two other people. It just feels better - it’s easier to find my demo voice, I can move around a bit (not pace, and this is a very important distinction), and when I “talk with my hands,” it is more natural. By standing when I present virtually, I have many of the same benefits. I don’t walk around the room, but I can be more animated. Plus, standing keeps me more present and engaged, which also makes me a better presenter.
Try your next call standing up (if you don’t have a way to do this on camera, wait until you have a non-video call), and I guarantee that you’ll see the difference.
That built-in microphone that’s on your computer? It’s garbage. No matter how much the manufacturer claims, it’s “optimized for video calls,” don’t trust them. An external audio device is crucial to sounding good on your calls.
Unfortunately, sounding good isn’t cheap. I like the Blue Yeti microphone, which isn’t the best microphone out there, but it’s a good balance of price and functionality. I have the microphone on a boom arm with a shock mount and a pop filter. If you don’t know what those things are, that’s OK - here’s a picture:
The boom arm is to move the microphone in and out of position, the shock mount (that thing sitting directly below the mic) is to limit how much it’s moving (mics pick that up), and the pop filters plosives, which is an awesome sounding word for “p” “t” or “k” sounds (among others) that the mic picks up.
You don’t need all of that in your microphone set up, but you do need to avoid putting a microphone directly on your desk. Sound is vibrations, and a microphone sitting on a desk picks up every vibration of the keyboard. So, unless you want your audio to sound like an old-timey typewriter, make sure there’s no physical connection between the keyboard and the microphone.
If an external microphone doesn’t work for you, then you want a good headset. When looking for a headset, I recommend one with a microphone arm to not only pick up your voice but to give you some control if your mouth is too close to it and/or you’re too loud, which causes distortion (which never sounds good, unless you’re an electric guitar). You also want to use a dedicated connection to the microphone - either a wire or a bluetooth dongle. Yes, your computer has a bluetooth radio, but besides being a fun word to say, a dongle will give more bandwidth to your audio signal than the radio in your laptop that’s connected to a bunch of other stuff. And don’t put said dongle in a USB hub, but have it in its own port; that way, you limit any other data that can interfere with your audio signal.
By the way, those AirPods that your significant other got you for the holidays (sorry to ruin the surprise) can work, but the audio quality won’t come close to a headset from a manufacturer like Jabra or Poly (formerly Plantronics).
There you have it, some simple and mostly inexpensive things you can do to make sure you have the best setup possible for virtual calls.