Maytree blog

Five good ideas on virtual communications

Published on 03/04/2020

To help us navigate a new way of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re reaching out to experts in our network and asking them to share their five good ideas on issues that matter to non-profit professionals. We will share their responses in our new “Five Good Ideas: Home Office Series.” In this post, Andrew Musselman, an actor, teacher and communications coach, shares his five good ideas about becoming more effective at speaking in front of a webcam for online conversations.

Here are Andrew Musselman’s five good ideas on virtual communications.

Full session transcript

Hello Maytree, Andrew Musselman from Fluency.

I’m delighted to be taking part in what I believe is the first virtual installment of Maytree’s Five Good Ideas. I’m here now, coming at you live from my living room to present five good ideas on virtual communication.

Now some of you may have seen a video that I put out a few weeks ago where I gave three simple tips on virtual communication. I’ll give a quick refresher of those tips, but I’m going to go into a bit more depth here.

So here now are my five good ideas, I hope you like them.

My first idea is to set up your shot.

So a quick refresher for anyone who didn’t see my previous video. The frame should go from your upper chest to just over your head. Make sure you leave a little space between the top of your head and the top of the frame. You want to shoot from a head-on angle, try not to shoot up at yourself. So you want to get the lens nice and eye level.

My trick, I like to prop my laptop up onto five cookbooks. But you can do whatever works for you.

Also consider your lighting. Now natural lighting is ideal if you can manage that, but you’re not a professional cinematographer nor is that going to be expected of you. Just make the most of what you’ve got. So have a lighting source coming at you from behind the lens.

Just make sure that you are well lit, that you’re visible for your viewers and that your face isn’t in shadow.

And, finally, when it comes to setting up your shot, take care of your background. First of all you want to make sure that you don’t have anything distracting in your background, that there’s no clutter. Any lights that are on in your background are going to create a glare that’s going to distract your viewers’ eyes.

But also you want to make sure that you just have a background, period.

Notice the difference between this and this.

When I take away the background, when I’m just a floating head in space, it feels a little unsettling, doesn’t it? There’s a good reason for that.

There’s been some fascinating research that shows that communicating on video can cause our brains a certain amount of stress. The reason for that is that our reptilian brains, the part of our brain that’s concerned with survival instincts, expends a lot of energy tracking people in space. We like to know where we are in relation to other people at all times so that we know whether or not we’re under threat.

When you take away your background, you take away all sense of proportion for your viewer. The effect that that has on them is they don’t know how close you are to them; or at least that’s what it feels like and that can cause that reptilian part of their brain a certain amount of stress.

So just have a few things in your background that are going to give your viewer that sense of proportion.

Idea number two, play the lens.

Now when you’re working with any kind of camera, it’s all about the eyes. Discipline yourself to not look at the part of the screen that shows yourself and instead look at the other person when they’re talking. It’s going to make you a better listener, and it’s also going to make you less self-conscious.

When you’re the one who’s talking, instead of looking down at the screen, look up at the lens. It’s going to make your listeners feel like you’re making eye contact with them and like you’re connecting with them.

I saw a great tip from Mark Bowden, who’s a body language expert here in Toronto. He takes a sticky note, and he draws a smiley face on it. And he pastes that smiley face right next to the lens. Not only does it draw his eyes towards the lens, but it also reminds him to smile, which is very important.

Another good technique when you’re working with the camera is to always have your face pointed towards the lens. This is especially relevant if you’re working with notes.

Notice the difference between this and this.

If you’re going to glance down at your notes, try to just glance down with your eyes rather than with your whole head. Because if you glance down with your whole head, you disappear from the frame. In my case, I give my viewers a nice shot of my bald dome up there.

One thing you could do, you can prop the notes up against your laptop so that when you have to look at them you’re not severing the connection with your listeners.

My third idea is to let your voice be expressive.

Anytime you’re speaking, no matter what the medium, the cardinal sin that you want to avoid is monotone. Monotone is just going to lull your listeners to sleep and, more importantly, it’s going to make you sound like you don’t really care about what you’re saying.

So you want to allow your voice to find its natural expressiveness. Let it be nuanced.

In fact, in this moment of virtual communication that we’re in, I believe tone of voice is more important than ever. The reason for that is that when your listeners aren’t in the same room as you, it’s more difficult for them to pick up on your energy so your tone of voice offers valuable cues as to how they should feel about what you’re saying.

To achieve vocal nuance, you can think of the three Ps, pitch, pace, projection.

First pitch: allow your voice to move from its lowest notes up into its highest register from time to time. Imagine that you’re singing a song. It’s much more interesting if you’re not just stuck on one note the whole time.

Secondly, pace: fast or slow. Sometimes you’re going to be speaking in a quick, natural rhythm. But every now and again, when you have a point that you want to emphasize, it can be effective to slow down.

And thirdly, projection. Of course, you always want to make sure that you’re heard. But again, when you have a point that you want to emphasize, sometimes it can be effective to bring the volume of your voice down. It’s going to achieve the effect of having your listeners lean in. It’s going to create that intimacy and a bit of intensity, frankly.

My fourth idea is to speak with honesty and authenticity.

Now that should be true any time we communicate but it’s especially true in a situation like the one we find ourselves in right now.

I came across a great article on leading in a crisis recently, and the author said that crisis communication should follow a very simple three-step process. One, tell your listeners what you know. Two, tell them what you don’t know, and, three, tell them when you’ll get back to them with information on what you don’t know. It’s simple but pretty profound.

If your communication in a time like this can acknowledge the uncertainty, it’s going to go a long way to instilling trust with your community.

And, as for the authenticity piece, this is an emotionally unsettling time. We’re all going through a lot of different emotions right now. Don’t be afraid to show that in your communication. Don’t be afraid to make yourself vulnerable, to acknowledge the fear or that unsettling feeling that you’re having.

And don’t be afraid to start your Zoom meetings by checking in with everyone, by seeing how people are doing.

My guess is a lot of you are probably already doing that as is, but it’s just a good reminder that communication at its best is supposed to bring people together, it’s supposed to create harmony and alignment, and this is a time when we need that more than ever.

Finally, idea number five, tell stories.

Stories are a great way to generate empathy and build connection.

This might be a good opportunity for you to gather together stories about your organization.

What are the stories that clearly showcase your organization’s values, that tell of times you overcame great challenges? Stories that clearly define what your organization is all about?

A collection of stories like that can be an invaluable resource going forward, and the exercise of gathering those stories together is a great way to reignite everyone in your organization around your shared purpose.

So there you have it, my five good ideas on virtual communication. I hope you found this helpful and I would love to hear from you. If anyone has any questions or comments or if you want to tell me what you’re struggling with when it comes to virtual communication, please feel free to reach out at or reach out on LinkedIn. And I’m still offering free 30-minute consultations.

So for anyone who wants to go into more depth on this and set themselves up for success, happy to chat.

Be well, stay safe, all the best. Thanks very much.

Andrew Musselman is an actor, teacher and communications coach whose work has taken him to New York, London, Dublin, and across Canada. The thousands of hours Andrew has logged in live performance have given him stage presence and the ability to captivate an audience. His extensive teaching experience has given him the tools to pass that knowledge on to the private and public sectors.


[Five Good Ideas: Home Office Series] Andrew Musselman shares his five good ideas about becoming more effective at speaking in front of a webcam for online conversations.