Illustration by Getty Images
By Stephanie J. Hull
Scholars are increasingly comfortable with video-based communications, thanks to FaceTime, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, and so on. On the professional side, more and more academic organizations, including the one I work for, use videoconferencing for meetings and interviews.
The primary reasons we do that are equity and access. When it comes to hiring, many candidates can’t afford travel expenses and many institutions can’t afford to reimburse them, so — at least for a first-round evaluation — having everyone appear in the same medium saves money and levels the playing field to some degree. Likewise, teaching and learning have been moving inexorably to screens — via online courses as well as the use of videos, TED talks, and podcasts to supplement face-to-face classes. And the same is true of the way we build scholarly communities: Increasingly, academics need to learn how to work with video.
You might think that today’s Ph.D.’s — many of whom have grown up with video as a part of online communication — are already masters of self-presentation on camera. Sadly, you would be wrong. Here are a few cautionary tales from some of the selection committees I have worked with:
- One candidate allowed her hamster to run loose in her home. During her interview, it ran up the back of her shirt and popped out on her shoulder, next to her collar.
- During one candidate’s interview, a floor lamp toppled, spraying glass shards. She was cut and bleeding on camera.
- Another candidate chatted with a committee while sitting on her bed, propped up by ruffled pillows. (Fully dressed, but it was still a little disconcerting.)
- Then there was the candidate who was seated in front of a firearms-training target that showed several bullet holes grouped around the heart and the center of the forehead.
- A candidate with a large dog failed to secure said animal in another room, so it came bounding in and leapt onto her lap midinterview, knocking everything over — and howled loudly for the rest of the interview when finally forced to stay in the adjoining room.
Lest I present myself as a videoconferencing paragon: Once, as I prepared to chair a search-committee meeting, a colleague gently pointed out that my cherished Herb Ritts poster — of a nude Bill T. Jones, positioned so that the dancer appeared to be climbing out of my head — was perhaps not the most neutral backdrop.
So here are some things we should all keep in mind — or remind ourselves of, yet again — while videoconferencing:
Make sure your basic technology works well. Test it with one person and with a group of friends or colleagues. Is it better to use the computer audio or your phone? (Pro tip: Using both, on purpose or not, causes terrible feedback.) Do you know where all the buttons are — so you can mute and unmute, start and stop video, leave the meeting, change the screen view, use the chat function, and so on? Should you use headphones? With or without a mic? Establish your comfort zone in advance. If you know your Wi-Fi sometimes hiccups, ask for a phone number you can call should that happen.
Check your lighting. Will the room be dark? Naturally lit? Generally, you want to be lit from the front, not the back. And you want diffuse light, not too bright or focused. Close the blinds or curtains if you must sit with your back to a window. Lighting from beneath gives you that Halloween-flashlight look — probably not professional. Bright lighting from straight above your head makes you look like a prisoner under questioning.
Consider the background. Is it distracting? Overly personal? Political? Does it frame your head oddly? People interviewing you are trying to get to know you, but this may not be the moment to reveal every aspect of your personal agenda and/or your housekeeping skills. Aim for a neutral surface behind you, with one or two pleasant, apolitical decorations — a plant or a piece of artwork (something that isn’t going to rile or offend). Bookshelves are good, but remove any objects that might be controversial or that will speak more loudly than you do.
Note the camera angle. Are you looking straight ahead? Is the shot centered and even? If it’s a short interview, consider setting your device up so you can stand; you will speak more energetically. If sitting, choose a chair that doesn’t swivel or recline to make sure you’ll sit up and stay still. Moving around is visually distracting, and microphones pick up variations in sound.
Level up. Think about your self-presentation. If you gesticulate when you talk, zoom in so the camera only sees your face. Keep water next to you, but in a glass, not a bottle that you need two hands to open, or one that’s brightly colored and fills the screen when you raise it to drink.
Dress thoughtfully. Your interviewers may not dress up, but you should, to some extent — particularly when talking to people in more formal parts of the United States (read: not places with a hoodie-tech dress code). Even if you don’t think you will stand up while on camera, make sure the bottom half of you is presentable, too.
Get some constructive critics. This is a moment when you need someone who — after watching you practice your interview skills — will be painfully honest if you’re not presenting yourself to best advantage. It may be hard to hear about some off-putting mannerism that you weren’t aware of, but better to know and resolve it now than to have it count against you when you want to impress. You may occasionally find media-training sessions that will help you think about being on camera, but real training is not truly necessary. For most of us, there’s not (yet) the kind of pressure to be perfect on camera that would require professional intervention.
No animals around. Enough said.
So what if you are naturally camera-shy, as so many people are? Maybe this list of pointers makes you want to break out in hives? How do you get used to being on camera?
Think of it as an interaction, not a performance. It’s counterproductive to think of videoconferencing as being "on camera," especially if that thought makes you nervous. The purpose of a videoconference is to give participants the illusion that you’re in the room together. You’ve focused on your side of the room by creating a setting that’s professional — appropriately personal yet not distracting. Imagine yourself welcoming the interviewer(s) into that setting, and at the same time, imagine walking into the room that’s on your screen and being welcomed into that environment as you attend the interview.
Don’t watch yourself in action. The time to scrutinize yourself and be highly critical is when you are establishing your ideal interview location and lighting, and practicing with the technology in run-throughs with friends. But when you’re in the real interview, minimize your view of yourself and maximize the view of the interviewer(s). Talk to them, and don’t look at yourself.
Remind yourself: Interviewers are usually forgiving. In spite of all your best preparation, sometimes you will be faced with the unexpected. (Remember the BBC commentator whose toddler horned in on a live shot?) Terrible presentation on camera can leave a lasting impression, but it doesn’t have to hurt your chances. Accidents happen, and I have only ever known hirers to be, at best, amused and, at worst, forgiving in the face of interruptions by children and dogs, or other unforeseen calamities.
On the other hand, increasingly, poor judgment in a video interview will be construed as poor judgment — period. Unsuitable clothing is hard to excuse during a job interview. Inappropriate background decor is tantamount to carrying an object into the room — you wouldn’t bring your teddy bear or your Velvet Elvis with you during an in-person interview, so why have it clearly visible on camera in an interview space that you are responsible for designing?
Just make the best choices you can about the things that you can control, and greet the surprises with grace and humor. Once you’ve done your best to create the right professional conditions, the only thing to do is relax.
"Relax" may be the oldest and most basic advice of all, and it still applies even when using the newest video technology. Consider the simple things as you prepare, so that you don’t have to struggle when you’re in the frame. Help your interlocutors zoom in on who you are and what you have to say. That, after all, is the great power of videoconferencing: It brings your candidacy to life.
Stephanie J. Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation