Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

Video conferencing and virtual hangouts are the harbingers of future work. It could be the antidote for social interactions at uncertain times like this. Even if we are separated across countries and time zones, or stranded in a nationwide lockdown, we can still work, chat or meet through video calls at a safe social distance.

In this digital age, video chat apps are mushrooming and booming faster. Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, Zoom app was downloaded 26.9 million times worldwide.

Video chat apps rise to prominence amid pandemic (via WeForum, Prioridata, Statista)

And the app growth shows no signs of halting. Zoom has seen 131 millions downloads in April 2020 alone. That is nearly 4x as much as the total downloads in January, February and March 2020. Zoom has boasted a triple win across global overall downloads, app store downloads and Google Play downloads. The sole contender that came closest was TikTok.

A triple win for Zoom (via

Technology may sap our attention and time, zapping away our productivity more than we ever care to admit. But video call does not need to be an exhausting sport or a dehumanizing experience.

Here are some tips and tactics I have learnt from hosting online course and teaching online classes for the past few weeks.

What to expect and prepare

Find a convenient meeting time that works for all. Use a calendar invite like Google Calendar to schedule the video call ahead of time.

If you are going to spearhead and steward the video conference, delegate work beforehand. Assign essential roles to every attendee.

Behind every successful webinar, there exists a charismatic speaker, a Yoda-like facilitator, a faithful transcriber, an official timekeeper…. you name it. There’s unseen and unspoken effort of coordinated teamwork behind every Salman Khan’s video lecture.

Still, you need to be an articulate speaker who can babble enthusiastically into the cold black dot — as if you are championing for a cause. People can feel and sense that. Treat video conferencing as you would commentate professionally for a live sports broadcast. Channel your inner gung-ho spirit.

Send out meeting agendas and share materials ahead of time. I usually post PowerPoints and handouts in Google Classroom days or weeks before the actual online class. You can also send pre-reads and pre-interview questionnaires to help your guests prepare and set expectations. Doing so keeps the meeting from getting sidetracked or going off tangents.

Avoid attending a meeting without having part or all of the assignment done already. This will save the speaker’s time, and your time.

“Intel’s headquarters has a sign in a conference room that read: If you don’t know the purpose of your meeting, you are prohibited from starting.” — Roger Schwarz

Don’t invite hundreds or thousands of people who serve little purpose to the meeting. We are less likely to intervene or speak up in large groups due to the diffusion of responsibility.

Feel free to decline a meeting invite if your presence is inconsequential and not mandatory. Or if it says another 999 people are attending.

Do all your work-related tasks in a designated well-lit, soundproof workroom. Wear noise-cancelling headphones with a $20 microphone you can buy from Amazon.

Communicate with your family before your meeting. Minimize distractions from crying infants, barking dogs, road traffic and construction noise. Don’t let them sabotage your point and presence.

Switch to airplane mode before you go on air. Turn off all notifications from your phone, laptop, and all electronic devices in your vicinity.

How to talk and act

Abide by the law of meetings. If you can finish a meeting in 15 minutes, be unapologetically ruthless about it. Our attention wanes exponentially. 5 minutes in, our mind starts to wander off to contemplate what’s for dinner tonight.

Set a Pomodoro timer to end the meeting in 25 minutes. If you have Amazon Alexa, you can say “Alexa, set a timer for 25 minutes”. Or you could build a visible countdown timer from ground up like John Fish.

On a free plan, Zoom will end in 40 mimutes anyway. Therefore, use the minimum viable PowerPoint. Keep your PowerPoint slides to a maximum of 26 slides if your goal is to finish the presentation in 30 to 40 minutes. That is assuming you spend 60 to 90 seconds on each slide. No disruption. No intermission. No question asked.

Look into the camera, not at the computer screen. This is how you make eye contact through the camera lens. If done correctly, you are more likely to get your message across.

Speak intently with cadence and confidence. Speak in a voice louder than usual so that you are clearly audible on the other end. Script your intro to eliminate unnecessary filler words such as “uh”, “um”, and “ah”.

Take one minute to introduce yourself and all attendees. Call them by their first names if you haven’t met each other in real life. They will feel more welcomed, and be more willing to engage in the discussion.

Participants are muted on entry, but make sure their video webcams are turned on. This elevates engagement and presence in an online meeting. It mimics two-way connection in real life conversations.

Teach on live webinar instead of video call. Webinars are less likely to be interrupted with potential mishaps from the participants’ side. Participant mics and webcams are disabled by default, unless admins enable them to speak. Tom Kuegler recommends WebinarJam and WebinarNinja.

Record the online meeting with Screencast-O-Matic. Share your screen, add your webcam, and insert audio narration to your video lessons. If you prefer to record a podcast, use Anchor’s Record With Friends feature. Mute yourself when your guest is speaking.

Video calls allow you to view your audience’s reactions, responses, facial expressions, body languages, so you can make adjustments accordingly. That’s how TEDx public speakers read minds and build rapport.

Mark attendance. Here’s how you can check attendance on Zoom. Needless to say, this is the most scrutinizing way of surveillance to monitor student participation and attendance activity. However, if you believe that full meeting attendance equals full undivided attention from all attendees, nothing can be further from the truth.

For that, you have to get live responses via comments, polling, screen-sharing, and virtual whiteboard. Use Google Docs and Jamboard for real-time connection, collaboration and immediate feedback.

Flaunt colorful, visual props. Any bland physics topic can be bolstered with virtual experiments, animations, photos, charts, graphs and statistics. Even physical props like a globe, a compass, a makeshift white or black board can make a geography virtual class much more lively.

Do a Q&A session where everyone gets an equal opportunity to contribute. A monotonous monologue or soporific speech cannot get any more stale and wearisome. Ask and answer questions from your students.

Assign a problem to be solved in a 5-min brainstorming session to groups of two or three. They can discuss among themselves within private chat rooms or Slack channels.

Spend 60 seconds sharing stories, sensationalized news, anecdotes and facts. You can draw students in to think empathetically. Don’t be afraid to chime in juxtaposed ideas, visceral analogies or even dramatized stats. They are better able to recall a cation-anion joke I said five months ago, than the chemical equations I taught yesterday.

Make it obvious to all attendees that they have nowhere to run or hide in the meeting. The last thing you want in a physical (and virtual) meeting is everybody keeping their heads down, scrolling screens, and getting dumbfounded at your question, “What is your opinion on the company-wide salary reduction? Silence implies consent.”

“And it’s particularly annoying when you make a nine-minute argument, pause for an expected reaction, and get: “I’m not sure I followed you” which might as well mean: “I was shampooing my cat and didn’t realize I would be called on.” — Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny

Wrap up the meeting by sharing hodgepodge results from all attendees. Even if the end results are far from perfect, people like to see their labor of love regardless.

Allow the attendees to spend the last 5 minutes on their banter and water cooler conversations. They are free to express candor and build team camaraderie as long as they do it with trust and respect.

Thank your guests

You can never say thank you enough.

Send everyone a follow-up email attaching the meeting recording. This ensures everyone — be it attendees or absentees — is on the same page.

Edit the meeting recording for relevance, brevity and clarity. Edit out interruptions, extraneous points, and irrelevant comments. These bring little to nothing, other than diverting and disrupting the meeting. Trim away filler words, stutter, coughs and awkward moments of dead pan silence.

Host your online course on Teachable, TES or Masterclass. This becomes an exclusive trove for people to excavate and resurface past lectures, learning materials and supplementary resources. A video lesson about virus you taught in 2018 may now seem more relevant than ever. Epidemics, virus, and vaccine are but a few keywords in Google’s 2020 top searches.

Test how much your students have learned with a post-lesson quiz assignment. I’m still amazed to this day that, active participation in online classes is a strong predictor of a student’s quiz performance. Ask for anonymous feedback.

Less is more

My longest video lesson to date has received the least attention, viewership and engagement among my students. It was a 2-hour long incessant rambling I did for a 100-slide presentation on electricity. In retrospect, I’d have accelerated it to a 1-hour turbocharged lecture if I could.

Video conferencing — or anything for that matter — can be summed up in 3 words: less is more. Whether it’s a physical or virtual meeting, be short and sweet. Be respectful of others’ and your own time. It’s the same logic why prolific writers publish 2-mins articles on Medium: shorter articles scale better.

In a flipped traditional classroom, interactions with students are more dynamic. Conversations feel more alive. Teaching is more immersive.

Normally what I do in a science class is to give a 5-min concept review of previous class, 40-min lesson interleaved with a 5-min break, 20-min guided practice and 10-min Q&A. Through this way, children can learn easily. Teachers can teach effortlessly.