Improve your online presence with these four rules

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash


  • Everyone brings a piece of the online meeting environment with them. So:
  • Be heard. Make sure your microphone is adequate, and picking you up clearly. Don't mute unless you have to.
  • Be seen. Use a decent camera, with good lighting, and have it on by default unless there is a reason not to. Turn off self view.
  • Be aware of your square. Watch your background, and learn how to stay in shot.
  • Don't be afraid to check your setup with a colleague, and get feedback.

Online is the new normal - make it work for you

Since March 2020, we have all been online far more than ever before. It is probably the most comprehensive experiment in remote working ever carried out, albeit driven by necessity. Companies were forced into working out how to build and maintain teamwork when spread across the country, even continents. Mostly it has been a success, and has shown people that there is a viable alternative to the daily commute. However, there is often still room for improvement. Working remotely has its own set of challenges that are different to in-the-room meetings. Get it right, and online meetings can be as good as or better than in-person meetings! 

Here are some quidelines that people might want to think about to make remote interactions more effective and enjoyable. You might want to experiment with some of these. Also, some might not be suitable for you for any of a number of reasons: security, current situation, technology and so on. But  following these guidelines does improve the quality of remote conversations in all their forms.

The Basics  

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when considering remote working is that everyone brings a piece of the meeting environment with them. Each and every attendee is in control of how they come across online. Bad microphone? No-one can hear what you say. Dodgy Internet? Your audio and video breaks up. Excessive echo? Noisy environment? It all adds up to reduce the quality of interaction for everyone involved, reducing effectiveness and spoiling the experience for everyone.

Yet it does not need to be like this. By listening to the science and ensuring you are following four very basic rules of thumb, you can make remote working at least as effective as in person. If in any doubt about how well you are coming across online, then ask a colleague or friend to give feedback on their experience when talking to you. Be prepared to experiment and tweak your setup for the best results

Rule 0: Internet Connection

"Rule 0" because this is fundamental to enabling an effective remote presence. I won't dwell on it since it is likely the domain of the Internet Service Provider and outside the control of the individual, but for remote work to, well, work, then you do need a fast, reliable data pipe. There is no point in trying to run modern HD audio and video over a 56k dialup, for example. 

Rule 1: Be Heard

It sounds obvious, but when you are online it is the same as being present in person - you need to be heard! If your sound quality is poor then you will not be able to present your point of view, or participate in any discussions.

Most laptops provide nothing more than an adequate microphone, so it is worth thinking about investing in a high quality external microphone for the home office. For example, I use a Blue Yeti X, and the quality improvement over a 2018 MacBook Pro built-in microphone is significant. Also, various headsets with built-in microphones are available. If you are using an external speaker and microphone setup, do be aware of the risk of feedback and echo - check this by calling a friend to check.


This might seem strange to some, but don't mute yourself by default. Think about a real life meeting: would you sit there with your hand over your mouth until you wanted to speak? Unlikely. A real life meeting has a conversation dynamic where people talk spontaneously, sometimes over one another. It is all part of the to-and-fro of discussion. Also, we can all make small expressive noises that show we agree or disagree with the current speaker - "Uh-huh", "Harumph!", "Mmm", etc. These are all social cues that help with the conversation, so don't suppress them. Embrace them!

This open-mic principle is rooted in scientific studies. If you delay replying (for example because you are hunting for that unmute button perhaps?), studies suggest you appear less attentive, extroverted and conscientious.

Noisy environment?

Obviously this raises the question "But what if I cannot keeo my microphone open because of backaround noise?". This is, of course, a valid reason to close your microphone, but do be aware of the effect this can have. You might want to consider installing noise cancellation software such as Krisp.AI if you can. This software sits between the microphone & speaker hardware and the videoconference software, cancelling background noise and echo. The results can be quite impressive!

Rule 2: Be Seen

The second cornerstone of effective online presence is video. Being online already significantly reduces the amount of visual social cues that are available, but removing video altogether reduces online interaction to no more than an audio-only conference call - the bane of many teams in the 1990s and beyond (just mention the Polycom Soundstation to anyone who was around back then, and watch their reaction!)

As with the microphone, laptops do tend to have webcams but these are often lower quality to meet a given price point. It is well worth investing in a higher quality external camera. Use a dedicated webcam, or some folks use a mirrorless SLR as a high quality camera

"If all the world's a stage, demand better lighting!"

Lighting. The essential part of a quality video setup - just ask any film maker. Do consider where the light is coming from when setting up your home office. From the front is fine since it will illuminate you when on camera. But if you have it coming from behind, for example a window or similar, you will appear as if you were in a witness protection program; an unrecognisable shadow. High quality cameras can adjust to a point, but they cannot work miracles - think about getting a video light. And don't forget the sun moves! So a great morning setup might be less effective on a sunny summer afternoon - you might need to invest in blinds or curtains.


Another potentially controversial recommendation, but worth it. As I mentioned, being online already removes many of the visual cues we all use to know when to speak, and when to invite others into the conversation. Microexpressions are immensely important to provide nuance to communication (and another reason for getting a high quality webcam so they are picked up). Additionally, a camera-on policy means hand-gestures become possible. Consider the fist-to-five consensus technique. Fast, very effective online, and impossible without video.

It seems that science is on our side here too, best summarized by the proverb: "What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember"

When to keep your camera off

As with the microphone, there will be times when it is better to keep your camera off. Perhaps you have not had your first cup of coffee. Or perhaps you have just got out of the shower(!). Or have not tidied up. Or another reason. That's fine. Being online is a very humanising experience - turning your camera on is similar to inviting colleagues into your home, complete with whatever is happening at that moment - for example, children playing, or your dog barking in the background. Personally, I foster cats for the UK charity Cats Protection, so you will sometimes see me with one of the temporary lodgers asleep across the top of my chair, stamping across the field of view, or being mobbed by a litter of exuberant kittens! So it is inevitable that there will be times when it will certainly not be a suitable moment. Be sensible and make a conscious decision whether to keep video off, while understanding the potential additional difficulties it might cause and make the extra effort to mitigate these. Also be kind to colleagues who might not be able to turn on video at that particular moment, or for that particular meeting.

 A Caveat

 "Zoom fatigue" is a thing. One reason being online is so tiring is because seeing yourself onscreen all day is stressful.

 So: Turn off self-view!

Rule 3: Be Aware of your Square!

Presenting yourself in a square box on screen is the final thing to think about. To create a professional image requires some thought into how you use your square.

First, become familiar with your camera's field of view. You do not want to be talking to people with your head cut off, or off to one side. With self-view turned off (see the previous recommendation), you need to instinctively know where you are on-camera. There is nothing wrong with turning on self- view for a moment to check! Framing is especially important if you are the sort of person who gestures when speaking; by keeping your style as natural as possible online, you will connect and engage with people more easily and naturally.

Also, be aware of your background. What is behind you? How do you want to come across? An academic with a wall of books? A relaxed office environment? But do beware the unexpected - there are plenty of embarrassing incidents where people have not checked their surroundings!

In general, make sure your background does not detract from your meeting presence. Many videoconference software packages allow you to blur the background, or add a virtual background. Some even allow full "green screen" substitutions of background image.


So to summarize:

  • Be heard. Make sure your microphone is adequate, and picking you up clearly. Don't mute unless you have to.
  • Be seen. Use a decent camera, with good lighting, and have it on by default unless there is a reason not to. Turn off self view.
  • Be aware of your square. Watch your background, and learn how to stay in shot.
  • Don't be afraid to check your setup with a colleague, and get feedback.