I was a webcam zombie! How to look alive and professional in videoconferences and web meetings

If you're working remotely, you still need to dress well, clean up your work area and more.

We all know webcam zombies—people who may look normal walking down the street, but who, when they sit in front of a webcam for a videoconference, look ghastly. This issue is coming up more frequently as more people work from home or work remotely, and haven't thought about how they look onscreen.

The problem could be the lighting. It could be their sloppy clothing choices. It could be the junk piled in the background that you’d just as soon not see. In any case, they look like someone you’d rather avoid than engage in a web chat.

I didn’t know I was one, until a colleague sent me a screenshot of how I looked online (see above). Yeah, pretty horrifying. I knew I couldn’t keep that look and also keep my clients.

If you’re home sick, or self-quarantining, same thing: Best not to look as bad as you feel.

Here are the steps I took to come back from the undead—and avoid other common presentation faux pas during a videoconference. Send these tips to the other unwitting zombies you know. They’ll thank you before they eat your brains.

Dress for success

Looking your best starts before you boot up your computer: It starts with getting dressed. Take your cues from the folks you’re meeting with, and dress accordingly, experts advise.

“Your attire should be similar to [what you’d wear to] an in-office meeting, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a site that helps people find jobs with flexibility. “Your appearance should still be professional and reflect the organization you work for. My company is fairly casual, so it’s okay to be in casual attire as long as you look presentable. However, if the people you are meeting with will be in suits, you should dress the same,” 

You can take advantage of the fact that the camera can’t see below your waist by wearing comfortable bottoms and shoes…or opt out of them altogether. (Yes, even the pants— it can be your secret!)

But steer clear of tops with stripes or checks, which can blur and be a distraction on-camera. And especially a top that is too revealing, warns Reuben Yonatan, CEO and Editor in Chief of GetVoIP, a voice-over-IP review site. A strapless top could unintentionally give the impression that you’re topless, he warns. Chances are, that’s not what you want your boss to think.

Consider accessories carefully. “Be mindful of your jewelry and apparel. If it reflects, jingles, or sparkles, it’s going to be distracting to the person you’re talking to,” Yonatan warns.

Your hair and makeup should be similar to what you’d wear in the office, though perhaps slightly more “done,” most experts agree. The camera tends to wash people out, so you may need more blush or makeup than you’d normally wear, Fell says. Yonatan notes that even men may want to add a touch of powder…especially those who are a bit hair-challenged, and may have shiny spots on their heads.

Wearing too much makeup can be more distracting than wearing too little, so test your appearance on-screen before it’s lights-camera-action time. Set up your equipment and see what you look like well before your call, and make any necessary adjustments.

Control your environment

I’ve conducted business calls while sitting in bed, lying on the couch, and even while cleaning my bathroom. But I would never conduct a video chat anywhere other than in my home office—and even there, only after I’d spruced it up.

“I tell people to make sure that their space looks professional, but personal and utilized. I always give the two extreme examples. The first is the room that is way too personal. I always feel awkward when you are watching someone who is clearly in their bedroom or you can see personal elements like dirty clothes or dishes. On the other hand, you have the folks that try to keep things so vanilla that they look like they are making a hostage recording in front of a white wall,” says Dan Roche, VP of Marketing for TalkPoint, a Webcasting technology provider.

The light is flattering, but the bathrobe and kid clutter suggest that my mind isn’t on my work.

Find a middle ground, he suggests: a personal but professional space with a bookcase or simple wall in the background. Keep windows, pets, kids, or anything else whose visuals or behavior you may not be able to control out of the background.

If your background is not at all camera-ready, you can set up an artificial backdrop with a curtain or sheet. Most experts agree that such a backdrop isn’t ideal, though, unless you’re shooting some sort of public video and want to use a branded banner or backdrop to market your company. If you’re conducting a private video call, you should resort to a staged backdrop only if your environment is truly unprofessional. The folks on the other end of the call will know that you’re sitting in front of a sheet or curtain, and they may wonder what you’re trying to hide.

Lights, camera, action!

You may be wearing your best outfit, your hair and makeup may be perfectly done, and your home office may look immaculate—but none of that will matter if the person on the other end of your video connection can’t see any of it.

The neutral background and better clothing are improvements...if you can see them through the glare from the window.

Relying on natural light can be tricky on-camera, because it tends to lighten the background and make the foreground—where you sit—darker. The solution is to use lamps to create lighting that looks natural even though it isn’t. You should avoid venetian blinds, which can cause striped shadows across your body or the background, warns Yonatan.

Instead of relying on the power of the sun, heed this piece of advice, offered by Chris LaVigne of video hosting provider Wistia in an online video: “Lights: If you have them, use them.” He suggests setting up two lights, on either the side of your computer. The lights should be just above your eye line and about 3 feet apart.

Fresh out of lamps? LaVigne has a workaround: a computer monitor set behind and slightly above the laptop or webcam you’re using for the video. “Turn the brightness up and zoom in on a Word document or anything that’s white,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at how much it can help.”

The camera should also be slightly elevated. LaVigne suggests positioning it just above your eyeline, which will force it to point down at you, ever so slightly. This helps you look far more natural on camera than you would if the camera were below you, pointing up at your chin.

webcam better shot
Pleasant light, professional attire, and a background of books send a better signal.

Now, you’re ready for action! When the video call comes in, speak naturally and look at the camera as if it were the person you’re addressing. And remember: Audio can be muted, but the camera never takes a break. Though your fellow videoconferencers may not be able to hear you whispering to your colleague or child in the background, they can see everything that happens. Be on your best behavior, or all the work you’ve done to set up for the call won’t matter a bit.