Here at Duarte, we not only teach communication skills, we teach people how to present themselves. In this new virtual world, we have to consider how we appear and communicate virtually—like on Zoom meetings—and what that means for how our audience perceives our brand.
By now you’ve probably seen some silly screenshots of things happening in peoples backgrounds while on Zoom meetings: a messy house, weird art, a quasi-dressed partner getting milk in the kitchen…
I realized that on certain calls, it made sense to let people into my life and show my “reality” background (where everything is carefully curated.)
Other times, I use a Zoom background. That’s usually when I choose to go silly. It’s usually me sitting on the Game of Thrones iron throne, relaxing in a bowling alley or a cafe.
Today, I find myself planning how Duarte-branded videos need to be presented. These videos may have a thumbnail of a specific designer walking through tutorials, but what appears in the background behind each designer has to be considered.
I wanted to create something consistent in the videos despite all the designers having different things going on behind them, so I started trying out different backgrounds that I found free on Unsplash. The goal was to see how the Zoom technology might make them morph around the subject in the camera.
Here are a few lessons I learned through this process that you can apply to your virtual communication toolkit when choosing virtual backgrounds on Zoom meetings.
Consider Contrast and Use It to Your Advantage
Do you have mostly light color behind you? Is your hair brown or blond? Is the back of your chair usually visible?
Answer these questions and consider them in terms of contrast. Ideally, the subject (you) should stand out from the background (your room).
If you have blond hair in a lightly colored room, it’s going to be harder for you to keep your shape separate from the zoom background.
If you have dark hair and you’re in front of a dark wall or dark chair, same problem.
If you have a background in place, and your chair pops in and out of the video frame, and it’s the same color as your hair or clothing, cover the back of the chair so it matches the wall tones.
For example, my chair is black, I’m wearing a black shirt, and I have really dark hair. No matter what background I applied in Zoom (including the wooden background below) my chair kept morphing into the frame! I don’t mind if it’s showing, but I want it to show all the time or not at all.
When I covered the chair with a towel it stopped morphing into frame so much. By the way, this is me gesticulating as I normally would at some point during a call. We don’t realize how much we move when we’re seated in the comfort of our own home.
Watch back a recording of yourself! It’s eye opening.
Another recommendation is to wear something that is darker or lighter than your background, so that the Zoom background can hold its shape around you more firmly.
The fake fox head that I have on my back wall keeps popping into my video every time I lean back, which I’m often doing while on a long video call. Fantastic Mr. Fox.
There’s not much you can do about this particular challenge when using a Zoom background, except maybe remove objects that stand out behind you. Personally, I love this fox, and no way, no how am I moving it. But you decide for yourself, of course.
Visual Noise Can Drown Out Your Video Subject Matter (You)
Zoom backgrounds are fun! I love them, but the level of detail you choose will affect how well you appear. A busier background makes it harder to watch you if you’re in full screen mode, and harder to see overall.
In my little study, I tried out both subdued and loud backgrounds. On the busier backgrounds, I noticed that if I blurred the image a little it helped the signal (me) pop out of the background (noise), making it easier to see me on the screen.
Also ask yourself, what is the tone I want to set? Which is the better background to convey that I’m serious? Which conveys that I’m fun?
You may be both and more (I am), but when using a background, we need to decide how we want our audience to see us at first glance.
Use Color Intentionally
When I started this exercise, I wanted to see if the color of the Zoom background had any effect on the cutout staying firm around me. So, which background colors worked best?
It turns out it has very little to do with the colors in the background…though it seems to have some affect to consider.
On my shirt I have a graphic of an abominable snowman. He is white and light blue. When I applied a background with white or blue, the zoom camera also found the graphic on my shirt and applied background to it.
If you’d like to avoid this from happening , test your shirt against your background before any important meetings.
Another thing about color I’ve found is that darker colors don’t cutout around me as well as lighter colors. When I applied this dark image as a background it produced jagged edges around me in the video frame.
That said, when I saw a blond coworker on a dark background, the background around her looked seamless.
When I applied this textured brown, I got washed out because it was so close to my skin color in the camera.
I stood out really well and looked professional on this flat turquoise color (which is actually a cutout from an image of a sky) and to me it almost looks like a studio setting.
When I tried a gradient, the Zoom cutout around me stuck to my movements really well. The virtual background was not visually noisy, and I appeared in front of it in a very natural way. I would say a subtle gradient is my favorite virtual background on Zoom meetings.
Acknowledge That Pseudo-Reality Feels Weird
When you see virtual backgrounds on Zoom meeting that are streets, cafes, page from a West Elm catalog, etc., it can feel awkward.
When you adjust the background to have a slight but realistic blur, it feels more natural and less noticeable. You’ll also stand out more, as you would in real life.
You can see here, my signal to noise ratio increased as I toned down the background. Here is me with a virtual background of the Duarte office in Santa Clara, CA. You can see I stand out more when the virtual background has a slight blur.
Here’s me in a coffee shop. It’s strange because the color and lighting looks almost real, like a humanoid looks almost real. It’s also really busy in there, which makes it hard to visually read me on the video.
And here’s me floating over a city. I’ll go back to the Duarte shot so that I can convey my Duarte brand persona on my business calls better.
Virtual backgrounds on Zoom meetings can be fun. Virtual backgrounds can save us from the embarrassment of our messy reality. Virtual backgrounds aren’t required (yet), but I can imagine a world that is swiftly approaching where businesses lock down the policy on backgrounds, and some may even require certain backgrounds or ban others.
If this happens, I strongly suggest businesses don’t have only one background for employees to use. We tried this at Duarte and the results feel robotic. Better to have policy about what kind of virtual background images to use, rather than everyone on the Zoom meetings having the same one.
We use Zoom at Duarte, but other platforms may also offer some customization. Here’s what you need to get started using Zoom backgrounds.
Before you start or join your next Zoom meeting, start a Zoom meeting with just yourself, and apply the background. Move around in the frame as you normally might during your meeting and see what happens, then make adjustments.
Illustrated by Chariti Canny