Now that many of us have been forced to get comfortable with video meetings, it’s safe to assume that they are here to stay. In a recent survey we conducted, 86% of respondents said they are satisfied with their communications via video conference, and 70% anticipate using video conferencing the same amount as today or more, even after social distancing guidelines are lifted. We’ve also heard from lots of people that they aren’t sure how to make the right impression on Zoom and Skype, whether they’re interviewing for a job, presenting to their team, or delivering a speech to a larger group.
The technicalities, like finding good lighting or knowing when to mute your line, were easy enough to figure out. But we wanted to know: how does one become exceptional? Is one background preferable to another? What attire should we wear? Do certain clothing colors translate better via webcam? Does anyone actually care? We looked at the literature and could only find opinion, not fact. Little data exists to provide a clear answer — so we decided to find out ourselves.
Your Audience Cares More Than You Think
In our survey of 465 men and women, fielded in March and April 2020, participants were asked questions about their video conferencing preferences, expectations, and experiences. Additionally, respondents were shown a person against three different backgrounds, another person wearing three different colors, and a third person dressed in three different types of attire. Participants were asked to choose which background, clothing color and clothing style helped the speaker appear the most authentic (genuine, actions are in line with beliefs), the most trustworthy (honest, truthful, reliable), the most innovative (original, creative in thinking, willing to depart from the norm), and the most like an expert (highly credible, an authority on the subject matter at hand).
When it comes to the background they see behind the speaker, 60% of respondents said they do have a clear preference. (Spoiler alert: they don’t want to see a fake scenic background, which has already engendered listicles such as this one and even their own awards.) Only 39% of respondents claimed a clear preference for clothing color worn by the speaker, but nearly half care about what type of attire the speaker wears.
When we cut the data by age and gender, across the board, male and younger respondents seem to have the strongest opinions. On average, 54% of men (vs 43% of women) voiced having a clear preference about background, clothing color, and type of attire and 57% of respondents age 18 to 29 stated a clear preference, compared to an overall average of 49%. Just as in the real world, visual impressions matter — and it’s worth taking the time to invest in the right background and clothing choices to make the impact you want.
Think Carefully About Your Background
When it came to backgrounds, showing the actual room behind the speaker was the most popular choice for three of the four perceived traits. This was surprising given the risk of accidentally showing your audience a pile of laundry or a wandering child appearing behind you. But, if you’re striving for authenticity, trustworthiness, or expertise, a blank wall or virtual scenic background does not offer much in the way of gravitas or sincerity. Opt instead for showing the room you are in — but ideally, choose a contained space, and consider what’s on the wall behind you. 44% of survey respondents prefer to see a wall with books or bookshelves behind the speaker, while 34% prefer framed décors such as art, diplomas, or photographs. The majority of men showed a preference for books (50% vs 38% of women), while 40% of women preferred framed décor (vs 28% of men). Only 22% of the group overall (with men and women responding almost identically) want to see the larger room behind the speaker, including furniture and/or personal items.
Dress the Part – Just as You Would in the Office
If you’re leading a discussion and looking to get buy-in from your audience, you might strive for authenticity and trustworthiness. When it comes to dressing, the majority of survey respondents identified business casual attire and neutral colors as helping the speaker appear authentic and trustworthy.
Patterns, neutrals, and bright colors were favored almost equally when it came to making the speaker appear innovative. 16% more women than men identified a bright color as innovative, while 27% more men than women selected pattern as an innovative option.
When it comes to the style of clothing, business casual was the most popular choice for three of the four perceived traits. But if you’re presenting to fellow executives or engaging with a new client, coming across as an expert might be your priority. In which case, select business professional attire in a neutral color palette. e.g. a suit (and tie for men). Given that many professionals deemed “expert” — for example, lawyers, bankers, consultants — typically wear suits, it’s unsurprising that the majority of respondents associate business professional attire with expertise. And, if you work in an industry where business attire is the norm, it’s appropriate to maintain the same level of professionalism in a virtual meeting. Bottom line: don’t assume that since your work environment has changed, your attire should as well.
As might be expected, generational differences play a role in attitude towards attire — albeit not as large as one might think. On average, 46% of respondents age 60 and older showed a consistent preference for business formal (vs 39% of the group as a whole). But younger participants did not show a strong affinity for casual attire, despite continuing trends towards informal dress in today’s workplace. Only 20% of respondents age 18 through 29 preferred the casual option (vs a group average of 18%), while 41% of young participants selected business casual (vs a group average of 43%). So if you’re speaking to a young audience, or are a college professor leading a class, you may think your audience doesn’t care how you’re dressed — but think again.
Once again, appearing innovative is more complex. A slight majority of respondents identified a solid color wall as the best background to help the speaker appear innovative. While displaying a virtual scenic background is certainly a novel use of technology, only 17% of respondents think it translates to helping the speaker himself appear more innovative. (Across the board, virtual scenic backgrounds averaged only 7.5% of the vote — suggesting that they’re best saved for your next virtual happy hour, not your next work meeting.)
The good news is that, when it comes to making a positive impression in a virtual meeting, participants have more control than they might have thought — and an opportunity to be aspirational. The same level of effort — if not more — should go into presenting yourself for an onscreen meeting. Just as in the physical world, there’s an opportunity to dress for success and make a great first impression.
But don’t forget — dressing for success in the virtual world means carefully considering not just your clothing, but also the environment in which you choose to present yourself.