Toastmasters, ask yourself this question

Am I using Zoom as a temporary substitute for my on-stage performance, or do I want to learn to communicate better using online video?

While the basic principles of communication haven’t changed much in the last twenty-four centuries, the delivery mechanisms and the skills you need have.

The current pandemic has created an inflection point for Toastmasters. Some clubs will go back to their traditional in-person format, others will morph to become virtual, and still, others will be something in between.

Choose A or B:

A. Improve your stage presence (at home using Zoom as a stop-gap measure)

B. Improve your close-up video communication

A. Stage presence

Traditionally, Toastmasters has been about in-person communication not mediated by anything except perhaps a microphone.

Just like actors on stage, we use the space. We walk about. We pause for effect and then move one. We tell our story using our bodies. On stage, large hand gestures make sense.  We project our voices so people at the back of the room can hear us. Eye contact and relationship to the audience allows us to know if we have their attention.

In a nutshell, we practice the basic ten lessons from the unsurpassed pre-Pathways Competent Communicator Manual (still downloadable from a Google search.)

But during the pandemic, we are not in front of a live audience. For the audience to see our whole bodies, we must move away from the camera. That’s not always easy to do at home, especially in a confined space.

The trouble is, the further you get away from your camera’s microphone, the sound volume and quality drop off.

Wireless mic

If you’re serious about simulating stage presence, then get a USB wireless microphone. Why? Because you need your microphone to be very close to you while your webcam is far enough away to get your whole body into the frame. If you notice an echo effect, your mic is too far away. We want to hear what you have to say, and in the best way that you can say it. 

If you’re on a budget (and who isn’t), put your money into clearly being heard. You’ll notice TED talkers use wireless microphones. There are ways that you can use a smartphone as your microphone in Zoom, but setting it up can be geeky. The simplest solution is to buy a wireless mic, whether that’s handheld or a lapel (lavalier) microphone. Make sure that the microphone will not interfere with your Wi-Fi signal.

Webcam

Typically, on-stage performers move around and make large hand gestures. But a cheap webcam just can’t keep up with a lot of movement. If you must walk around, a webcam such as the 60 fps Logitech Brio won’t blur gestures during rapid change.

Avoid virtual backgrounds when making large hand gestures. If you can’t live without a virtual background, set it up correctly. Have enough room to light your background evenly. Use a smooth background, such as a plain wall. Ideally, use a green screen. And don’t get close to your background. After all, be kind to your fellow club members. Don’t give them a headache.

But what’s more important than a clear picture is intelligible sound. You want your audience to listen to what you have to say— without distraction.

B. Video communication practice

The good news is that you won’t need a wireless microphone if you’re planning to talk on head-and-shoulders video. You can get by with a good webcam’s microphone, but if you want better sound, invest in a USB wired microphone. I am currently using a Samson Meteor Microphone, which sits on my desk. Audio is a priority because your voice conveys confidence — or lack of it.

Samson Meteor Mic

When talking to the camera, we don’t want to make big hand gestures. Communications consultants suggest holding your hands together on the table, so you don’t move around. If standing, place your feet far apart to stop you walking out of shot. And this means you’ll have better visual results from a standard 1080p 30 fps webcam.

All I’m going to say here about lighting it get plenty of it. There are many YouTube videos on no-cost or inexpensive solutions. But don’t sit with a window behind you, the viewer may only see your silhouette.

For me, improving my video communication presence is a professional necessity. I’m unlikely to talk on stage in front of a live audience. But that may not be true for you.

The main takeaway is to be clear about which path you want to go down: simulated stage presence, or intimate video talk. Then get the right set up.

Christopher Richards, July, 2020