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The Zoom Double Feature

authentic voice public speaking zoom calls Oct 20, 2020

3 Tips for Setting Up Your Zoom 'Stage' like a Boss


5 Ways to Catch and Keep Your Audience’s Attention like a Pro 


OK, I don’t know about you, but I have seen some serious sad-ass Zoom set-ups these past 7 months.  So today I’m going to walk you through “Setting Up Your Zoom ‘Stage’ Like a Boss”.  

“Stage” you say?

Yes.  Stage.  Look in the little box that shows your face - if that’s not a stage opening, I don’t know what it is.  And technically, that type of set up - with “curtains” - or black panels on either side, is a Proscenium Arch theatre.  Yes.  A Stage.

If you were doing a proper stage production, you wouldn’t take your raggedy-ass out there like SO. VERY. MANY. PEOPLE have been doing.  

If I have to look up someone’s nose one more time, I can’t be guaranteed to handle it gracefully.    

You need to treat a Zoom meeting like a production (and I don’t mean wine with girlfriends, though they might appreciate a bit of showmanship, too).  When you stage something, you need to think of everything.  The backdrop, the stage props, the set props, the lighting, the sound, the costume, makeup, hair, the sightlines of the audience, the appeal of the blocking, and on and on.

Now, you might feel like I just spoke in tongues.  Kinda I did, but theatre has so much to teach us about this new realm of Zoomanship.

Let’s break it down for you, shall we?


First: the stage itself.  Position yourself appropriately.  Too high?  Boob shot.  Too low?  Creepy eyeballs-only shot.  Too far right or left….are you trying to be artistic?  Maybe.  But make sure it’s a choice, not an accident!! 

Adjust for your height, but your goal is to be looking straight-on. Too high?  Nostril shot.  Too low?  Double-chin. 

If height is a problem with a laptop, get a stack of books (around
12 inches high) and put your screen on top of that.  For desktops, you may also need to add height (to you OR the monitor) or a simple tilt may do.  iPads, phones, you name it - there are solutions to be had - whether you’re at home or the coffee shop.

You know how you find out you HAVE a problem?  YOU RUN A REHEARSAL.  No theatre practitioner in her right mind would think of running a production without rehearsals.  It’s how you craft and troubleshoot - things YOU’RE trying to take charge of.  And before you say, “but what about those people who improvise theatre?”, I will tell you this:  NOBODY IMPROVISES WELL WHO HASN’T PRACTICED THE SKILLS IN THE PAST.  Nobody.


Second: check your lighting.  You want to be fully lit, if possible, and the cooler the light, the better (in most cases).  Halo lights are a great option, both in terms of light colour, and height adjustment.  Watch for reflection, though, in your glasses and other surfaces. Other choices include facing a window (north or south, depending on time of day; east or west will create more shadows OR more glare).  Shadows and glare are for Film Noir, NOT ZOOM (and no, I DON’T care how beautiful and artistic you look in the shot).

 Obviously, don’t pick the brightest lit window - it’ll blind you.  Another pro move?  Dragging all your sorry ass lamps into the “playing space” and creating your own “lighting grid”.  

There is no excuse whatsoever to torment people with poor lighting and a lame excuse of “I know the lighting’s not great….”  Make it great.  If you do this stuff a lot, you might even consider (if you have the space), putting up a few soft boxes on either side.  

Whatever you do, DON’T LET YOURSELF BE BACKLIT.  That’s like a story I once heard from my parents about seeing a very young Taylor Swift on tour with Willie Nelson, and when she was singing, at one point she was backlit.  In the words of my horrified parents:  “She seems like a nice girl, but you could see RIGHT THROUGH HER DRESS.  You could see her UNDERWEAR.”  Now, this is admittedly unlikely to be an issue with your Zoom calls (but no judgement here!), but what it DOES create is something that looks like this: 


  Lovely photography? 


  Conducive to anyone seeing your face in the call? 

  Not so much.



Do you actually know where to look in a meeting?  Well, for starters, find the camera.  If you’ve turned a device on it’s side, the camera will be on the side….but do you know what that does?  It makes you look like you’re always looking away from the people you’re meeting with.  Why?  Because you’re “looking into their eyes” by looking at them on the screen...but their “eyes” are actually the camera!  It’s incredibly disorienting to speak to either a camera OR someone’s eyes, when they don’t more-or-less line up.  So, where possible, turn your device so that the camera is on the top!

Last lesson: if you’re running the meeting, ask participants to prepare for a more effective meeting in advance - share a few tips and tricks (or, hey! This blog post!), and (if necessary), send them a private chat while online to remind them to adjust lighting, etc.  Of course it is tricky when there are power dynamics to consider (and you may have to be the best show in the house, alone), but whenever and wherever, remember your mantra: : ...LIKE A BOSS.

And ALSO REMEMBER: Always check these items before you start! (in addition to rehearsal).  Nobody wants to turn up at the show to see the performers, directors and stage technicians (and you’re ALL of these!) running around, trying to figure shit out at the last minute.  NOBODY.


Continuing our pursuit of Online Meeting Excellence (something I just made up!), now let’s talk about being worth watching and listening to AFTER you’ve set up your stage like a boss.

Here’s the situation:  you are logging on to your sixth meeting of the day, and you JUST. DON’T. CARE.  Sure the CEO or your agent or the head of investment or whoever is there, but your ass hurts, your eyes hurt, you have to pee, your kids are going squirrely in the next room (or maybe it’s your dog at your feet) - but the point is YOU’RE DONE.  

Know what makes it worse?  Chances are pretty good that the person (or people) “attending” the meeting with you feel just about the same.  Sounds like a recipe for disaster.  It also sounds like reality.

So, short of doing something really unprofessional (and I’ll leave you to your imagination here), you’re left with a few options (and by the way? These work even if it’s the first meeting of the week!).

1) Know how to use your microphone - whether it’s in the computer, an external mic, a headset or AirPods, know how (and when) to turn that audio feed on.

PRO TIP:  Keep your mic off unless you need to talk - feedback with kids,          birds, background TV noises, pots and pans in the kitchen (all of which I have        heard, and more) are not only highly distracting, but - hate to say it - NOT pro.

2. Speak clearly, but NOT loudly.  That’s what the mic is for! You are not trying to            project your voice from New York to London.  Just saying.

PRO TIP: Practice on a recording. 

Listen back.  Learn and make adjustments - if people can’t hear you (because you’re too loud or too soft), or you’re mumbling, they’ll maybe ask once or twice for clarity.  Then they just stop listening.  You would, too.

3. Make your point.  Don’t “say something” before you “SAY SOMETHING.” Too frequently, women start their contributions with “softened” phrases like, “This might be a bad idea, but - “ or “I was thinking that one way we could handle this situation is…”  Honestly, many people stop listening, especially if you preface with words like “stupid”, “bad”, etc.  

PRO TIP: Start with “I” statements.  “I need more data on that decision” (not, “I was wondering if it might be possible if I might get more data on the factors that contributed to that decision”) - The first is 7 words; the second, 22.

4. Keep cameras on (where possible). If you’re paying attention, you will be able to see distraction and ‘drift’ in your participants. If you’re the host, you can use those cues as moments to check in with the group, ask a directed question, or switch gears in terms of your energy or direction (YES: EXACTLY LIKE YOUR HIGHSCHOOL TEACHER).
PRO TIP: The way you speak matters. The more rife your speech is with stumbling, roundabouts and fillers, the more difficult you are to follow (and people simply won’t). Further, if you have speech patterns that are monotone, uncertain (often called ‘upspeak’) or unvarying in pace or volume, people will tune you out. Last, if your voice is unpleasant to listen to, because of vocal habits or damage….get help! You don’t have to put up with it, in most cases.

5. Step up.  Statistically speaking, men are far more likely to speak up sooner,        more frequently, and for longer, in meeting situations.  Women, while perhaps relying on social etiquette like “turn taking”, can get to the end of the meeting never being heard once.  This only reaffirms cultural ideas around the contributions of various people at the table (you get my drift).  It may be difficult, but you need to step into the conversational space.  Listening carefully for “jumping in” points (without rudely interrupting - a fine balance!) is a key strategy - but then you actually have to jump! (and it can feel scary).

 PRO TIP: Know when a contribution is ‘offline’ or ‘online’.  If it’s something related to only one person, ask to speak further offline - do not make others endure your more-or-less private conversation in a public forum.  A good host will ask you to take it “offline”, and that can be very embarrassing - it’s far better if you flag it first by saying something like, “Hey Bob, I want to talk more about XYZ - let’s talk offline.”

At the end of the day, six meetings in a row taxes even the most skilled speaker and host - don’t feel bad if your best efforts aren’t enough to stave off the stifled yawns of the ‘end-of-the-day’... But always, always, ALWAYS make sure your efforts ARE you “best” efforts ;-)

And hey! If you want to be amazing faster, then get in touch.

Go forth, be awesome,

Xo donna 

If you want to join a group of like-minded women who are BOSSES and PROS, but want to take their game even further by “setting the stage” (Donna-speak for really digging into an defining their values, vision and voice, on their own terms!), then TEEwithD will be the place to be! 

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