Improving Your Camera Appearance On Video Conferencing

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed business meetings forever. Committees and workgroups previously always met in person in a conference room but the need for social distancing has led to conference calls now replacing in-person meetings. Whether you use WebEx, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Blue Jeans, or some other meeting application, you are now on video camera and how you use that camera can greatly influence how you present yourself to other people. Lighting, background, and camera position can make the difference between you coming across as a professional or as a dud. Here are some tips to make sure that you use video conferencing to best effect.

Be aware of what is behind you

Video conferencing from your kitchen with a stack of dirty dishes behind you or from your basement with that poster of dogs playing poker that you’ve had since college is not going to project a image of competence and dedication to the job. Also, be aware of a plain wall that can create an institutionalized presence. A window with people or cars passing by can be distracting. I prefer an uncluttered bookshelf (just be careful what book titles are on that shelf!).

Be aware of what you are doing

When my mind starts to wander during video conferences, I start to scroll through the various participants to see what people are doing. Inevitably, someone is eating, or doing a crossword puzzle, or watching television. It is easy to forget that just because you are alone in a room, everyone is still watching you. Also, many video cameras will have auto-focusing lenses. if you move, particularly from front to back, you will become blurred for a moment while the lens refocuses. If you move back and forth frequently, then you will appear blurred more often than you appear in focus.

Get the correct camera position

The camera should be lined up horizontal and level with your face. This can be tricky if you are using your cell phone since it is often too easy to just lay the phone flat on your desk next to your computer screen or prop your phone up on the desk below your face. You end up giving the conference call attendees a great view up your nose and of your ceiling. A camera mounted to the top of the computer monitor works well. Don’t forget that when you are talking to other person on a video conference, look at the camera and not the other person – it is very tempting to look at the person whose face is appearing on your computer screen but when you do that, your eyes will appear to be looking down to the other person. It is better to look directly at the camera so that the other person perceives that you are having eye-to-eye contact with them. When I video conference with patients during telemedicine visits, I position their video image in the top of my computer screen, just below my camera, so that they perceive me looking at them. I give them warning that I will sometimes be looking away from them as I enter information into the electronic medical record that I have pulled up on a second monitor.

Lighting makes a big difference

I have moderated our our College of Medicine’s weekly continuing medical education webcast, MedNet for 18 years, and moderated its predecessor satellite television program, OMEN-TV (Ohio Medical Education Network) for 4 years before that. I’ve spent a lot of time in television studios over the past 22 years and have come to appreciate the importance of lighting. Most people don’t have formal studio lights at home but a couple of well-positioned floor lamps or table lamps can make a big difference. If you want to spend a little money, you can get a good quality basic 3-light set of studio lights with umbrellas for about $50. Here is how I have my office set up for video conferencing with the blinds shut, overhead fluorescent lights turned off, and a 3-light studio lighting set. Different lighting can affect how you look on a video conference:

  1. Natural window light. Different types of light bulbs will have a different color of light and this can affect how you appear on a video conference. Natural sunlight is ideal so if you can position yourself so that you are facing directly toward a window, you can get good, even lighting on your face. However, many offices are laid out so that the person is not facing directly at a window because it can create eye strain when a computer monitor is set up on the desk with the sunlight coming directly into the person’s eyes. Therefore most offices will have a window to the side of the desk. This can create asymmetric lighting of a person’s face during a video conference resulting in a shadow across half of the face, such as you see in this photo (I apologize for the stern look). If the sun is shining directly in the window, then that will further accentuate the shadows on one side of the face and cause glare on the other side of the face.
  2. Overhead ceiling light. This is what is generally installed in most offices and is very functional for most day-to-day office work. However, it can create glare on the top of the head, particularly if you happen to be bald or have a large forehead. Furthermore, this will create shadows from your eyebrows that can make you look sinister.
  3. Computer light. One of the problems with using your computer as a light source is that the amount of light and the color of the light can vary from moment to moment, depending on what is on the computer screen at any given time. When doing a video conference, you can’t get away entirely from the computer screen since you will usually be watching other people on video or looking at PowerPoint presentations when you are on camera. But if you rely entirely on the computer screen light, it will make it look like you are living in a cave.
  4. Studio lights. A basic studio light set up will include a right frontal light, a left frontal light, and a back light. The left and right lights will generally be mounted slightly above the subject and the back light will be close to the floor behind the subject. By using umbrellas on the left and right lights, you can diffuse and soften the light. If the light is still to bright, you can reverse the lights and umbrellas so that only light reflected off of the umbrella reaches the subject. If you don’t have studio lights, then a couple of lamps can work nearly as well. This photo uses a 2-light studio lighting set (with the back light turned off).
  5. Be aware of what you are wearing. If you have a dark background, you should be wearing lighter colored clothing. Otherwise, you will fade into whatever is behind you. A back light can help offset this by creating more definition to the border between you and the background but back lights are often impractical in a regular office. If you keep a jacket or sweater in your office that contrasts nicely with the office background, then you don’t have to be constantly planning your wardrobe around whether and where you’ll be doing a video conference later in the day. Ideally, you should choose a background that creates contrast with your skin tone – if you are have a  light complexion, then a dark background is optimal but if you have a dark complexion, then a lighter background helps to create contrast. If you don’t have a choice in the background, then using a back light can help to provide some contrast to help separate your face from the background.

Put the camera at the right distance.

Ideally, the camera should be 2-3 feet from you. You will amplify your nose and chin due to distortion if the camera is too close. If the camera is too far away, then you will appear small and this can negatively affect how others perceive you on a video conference. However, each camera is a little different so you have to experiment a bit to find the right distance. Also, if the camera is too close, then it accentuates things that you may not want accentuated, like your 5 o’clock shadow (all physicians at our hospital were required to shave their beards during the COVID-19 outbreak this year so that they could be fit-tested for N-95 masks so I’ve recently experienced the 5 o’clock shadow for the first time in 35 years!). If your entire face fills the video screen, the people viewing you on a video conference will perceive that you are very close to them and it can create a sense that you are encroaching on personal space.

Humans most effectively communicate with a combination of sound plus visuals. Facial expressions, body positioning, and hand gestures can greatly enhance speech alone. In order to optimize your presence and be as persuasive as possible during a video conference, you need to be aware of how you appear on camera.

April 12, 2020


Conference Call Etiquette In Times Of COVID-19

All of us who work in hospitals or just about businesses of any kind have changed most of our former in-person committee meetings to conference calls using WebEx, Go To Meeting, Blue Jeans, etc. These programs can be pretty powerful tools that can keep the hospital or company running smoothly while maintaining social distancing for epidemiologic purposes. But for them to work efficiently, it is essential that attendees obey some basic conference call etiquette:

  1. If you are not speaking, put your phone on mute to avoid background noise
  2. Do not type while the phone is unmuted. Typing sounds are amplified on the phone
  3. If calling in from home, go to a room away from barking dogs, television noise, or talking family members to avoid background noise
  4. Avoid being outdoors when calling in because noise from wind, sirens, and passing cars can be amplified
  5. When speaking on the conference call, it is better to speak into the telephone handset than to through the speakerphone as your voice will be picked up better
  6. Avoid calling in from a moving automobile using Bluetooth. Not only can the conference call result in distracted driving but car engine noise and roadway noise can be very distracting
  7. Do not put your phone on hold. Many companies will have default “elevator music” play when the phone is on hold and this music will drown out anyone else on the conference call
  8. If you are the host of the meeting, be facile with the mute buttons. If your conference call program has an option for “mute on entry” and “mute all” then using these options to eliminate background noise and beep sounds when people call in or hang up
  9. Use video judiciously. Too many people using video can tie up bandwidth. If you are using video, don’t forget that you are on video – it is amazing how many embarrassing things people do when they thing they are alone in their office (brushing their teeth, making faces, etc.)

March 28, 2020


The Cost Of A Committee Meeting

I am on 29 committees that involve everything from our hospital, the broader medical center, our department, and the college. So, I spend a lot of time in meetings and so do a lot of other physicians. Your hospital probably has a committee for just about everything. Next time you are in a committee meeting, take a look around you and see if you can estimate the cost of the time of the people there.

We’ll start off with an assumption that the average physician makes about $270,000 and has $30,000 in benefits for a total of $300,000. Primary care physicians make a lot less, medical specialists make a bit more, and surgeons make a lot more. Now let’s assume that the average physician works 51 hours a week for 46 weeks out of the year (figuring holidays, CME, and vacation). That works out to about $130/hour

Let’s now say you are in a meeting with 10 physicians plus a few administrative personnel. The cost of that meeting in physician time alone is $1,300 per hour or $22 per minute. If you are not making a $1,300 decision, you probably shouldn’t be having that meeting. So, if the meeting was to decide how to orchestrate the department Christmas party for 50 people and you spent 15 minutes trying to decide whether to serve steak at $25/person or chicken at $22/person then you just spent $866 to make a $150 decision. You would have been better off just ordering the steak dinners and had the physicians on the committee spend an extra 15 minutes seeing one more return patient in the clinic.

This doesn’t mean that you should purge your hospital of all committee because sometimes you need physician input in order to preserve the physician’s sense of self-determination and democracy and some would argue that these are priceless. But you do have to be prudent given the high cost of meetings with physician members. For a medical director here are some considerations:

  1. Be organized. A half-hour or hour getting all of the background information and preparing for a meeting can save hundreds of dollars of physician time in a meeting.
  2. Have an agenda. Without one, your meeting can devolve into free-flowing anarchy and will expand to fill the hour with unproductive talk. An agenda gives you permission to cut off discussion before you lose control.
  3. Don’t be afraid to table an issue. If it looks like you are not going to be able to approve a motion or there is not enough information, don’t spend more time on it. This can also serve to reign in meeting participants who are being difficult by sending a signal that you are not going to waste other attendees’ time on issues that are not going anywhere.
  4. If you have a regularly scheduled meeting and you don’t have any discussion items, cancel the meeting.
  5. Schedule meetings strategically. Primary care physicians are in their offices from 8-5 so don’t schedule committee meetings at that time if you want them to attend. Hospitalists are under increasing pressure to get daily discharges out before noon so don’t schedule morning meetings for them. Surgeons and anesthesiologists often start their day at 7:00 AM and morning meetings are not good for them either. Emergency physicians who get done with their night shift at 7 AM are not going to want to come back to the hospital for a noon meeting when they are trying to sleep. Prime times for committee meetings for physicians are 7:00 AM and 5:00 PM.
  6. Use committees judiciously. If your hospital has too many committee meetings, it is hard to make decisions about anything. However, committee meetings are invaluable for building consensus for difficult decisions.
  7. Use electronic meetings judiciously. Although connecting by phone or internet can be a great way to minimize travel time for physicians in outlying practice sites, it is often too easy to become disengaged when attending a meeting by phone. It can be very tempting to put the phone on speaker mode and then do emails or charting in the electronic medical record.
  8. Committees as a defensive weapon. A medical director often has to make unpopular, no-win decisions. Sometimes, it is useful to be able to say “The committee decided that…” rather than “I decided that…”.
  9. Feed them and they will come. Serving breakfast or lunch during a meeting can allow busy physicians to make double use of an hour in the morning or at noon. But beware of huge boxed meals – too many calories will put everyone to sleep by the end of the meeting. To paraphrase Machiavelli, “It is better to serve both food and coffee but if you can only serve one, serve coffee.”
  10. Committees are immortal. It is hard to make a committee die, even after it has out-lived its use. If you have a single defined issue that needs to be addressed, create a time-limited workgroup rather than a committee.
  11. Be sure that there is a committee reporting structure. Make sure that it is clear where the committee’s findings and recommendations get reported to. For example, the Medication Safety Committee reports to the Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee that in turn reports to the Medical Staff Administrative Committee that in turn reports to the Board of Trustees.
  12. Keep minutes. Documentation of the committee’s recommendations and findings need to be written down. Partly so that after the fact, everyone can agree on what was discussed and decided. If there is no documentation of the committee’s work, then the flames of conspiracy theorists in the hospital will be fanned with wild suspicions about what happens behind the conference room doors.
  13. Choose the committee chairman carefully. The chairman should not be the one who talks the most or makes unilateral decisions. He or she should be someone who encourages all of the members to talk and promotes consensus rather than makes unilateral decisions.

Committees are an expensive necessity in the hospital. Always be sure that the value of the committee’s work is greater than the cost of the committee meeting.

July 28, 2016


The Committee Menagerie

Recently, my son jumped up from the dinner table and ran outside. It turns out he was chasing a Pokemon on his iPhone. There are hundreds of different Pokemon and as it happens, there are also dozens of different creatures that inhabit the committee menagerie. Whenever I sit down at a hospital committee meeting and look out over the attendees, there are always a few distinct species that are there, each with its own fairly predictable behaviors and powers. Here are some of the more common ones:

Snoozeum. A nocturnal beast who sleeps during the day. In committee meetings, it will occasionally wake up for donuts or free lunch. Harmless but during meetings, can be annoying when snoring and can be disconcerting when it has undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Hyperbolator. Easily identified by its unique ability to use 50 words in a 10 word sentence. He has a symbiotic relationship with snoozeum and is the only creature who will cause snoozeum to sleep despite availability of donuts.

Drone-onicus. Although evolutionarily related to Hyperbolator, this species possesses considerably greater endurance than Hyperbolator and is able to suck the life out of a meeting by speaking for up to 30 minutes on a single breath without pause. It typically becomes increasingly tangential with its thoughts and speech the longer it talks. It has the unique quality to turn any committee attendee into a Snoozeum and can often be identified by bringing 40 PowerPoint slides for a 5 minute presentation.

Obfuscatam. This animal can be identified by its sound. When asked a question that it doesn’t like, it will answer with a response to another question that it does like. More often found in political habitats, Obfuscatam does sometimes venture into the hospital habitat where it leaves a trail of head scratching physicians uttering “What did he say and what does that have to do with anything?”.

Negatorus. This is a species that is a remote ancestor of Eeyore of the hundred acre wood. It never met an initiative that it likes and has the ability to see the worst possible outcome of any new venture. It is convinced that something bad is always going to happen. It becomes agitated when exposed to sunny days and puppies.

Textasaur. With thumbs that move as fast as hummingbird wings, Textasaur is in constant motion. Not much is known about its facial features since it rarely looks up from its smartphone. Usually found near electrical outlets in order to maintain its phone’s seemingly high metabolism rate. Textasaur is harmless in large committees but in small committees of 3 or 4 attendees, Textasaur can be highly annoying.

Typeasaurus. You’ll never see a Typesaur as it never attends meetings in person. The only true evidence of its existence is during conference calls. Characterized by the lack of a mute button on its phone, it uses the speaker setting on its phone in order to free up its hands to type on its keyboard. By placing its phone strategically close to its keyboard, it is able to amplify the key strokes for everyone on the conference call to hear and is easily able to drown out all voices on the conference call. It is believed that  the loudly amplified keystroke noises are a mating call for other typeasauruses.

Ruminatadon. Moving at sloth-like speed, Ruminatadon thrives in committees and can chew on a single decision for an entire hour without swallowing. Usually requires an additional month to fully digest any proposal and asks for a follow up committee meeting before it will make any decision.

Granddadasaur. It starts most comments with “Back when I was a resident…”. It laments the loss of the paper medical record and longingly recalls delightful hours spent waiting at the radiology film library window. Outside of the hospital, it often submits letters to the local newspaper editor believing that political change alone can bring back jobs from a happier time, such as blacksmith, canal boat captain, and slide rule manufacturer.

Rantasaur. This creature can be identified by its ability to change color from pale to bright red when it speaks. Rantasaur is perpetually angry at some other species and has a perception of perpetual victimization. It has been known to undergo spontaneous combustion during particularly severe tirades.

Narcissizard. This species cannot let a meeting or grand rounds go by without asking a question or making a comment. Most of its utterances don’t have much to do with the topic at hand but the animal is certain that the meeting attendees cherish its every word. It can also be found in the surgery locker room looking into the mirror and asking itself questions, then smiling.

Copernicusipus. Convinced that the entire hospital revolves around its own territory, this species is unfamiliar with other habitats within the hospital. With an insatiable appetite for hospital resources, if not tightly reigned in, the creature can single handedly consume the entire hospital budget for a year. Often found to express indignation when a committee votes to budget one unit to get clean bedsheets for patients while denying its personal request for a second double expresso moca latte caffeinator machine for the physician lounge in its own habitat.

Intimidatadon. This carnivorous beast possesses large fangs which it frequently bares in order to frighten other species into getting its way. It is highly venomous and particularly malodorous. It is able to go for up to 6 months without having anything nice to say about anyone.

July 20, 2016