Coder, author, public speaker and host of THE HANSELMINUTES PODCAST, Scott Hanselman shares his secrets to holding an effective video meeting.
Holding an effective video meeting can be a challenge even for experience remote workers. I recently spoke Scott Hanselman about his video call secrets for TechRepublic’s Dynamic Developer video and podcast series. As a coder, author, public speaker, Partner Program Manager at Microsoft and host of THE HANSELMINUTES PODCAST he knows a lot about how to hold a good video conference. The following is an edited transcript of the the interview.
Bill Detwiler: Thanks for joining me, sir.
Scott Hanselman: My pleasure. How are you, sir?
Bill Detwiler: I’m very good. Very good. So let’s jump right in to it. What are the characteristics of a successful video meeting and how are they maybe different from an in-person meeting?
Scott Hanselman: I used to think that the idea was to make people feel as much like they were in the room with each other as possible. I thought when I started working remotely 13 years ago, that we needed more fidelity, we needed more illusion, we needed to trick the brain into thinking we were all sitting together in a room. As I have been doing this for so long, my opinion on that has changed. I’ve realized that as I sit here for six or eight hours a day on virtual calls, that I can’t fool the lizard brain that I’m here with you in the room, Bill, right? There’s a part of the brain that knows when you’re alone in the cave, when you’re a cave person in the dark that there’s someone in the room with you. My body knows no one else is here and that exhaustion you feel after a long day of video meetings is your brain saying, “I see Bill and I see all the people on the call,” but no one was really there.
It’s the same exhaustion you feel when you get off an airplane because your body’s like, “I was just sitting in a dry room. Why am I so tired?” You move like you’re … It’s a dissonance. There’s a psychic weight and a cognitive dissonance that’s going on. So if that’s the case, if we’re not trying to simulate that we’re in the room, how can we make each individual person feel comfortable like they’re operating in a way that’s effective for this particular meeting? I like good lighting, good cameras, good audio, and I want to look people in the eye. But I’ve found that a lot of people don’t want that. They want to interact differently. This is awkward and the video call isn’t the fidelity that they want. So I think we should experiment. We should try what works for us.
I’ve been doing a lot of things where we pair program and I don’t do this. Instead, I try something like this. I move my webcam over here. Okay, so you’re over there and I’m over here. You’re right now physically to my left. It might be different depending on how the video is being mirrored, but you’re on my physical left. So if I work here and I go, “Hey Bill, do you have a second?” We can be cubicle mates. We can change the physicality of our meeting. Is it a two- person meeting? Is it a hundred person meeting?
If it’s just us, why don’t we be cube mates? We’ll listen to our music, we’ll sync our Spotifys, we’ll work. Maybe I’ll move away. Maybe I’ll move away a little bit cause it’s a little too personal to have you breathing in my neck like that, right? Then I’ll go, “Hey, do you have a second?” And we’ll just leave a meeting open for an hour, we’ll drop in, we’ll drop out. Being willing to experiment with stuff like that, I think, is the beginning of that, once we’ve accepted the fact that we’re not trying to fool the brain that we’re in the same room.
One-size-fits-all approach isn’t good for video meetings
Bill Detwiler: How much of that takes practice within a team, right? So a lot of these video meetings are not just maybe one-on-one, but there are multiple people, so you really have to figure out what works for your team, what works for your workflow. What’s the best way for people to get started doing that? Just to try different things, to try one thing for one meeting, one thing for a different meeting? What have you found works the best?
Scott Hanselman: I believe very strongly in the idea of what’s called intentional practice or deliberate practice where if you say something out loud, if you claim it, then you can actually change it. No one wants to really talk about these things. No one wants to say, “You know, I don’t really like having my camera on,” or, “I really feel claustrophobic with my headphones on and you’re in my ear. You’re whispering in my ear and I don’t like that, so I want you to be on this speaker over there.” Once you’ve said it out loud, you’ve given your team permission to express their differences. Some people really like speakerphones. Some people really love their AirPods. Some people like the full cans on their ear, that cover the ear. Once you make sure that there isn’t a dogmatic approach and you’re not saying, “Thou shalt always do it this way,” and everyone has the same camera and everyone sets up the same way, then you just need to say it out loud and be intentional.
For coding meetings, I find if you’re lucky enough to have two monitors, to have a video monitor dedicated to a person where that person’s head is about the normal size of a person’s head. That sounds silly, but now you’re on a big monitor and you’re a normal sized head and that makes me feel comfortable because I feel like I’m really talking to a person as opposed to you in a corner, which feels less collaborative, you in a picture and picture. But when we’re doing big meetings, I really like the Brady Bunch view like in Zoom or in Teams where I can get as many people on the screen as I want and we can raise our hands and I can physically raise my hand, which is different than a code review meeting.
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Bill Detwiler: What’s different about preparing for a video meeting? So once you set the ground rules and you’ve said, “Hey look, we’re going to go into this. We’re going to experiment with different things.” Is there anything different about preparing for those meetings than a face-to- face meeting, an in-person big group meeting? Maybe this is a perfect time to talk about hardware. It used to be that this stuff was expensive, right? I can remember being in IT back in the early 2000s and people spec’ing out $50,000, $100,000 video teleconference rooms for the board. Now every laptop has a webcam built in. The software is cheap. You can get cheap headphones. Right now, you and I are using pretty good cameras, pretty good microphones, but you don’t have to be cheap, right? So I think this is a great place to talk about preparing yourself and just practices, but also preparing hardware.
Scott Hanselman: Absolutely. I think that you and I use good cameras and good lighting and good microphones because it feeds our spirit. It makes us feel better about our meeting and the way that we’re presenting ourselves. I don’t want people to feel like that’s a barrier in any way as I know that you do as well. I enjoy this. Now, I didn’t pay retail for it. I bought it on Craigslist. It’s a Sony 86,000 I found for a couple hundred bucks on Craigslist. This is a $20 microphone. This is not major money, but if you don’t have that $20, then what can you do? Well, it’s worth pointing out that I look decent. I’m camera ready. I’m moisturized today, but there I turn off my light, right? I’ve got a light. The light is not expensive. It’s actually a $15 LED right here. It’s a ring light with a camera inside.
I’ve just switched over to just a Logitech, just a Logitech camera. There’s no lighting here, right? I could then change my microphone from this nice podcaster microphone and I’ll put on a pretty decent $19 … and I like the one ear instead of the two. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic. My kids can’t sneak up on me, right? but then it maybe looks a little dim, a little weird. Well maybe I can just open a window here, right? Let’s see if natural light adds something, right? So you might find that you have a great webcam and you have a great laptop and you have a little microphone and you just need to rotate on the kitchen table and get that kitchen sunshine on you and you’re going to look like a million bucks as well and it’s not going to cost you a penny.
How to pick the right workspace or background for a video meeting
Bill Detwiler: Let’s talk about backgrounds for a little bit. You mentioned on the kitchen table, whether you’re working from home now because of COVID-19, whether you’ve been working from home for 20 years like a lot of people have as telecommuting has increased in popularity. Talk a little bit about background. What makes a good background? I don’t mean someone that’s looking to be a Twitch streamer or someone’s looking to be a YouTuber that has to have the classic bookshelf and all the mini-figs or pick your genre of model on the back shelf, just for an average kind of meeting. What can you do to maybe minimize distractions or should everyone go crazy with the now green screen backgrounds that they have? You know everyone’s available for that.
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Scott Hanselman: Again, I use this term and it might be cliche, but the idea of feeding your spirit, here’s the deal. You’re trapped at home right now. It sucks. Let’s be real. Remote work is not quarantine work. It feels different. I feel a little bit more prepared, but it still sucks. I believe very strongly in nesting. This isn’t performative. This is my kid’s Legos on a couple of IKEA BILLY shelves with some cheap … with some LEDs and some art. The action figures and crap that I have, has been collected over many years, and it’s here because it makes me happy. This arcade, it was bought at a bar for 50 bucks, sanded down and spray painted and there’s a sticker on it and there’s a PC inside. So…
Bill Detwiler: Oh, I was going to say it has to be an emulator, right? It has …
Scott Hanselman: But your background doesn’t … it shouldn’t be performative. It should be representative of you. One of my wonderful coworkers is actually sitting in her pantry because it’s got great light. It’s a large walk-in pantry. She likes the space, so she rolled her office desk in there. She’s got her pantry behind her. Now here’s the question. Does she feel that that offers maybe more or less professionalism? She likes the space, so she blurs the background so you don’t see the food because that makes her feel like she’s in her space. She closes her door and she’s in her little office. I’ve actually painted the walls of my office to look different from the rest of my house because I need it to be emotionally different from the rest of my house so that I’m away. I am at work and the rest of the house is painted differently. You know what I mean?
Bill Detwiler: Right.
Scott Hanselman: I’ve got a slipcover on the couch so that it doesn’t look like any of the other furniture. Again, nothing here costs any money. It’s just little things that I can do to be intentional. So what is your space? Are you in the office? Are you in the hallway? Are you in the laundry room? Is the lighting comfortable? Is there a window you can open? Is there a poster that would make you happy? Is there an action figure or a plushy that would make you happy? If you’re intentional about those things, I think you’ll be successful. Then, what is professional? You can always blur out the background if you want.
Avoid these common video meeting mistakes
Bill Detwiler: What are other mistakes that maybe make that they don’t realize they’re making on a video call? You talked about people being sort of, it’s too intense having … someone’s looking right at them all the time. Some people want to look to the side a little bit. What are some of the mistakes that maybe people make that they don’t know they’re making that they wouldn’t make during an in-person meeting, but it’s easier to make during a video conference?
Scott Hanselman: That’s a great question. The first thing that’s a good reminder, We’re using Zoom right now. Whether you’re using Teams or Zoom or Skype or whatever, it’s natural for you to stare at yourself. You can click right now. I can go and hit on the dot, dot, dot, and I can say hide self view. You can be on camera, but not have to see yourself. It’s a natural human thing to look at yourself. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m looking at a mirror image of myself as you are as well. That’s because people hate looking at themselves as they are seen. Even Dan Rather did a famous thing once. Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor said, “I can’t stand to watch myself on the news. I can only look at it if it’s flipped because I look at myself in the mirror every day and then there’s this other guy flipped around,” right?
Scott Hanselman: Think about that. Maybe hide yourself, not look at that. That’s one thing. Otherwise, you’re going to be staring at yourself and not at the person. The other thing is are you talking where the actual microphone is? When you get on a meeting, is that hot? Now I know that that’s hot and if I go and do this right here, even that’s something as simple as that, and audio just got lousy. So don’t think that I can get up from my desk and start walking around and you’re not going to hear the wood walls and the sound around us. Have a remote buddy that you can test these things on. So if you’re going to present to the VP, talk to your friend later. If I turn my head this way, can they still hear me? If I hold up my phone to show them a copy of the app, is that blurred out? Is that too bright? Experiment and that way when it happens you will have done it once before.
How to do a job interview or group presentation by video call
Bill Detwiler: Those are fantastic sort of general best practices and pitfalls to avoid. You said something really important right there, which is if you’re going to present to the VP, and I think that’s an acknowledgement that all video meetings, just like all in-person meetings aren’t the same. So the way you prepare for an in-person, say job interview, that’s probably one of the most stressful meetings people have versus maybe a product pitch or just a project update or just a regular sort of stand up team meeting, is different. In your experience, are there specific tips for those specific meetings? We can sort of take them, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
Scott Hanselman: Sure.
Bill Detwiler: So think about maybe a job interview first.
Scott Hanselman: You don’t have to wear pants, but you should be presentable in the way that makes you comfortable. If you’re wearing something presentable and you’re visibly prepared for a job interview, if it’s a panel interview, that might be one thing. If it’s just me being interviewed by you, that’s another, I would experiment with where you feel more comfortable looking. For example, I’m looking at the camera, which makes you feel engaged, but I’m looking at you, which means that it looks like my attention has now moved away. Literally me moving your window up near the webcam hole can make that less uncomfortable. People want to see each other in an interview like this. If you’re presenting to a group, that’s less important. There’s 20 other people on the call. They don’t really care. They just don’t want me sitting here like this or doing whatever or going to the restroom.
Scott Hanselman: Practice your screen-sharing so it’s not, “Hang on. Can you … Okay. Wait a second. Can you … can you see my screen? Are we … All right, everybody see my screen?” If Zoom has put the square around the window and you’ve done it, you’ve practiced it multiple times, they can see the screen. There’s a crispness to those cuts that can make you a little bit better. Don’t go and then launch PowerPoint and then go into your slides. Have those kind of like transitional moments, those awkward pauses. Practice them. Practice them if you’re going to be presenting so that you can … do you have anything inappropriate on a browser you shouldn’t be using? Are you in the right mode? Are you using the right profiles? Are things pinned correctly? Maybe hide your icons. All of these things just give an air of professionalism where professionalism is whatever you and your bosses and your office’s culture has defined as being professional.
Bill Detwiler: Well, Scott, thanks for joining us and sharing all the really great advice. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Scott Hanselman: Absolutely. My pleasure. I would encourage folks to check out my blog at hanselman.com. I have a whole section on remote work with details on how to set up your own system, your cameras and your audio and more tips like these.