Guide to having a good ZOOM video meeting

A Zoom 9 person meeting with smiling attractive people professionally lit and not wearing headsets.

People are doing huge amounts of videoconferencing during the Covid crisis. The tools keep improving, but there's a great deal that individual participants can do to make the meetings better. They take some effort but it's worth it.

TL;DR: Be a participant, not a lurker, and wear a headset.

Be a participant, not a lurker

In the past, you would have driven or flown to a meeting and given most of your attention while in the meeting or session. Don't take the online meeting as an excuse to be barely there.

Turn on your video, even just to watch.

Let people see you. Yes, this takes bandwidth. Yes, it's harder for you to goof off without people noticing. That's part of the point. Today, people are going all day without seeing anybody. Don't let that happen.

Zoom has two modes, which you toggle with a button in the upper right corner. "Speaker view" shows the current speaker large, and 4-5 others at the top. It's good to get a closer look at the speaker but it's less social.

The other mode, "Gallery View" will show you up to 20 other participants. Even when somebody is talking it makes you more part of the room. I recommend using it most of the time -- as long as people follow the rule of turning on video. If you have multiple monitors the "Dual Display Mode" in settings can give you both worlds.

In "Video Settings" (click the little "^" arrow next to your camera icon) you can check the box "Hide Non-Video Participants" so that your screen real estate is devoted to the people who care enough to send video. If there are fewer than 20 on the call and you use gallery mode, you can turn that back off with a toggle that shows at the top of your screen.

Also try to open up the Chat and/or Participant windows. When you have them as a sidebar, you can click "Pop out" to make it a special window, which may be more useful.

Sorry, the software based "Virtual Background" doesn't really work

Zoom offers the ability to replace your background with an image. If you have a physical greenscreen behind you, it works. If you don't, it seems to work, but it is actually pretty flawed and thus it looks distracting and ugly. Avoid using it, unless you are mortified people might see your room.

Follow the key rules for audio and video

  1. Get a wired headset and use it.
  2. Get a wired headset and use it.
  3. Get a wired headset and use it. Don't be fooled by the fact that speakerphone mode seems to do pretty well in one on one conversations. That does not extend to group meetings. Any cheap crappy wired headset is better than the microphone in your laptop. Having the microphone on your body -- Headset with mic, earbuds or lavalier mic on your collar -- provides much better sound. Headphones (especially isolating ones) stop the sound coming in from going back out through the mic. If you don't do this the software tries to compensate but it fails, and you can't beat the physics of a headset. Sadly, Bluetooth headsets could work but they reduce your audio quality to telephone call quality. Avoid them.
  4. Light yourself well. Don't have a light bulb or window in the background. Put a diffuse light behind your camera, possibly bounce it off a wall.
  5. Use a wired Ethernet connection. Take the effort to get one. Wifi loses packets, which is OK for web surfing, but not in audio and video.
  6. Really try to use a laptop or desktop, not your phone. If you must use your phone or tablet, put it in a stand, at eye height, in landscape mode. Never handhold it. Using the phone generally violates the wired ethernet rule.
  7. Consider getting an external webcam. Not only are inexpensive ones often very good, but you can put them in better places. If you have a big screen, put the external webcam in front of the screen, so you inherently make eye contact when you look at the screen. Sadly, almost every good external webcam is sold out during the virus crisis!
  8. No matter what camera you have, put it at eye height. Don't have us look up your nose. Put your laptop on a laptop stand or stack of books.
  9. If you somehow didn't get a headset, then mute your audio at all times and unmute to speak and re-mute when done. Place your online order for fast delivery of a cheap headset while muted.
  10. Don't come in by telephone. In this one instance, find good data and use the Zoom app on your phone, with a headset, and mounting your phone in a holder.

No matter how much people hear these rules, they often don't obey them. That's because speakerphones and WiFi and internal cameras "mostly work." Mostly work is fine in a one on one call. In a group every problem is multiplied, so everybody needs to step up for everybody else.

Why a headset is so important

There are two big values of a headset. Having the microphone inches from your mount makes a huge difference. 2 inches vs 2 feet (for the microphone in your laptop) means the sound is 100 times louder on a linear scale, and that means the computer can reduce the noise from the world -- background noise, echo of your voice off walls, airplanes overhead - by 100fold. The second value is the headphones -- especially if they are the isolating rather than open kind -- can reduce the sound from the meeting that echoes back into your microphone. When sound comes through like that, the computer has to mute or distort your microphone to stop it from going back as an echo, and that makes the conversation one way instead of two way. In a one on one conversation, being one-way fits in the dynamic. You tolerate the odd mistake, the ringing phone, the airplane, the leaf blower. When 10 people are on the call, noises interfere 10 times as often. And your voice sounds hollow rather than rich.

Bluetooth headsets would be fine if the Bluetooth people hadn't foolishly decided that they were only for phone calls. They deliberately reduce the quality of the microphone signal to telephone quality when you use both speaker and microphone together. They can do high quality when used only as headphones. If you need to be wireless, you can use Bluetooth headphones and a professional wireless mic, the kind speakers use on stage or TV crews use to interview. Otherwise, you have to put up with that cable.

A lavalier microphone that clips to the lapel is good, combined with some wired or wireless headphones.

If you get on a large meeting where everybody wears a headset the difference is quite dramatic. It's more like being in a room, people can interact like real humans. Any who remain on speakerphone become second class participants.

Apple Airpods do seem better than most Bluetooth headsets, but they still don't sound nearly as good as a wired one. Get a wired one.

This all goes double if you are presenting

If you are presenting, good audio and video are even more important. Try to avoid slides because you are more important than the slides. Consider standing (with a camera at eye level) Get a long cord for your headset.

Special cases

Do you have two people at your station trying to share the same computer? That may tempt you to thus use speakerphone. You'll be second-class participants who must stay on mute. Consider having the two of you on two computers. Or, if you have some skill, you can try a program called Voicemeeter on Windows which lets you put two headsets on the same computer and merge them. See Case Study #2 on page 30 of the manual.

Do plug in your laptop -- that lets it use more CPU and GPU which can mean better video processing.

I have a similar guide for Skype with more details for speakers. This guide is not an endorsement of Zoom -- they have a particularly bad history on privacy and security.

Comments

If you have more than one monitor (e.g. laptop and external monitor), enable “Dual Display Mode” in preferences. It allows you to see gallery view on one display and the current speaker or screen share in the other simultaneously.

Hi Brad. Coming from a tech/comms background, could not agree more. Good news - Bluetooth is finally getting upgraded to 32khz sampling for voice. Looking forward to wireless, enterprise-grade headsets with high-quality mics!

https://www.qualcomm.com/news/releases/2020/01/06/qualcomm-introduces-aptx-voice-audio-technology-higher-quality-voice-calls

Of course you'll need new headsets. Presumably the computer and phone operating systems can get support for this with an update. Less likely there could be a firmware upgrade for the headsets.

Great post but watch out ZOOM has many security and privacy issues so far. Many companies are banning it since is not very secure. Anyways, I'm sure they will fix it soon, or at least I hope so since it's a great app!

Yes, I mention that in the article. Nonetheless, you don't get to pick what people invite you in to (to a degree) so this article. I have been following Zoom's security issues closely of course. A few show signs of a lack of security culture. Others are not as bad as the problems in Skype, WebConnect and several others according to reports -- which does not excuse Zoom of course. Hangouts is probably fairly safe, as well as others based on WebRTC, but they tend to be far lower in capability.

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