Speaking on Video

Advice on speaking professionally on Zoom or Skype in the time of coronavirus.

Posted Apr 17, 2020

John Wall, CC 2.0
Source: John Wall, CC 2.0

You're going to speak on Zoom or Skype in a professional context: for example, with a client, colleague(s), or in a media interview. Here's how to make the most of it.


Dress right. Dress as to be credible, but don't overdress. Even public officials are dressing down amid corona if only to make themselves seem more like one of "The Community." It sounds obvious, but comb your hair—If you look disheveled, some people might presume your thinking and life are also disheveled.

Back right. Choose a clean, ideally professional-looking background. Remove clutter from the frame.

Frame right. Zoom your webcam or position your chair so it's a head-and-shoulders shot.

Light right. Be sure there are no shadows on you—If needed, close or open window coverings and/or turn up or down artificial light.

Create two or three talking points. If it's a talk rather than, for example, a therapy session, you'll be lucky if people remember just one point, especially these days, when everyone, with or without a microphone, is eager to share their thinking.

For each talking point, think of an anecdote, statistic, or memorable statement, perhaps a surprising one or an apt metaphor. For example, if I were giving a talk on how to give a talk, and I was making the point about the need to be moderate, I might say, "You don't want to be like Howard Dean, who when he won the Iowa caucus let out a sustained whoop, which the media ridiculed, and his campaign went down from there."

You've been given the gift of people's time, so don't say the obvious: for example, urging social distancing or handwashing. Talk about what's new and important. Excise everything else, including about your background. Too many talks and mere utterances are prefaced by a self-aggrandizing autobiographical sentence or six. Yes, doing that adds credibility, but it also makes you seem self-absorbed and willing to take up people's time with your not-so-hidden bragging.

Present both facts and feelings. If you give just facts, you won't establish the connection needed to make people change their attitude or behavior. But if you talk just feelings, you risk sounding like an out-of-control lightweight.

Don't script. Do not script your talk or answers to possible questions. At best, your answers will come off stilted. Worse, it's too likely that amid the stress, you'll get thrown off, especially if s/he doesn't ask that precise question. Just keep your list of talking points in front of you and ad-lib. It's better to have lots of umms, ahs, and hesitations than a scripted delivery.

When Speaking

Make eye contact. Look straight into the attendees' or interviewer's eyes, so much so that you notice their color. If you're just talking into a webcam, focus your eyes right above the lens and pretend that spot is your friend.

Be moderate in tone. If you seem too concerned or intense, you just worry people. On the other hand, if you come off too light-hearted, you seem insensitive. Keep your volume, pitch, and body language moderate. We claim to celebrate diversity, but, in reality, we're quite judgmental about people who deviate from the moderate.

Sober times require a sober demeanor. This is a corollary of the previous tip. Today, I was watching someone on TV, and it seemed clear that she had received standard media coaching: that audiences like smilers. But not in the time of corona—Being more than moderately pleasant makes you seem like a phony or that you're ecstatic to finally get on TV.  Similarly, beware of telling jokes. Joke-telling is hard. Your attempt at humor risks falling flat, and the bar for what's funny is higher amid the coronavirus. Yes, a passing bon mot is OK, but beware of doing more than that.

Keep each utterance between 15 and 45 seconds. A media interview is a conversation, not a lecture. Also, leaving many spaces for the interviewer will make him or her like you more and want to keep talking with you or have you back. Even if you're giving a talk in, say, a counseling session or staff meeting, it's usually wise to talk for just a minute or two and then pause for or ask for a question or comment. Give people a few seconds to think before you assume that no one wants to say anything. People need time to think and to formulate what they want to say or ask.

The takeaway

Whether at a meeting, a therapy session, or in public, speaking can be fraught, especially on video, and even more so amid the coronavirus crisis. The advice here should help.

I read this aloud on YouTube.