The past two years have seen amazing growth in the video capabilities of web conferencing products. Just about every major vendor now markets their live videocasting functionality as a major selling point. You can find products that allow high resolution images, 16:9 widescreen format, simultaneous videos of multiple participants, low bandwidth compensation algorithms, and other video “bells and whistles.”
So let’s take it as written that you CAN use video. The question then becomes: SHOULD you use video?
I won’t tease you… Short answer first, then a longer discussion:
- Small, informal meetings are often great places to include video
- Larger, more structured public webinars usually suffer from video
- There are exceptions to each of the above statements
What is my reasoning behind these answers and what do you need to think about when considering video in your webinar/webcast?
In smaller collaborative web meetings, the participants usually know each other, so first impressions will not be made via the image projected over the webcam. This type of meeting typically does not involve the use of prepared statements or formal presentations, so the presenter does not need to frequently refer to notes or a script, and can spend more time looking at the camera and maintaining a sense of “virtual presence.” Participants are willing to accept and discount lower quality lighting and video in preference of a productive work session.
Conversely, public webinars and webcasts are slanted towards one-way presentation of information from a presenter out to an audience, many of whom will not have seen the presenter before. Presenters may have perfectly natural jitters about having to speak in public. They need to make sure of their talking points with a script or presentation notes. If the audience sees someone who appears nervous, or keeps glancing away from the camera, it lowers the perception of professionalism, confidence, and trustworthiness.
I often teach and coach speakers on the unique aspects of presenting via web conference. There is a lot to think about, from consciously considering the needs and reactions of an unseen audience, to best use of web conferencing features, to proper speech patterns and vocal delivery tips.
When I add in tips and considerations for appearing on camera, the completely unnatural things to practice in order to appear natural seem overwhelming. Proper lighting, proper background, proper eye contact, facial expressions, clothing choices, staying in frame, staying in focus, what to do with your hands… All of these make conscious and subconscious impacts on your audience.
We have become a society used to polished and professional appearance on camera by trained performers who make it look easy. We see talk show hosts, sportscasters, news reporters, and other on-air personalities who set our expectations for how a presenter should appear. It seems effortless and natural, because we never see them until they have been highly trained, supported by top professionals working with proper equipment behind the scenes, and they have years of experience under their belts. How do you think you compare to that kind of level setting?
I’ll tell you how you compare… Your webcam field of focus is ridiculously narrow. Your lighting is probably awful. Staying in frame and in focus on a fixed camera makes you look stiff and unnatural. The background behind you includes distractions for your audience. You make gestures that disappear out of frame. Your clothes fade into the background, make your skin appear washed out, or create wavy moiré lines. You blink too often or not enough. Your sound is distant and echoing, or is out of synch with your image. You appear shifty-eyed or fixated like a deer in the headlights. Are you doing yourself or your business any good with all that negative psychological baggage?
What are the exceptions to my general case answers?
- A small person-to-person web meeting can have the same considerations as a large webinar if it is a formal presentation to someone you have never met. I would not use webcam video to make an investor pitch, present a business plan, or to impress an industry analyst I don’t know. I also try to avoid webcam video if the majority of my presentation consists of a live demonstration or other use of screen sharing. I need to look down at my screen to see what I am doing, and the other participants should be watching the demo rather than my face.
- A large webinar can use video successfully if the hosting company is ready and willing to invest in care, training, and support of the video aspects. That means setting up a controlled environment (call it a video studio) with proper lighting, proper sound, ideally a teleprompter, a camera operator who can adjust framing and focus, and a presenter who has had training and practice in how to appear on video. Unfortunately, this kind of setup is all too often reserved for C-level executives in large enterprise organizations.
- The most difficult situation to give an absolute answer for is in the area of a training class delivered via webinar. Teaching really can benefit from a sense of presence for the instructor. But web classes can also last longer than other types of webinars and may involve the need to show significant amounts of factual detail to the students. The best answer in these cases may be to start with video for introductory remarks and then switch it off during the formal training portion. Switch it back on for interactive questions and answers with the students. Your comfort level and the type of training/type of audience will dictate what is right for you.
When I have control over proper video setup and the time to do the extra preparation and setup necessary to make myself look good on camera, I’ll use live video. But that doesn’t happen very often. The rest of the time I would rather use strong vocal skills and a keen grasp of web conferencing techniques to engage my audience than run the risk of inadvertently devaluing my presentation.
So watch out for that webcam… It’s a double-edged sword!