Welcome to the Age of the Video Call. Now, Make It Personal

By Jon Kelly

In the age of COVID-19, business travel, conventions and in-person meetings have been replaced by video — Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and GotoMeeting calls. In a lot of ways, this has been great. The rapid global adoption of video-calling technology has allowed me to easily host a virtual Rotary meeting, touch base with a new business partner in Europe, then an hour later be in a meeting with one of our investors in California. I’m getting even more done than usual as it’s become easier to schedule these meetings with everyone at home. I’ve also really enjoyed meeting everyone’s pets and children!

But I’ll have to admit to one advantage, video calls aren’t new to me and my team at Kelly Klee. Working remotely across the country over many years, we actually have hours of Zoom and Google Meet sessions every day. I understand that many people, having never imagined working from home, let alone having to do it largely via video chat, have been thrust into an interesting position to say the least.

A New Era

The scramble to figure it out reminds me a lot of transition to business casual in the mid-’90s. I was a management consultant at the time, and there were really no rules for what “business casual” even meant.  Needless to say, some folks were much quicker to make the transition than others. There were many awkward moments for those whose closets consisted only of Brooks Brothers suits and resort wear from the occasional trip to Hawaii.

An Already Tired Trend

Zoom has thrust us into the same awkward transition. Minutes of clumsy camera fiddling turned into virtual windows into domestic disarray — kids in and out of the picture, laundry scattered, dogs begging for attention during presentations. Of course, it’s spurred a lot of conversations about proper Zoom etiquette. Viral stories of homespun-hilarity make us feel better, as do inspiring pieces about embracing the chaos.
But one trend — or piece of advice — that I can’t get behind are the virtual Zoom backgrounds. Not only does it look like you’re in a low-production movie with a faulty green-screen, but it is way more distracting than it is helpful. Plus, instead of becoming a hallmark of personal expression, it’s become the framework for the most tired joke of the COVID-epoch — “Hey Bill, glad you dialed in from Kathmandu!”  Worse, if you’re wearing the wrong color shirt or have more than one moving person, pet or child in the frame, it turns into a Timothy Leary-worthy kaleidoscope of induced nauseousness. 

So the other day when I was speaking to a new connection via Zoom, I was inspired. He dialed in and immediately I was taken aback by the most unique wall color and hanging piece of art. I had to ask him about the piece and he proceeded to tell me the story behind it. This simple detail allowed us to have this intimate introduction and meaningful connection that was so much more personal than any of the typical Corona small talk. After that I thought, ‘Why aren’t more of us, while stuck at home, using our favorite objects to tell a story about who we are?’

The Ultimate Zoom Background: A Curated Backdrop

So, I started constructing a curated Zoom backdrop that allowed me to convey details about myself to my colleagues, business partners and friends. While it’s directionally like being a set designer for a TV production, you certainly don’t need to be that elaborate.

The point is to just show off a bit of who you are with elements that people in your video chat can see behind you — conversation starters that are much more meaningful and genuine than virtual Zoom backdrops. That being said, this all does require a bit of creativity, so here are some tips. 

  1. Think laterally
    Since no one but family can come into your house anymore, you can put your desk in a completely nonsensical position for your physical space to make this work — like that weird spot in the side room that has great light and a corner bookshelf. Who’s going to know?  Two big tips — have a wall with a book-shelf behind you (or art) and avoid back-lighting (e.g. a window), just as you would when taking a picture.
  2. Think big
    While you may want to show off your favorite book or what you’re reading at the moment, make sure it is actually visible. Computer cameras are notoriously low resolution, so any book you want to show off should have distinct cover text or imagery. Keep this in mind for all your smaller objects.
  3. Think personally
    The best thing about the curated backdrop isn’t making yourself look organized or like you have a dedicated home office — it’s that you can give your video companions a little window into your life. Here’s what I’ve been putting in my curated backgrounds.

From the upper left: A fish fossil from Wyoming that’s supposedly 45 million years old — this reminds me to take the long view!

A bottle of “Limmi” that I received before doing a ½ marathon in Umbria, Italy in 2004. It’s hard to imagine what kind of science experiment exists inside that 16-year-old sealed bottle, but it reminds me of a great time in my life and makes me smile.

A beautiful compass given to me by the co-founder of my last company, SureHits, and his wife. It makes me think about perseverance and strategic direction — about all of the turns we navigated to make that company successful.

A bunch of books about art, mostly about my favorite artist, David Hockney. Although, there’s also one on Marcel Duchamp and ‘Conversations with Artists,’ written by Kelly Klee’s newest board member, Heidi Zuckerman.

A snow globe of Salt Lake City where my family and I lived for many years.

A tiny little book that David Hockney wrote about Picasso. I got it when I was a kid and found out recently that it’s now a collector’s item! One of my favorite excerpts reads, “…I checked the dates and found that seven of them were painted on the same day, and he was eighty-four years old at the time! The sheer energy of the late work would be impressive for somebody in their twenties. Picasso makes painters in their twenties look like old age pensioners.”

A Dale Jr. collectible race car. My brother and I attended one of Dale Jr.’s final races at the invitation of one of our insurance partners, Nationwide Private Client. I have always admired Dale Jr. for the way he’s handled fame and behaved as a public figure.

A beautiful black and white picture of one of my sons. Part of a collection of photography of my kids that surround me in my office.

And finally, a cribbage board; the textbook from my Econ 1 class at Stanford; Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, which I highly recommend. There’s also a book about the legendary Manchester music venue The Hacienda and Shel Silverstein’s classic, A Light in the Attic.

Don’t you feel like you know me a little better now? My video companions sure do, too.

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