Pro Tips For Being On A Virtual Panel

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

At WGBH’s Forum Network, we record hundreds of public speaking events around Boston — from science talks to poetry readings — and we make these videos available online for free. Our mission is to provide access to quality educational talks online.

We’re usually lugging our camera equipment from one location to the next in crowded venues on campuses and in theaters. Now, while social distancing is necessary for everyone’s well-being, we are working with many organizations to offer their talks as virtual lectures and events.

We put together these tips and tricks so our speakers have the best remote video experience and offer the audience an engaging online talk.

Here is our advice about LIGHTING, BACKGROUND, CAMERA POSITION and SOUND:

1) It’s All About The Lighting

Lighting makes for a clear, crisp image. When setting up your laptop or webcam, choose a well-lit space — a room with natural light from windows or a place where you can turn on a light in front of you. It’s important that you do not, under any circumstances, set up with light behind you!

The ideal direction for the light source is when it comes from an angle behind the webcam, such as a lamp on your desk. You should be looking towards the light or window, facing the light source so that it hits your face, but does not cause you to squint. If you wear glasses make sure the light is not reflecting off of them.

If you do use light from a window, consider the time of your event. During your talk, you may not notice the sun passing the window. The light source will eventually disappear, leaving you in shadow. Be sure the window you choose to sit near is large enough to give you more than an hour of consistent light. If you are meeting late in the day, you might be left without daylight and forced to turn on a lamp. Better to avoid that situation and already have the lamp turned on.

2) Try To Choose A Simple Background And A Quiet Space (With A Door)

It can be difficult when everyone is cramped in at home to find a quiet space for a few hours. If possible, use a separate room with a desk or table where you can set up so that the camera shot is stable and family members won’t be walking in and out. If there is a separate room with a door that you can shut, use it!

Remember lighting is first and background second. Sit where the light source is facing you, even if it is not your preferred background. And remember, do not sit in front of a window — the light will turn you into a silhouette.

3) Framing The Shot

When presenting virtually, you also become a videographer and you control how the camera sees you.

To avoid a shaky video, make sure your webcam or laptop is on a stable surface. The camera should be at eye level, so adjust your chair or laptop accordingly. If the camera is angled down, it will look as if you are hulking over the camera and if it is angled up, you’ll look smaller. Make sure the camera looks straight at you on a 90-degree angle.

Also, if you are too close to the camera, the lens will distort your features, so keep about an arm’s length from it. Finally, double check that nothing is in the shot that is obstructing the view or distracting the viewer in the background or foreground (i.e. water bottles, coffee mugs, etc.) and plan ahead not to use your laptop during the talk. Tapping on keys will shake your camera or will bring your hands into view.

If you wear glasses, we recommend putting in contacts if possible. There can be a distracting glare on the glasses, especially if the natural light from a window moves to a different angle during the talk.

4) Audio Can Be Tricky

Audio is very important and bad audio can ruin the best online conversations. If you can set up a microphone that is not your laptop’s built in mic — that is the best option! Plug in your external mic and find a way to support it so you don’t have to hold it. We don’t recommend laying it on your table or desk because it will pick up any movement your hands make. Try using a tripod or wear a headset with a microphone attached.

If you are using your laptop’s built-in microphone, make sure you test your levels in the computer settings and sit close enough to the computer for the mic to pick up your voice clearly. Do not turn your head or stare off to a different part of the room when speaking. Talk directly to the computer.

Make sure you log on early with your host and other panelists to give the organizers time to test your audio before the event.

5) Look Into The Camera!

As tempting as it is to look at the video of the person you are talking to (or let’s be honest, tempting to look at yourself), look directly into the camera when you are talking.

For viewers, it will appear that you are making eye contact if you are looking into the camera. If you look at the screen instead of the camera, it will appear as if you are staring down.

It can be exhausting to keep eye contact with a camera, so take a break when you aren’t talking — look at other panelists speaking or focus on taking notes. Try to be as natural in a conversation as you are in person.

6) Disable Applications Running On Your Laptop

Avoid alerts and email pop-ups that may interrupt you when you are talking. If you are sharing your screen, others might see notifications or get a glimpse of other content.

Also, running many programs at once may affect your computer’s processing power, making other speakers look pixelated or frozen and disrupting the flow of conversation. It may also affect how your video quality looks to others.

7) Have Fun And If You Make A Mistake, Keep Going!

Enjoy the chance to connect with people virtually, and know that you are making a difference for the audience. Some people who never would have been able to attend an in-person event are able to join from across the world and hear your expertise. Virtual events can be just as valuable as in-person discussions.

With so much technology employed, there might be times when something goes wrong. Don’t worry. Prepare people in your home as much as you can before the event, but if your child walks into the camera’s view or if there are other noises in the distance, don’t sweat it. We’re all navigating a combined home life and professional life together. The best advice is to prepare as much as possible, test all your equipment, and take a deep breath.

GBH's video hub for lifelong learners. Public media purveyor of the enlightening. Supported by the Lowell Institute. Learn something new at forum-network.org.