What do you do when they won’t turn on their webcam?

‘Presenting online. It feels like speaking to a black hole.’

Peter, a professor at the University of Antwerpen, finds it quite annoying when he cannot see his students because their cameras are turned off.

Should you respond by forcing your audience to turn on their webcam?

‘If they don’t want to turn their cameras on, I throw them out’ I sometimes hear people say during my workshops.

But before we bring down the hammer, let’s zoom in on the question of why your audience may sometimes prefer not to be seen.

In their underwear, having lunch, or with a baby on their lap?

There could be plenty reasons why participants don’t turn on their webcam: they may be scantily clad, perhaps they are ashamed of their shabby home, or they have to mind the kids. Or they don’t have a webcam.

In those cases I think you should respect the privacy of each participant. Let everyone decide for themselves.

Does the webcam really make that big of a difference?

During an interactive workshop in a smaller group I understand that you want to see your audience’s faces. Also to enhance togetherness it helps when participants can see each other. But for most presentations and lectures this involvement is of lesser importance and you could keep the camera turned off.

As a speaker, you are also not expected to be staring at your audience’s faces on the screen the entire time. When you want to make eye contact, simply look into the webcam.

What can you do to encourage them to turn on their webcam anyway?

First of all, open the virtual meeting five minutes beforehand. Once the first participants log in, strike up a casual conversation with them, such as ‘Hello Evelien, welcome. Thanks for joining us. Working from home right now or are you at work? (…) And where is that? (…) Oh, Zwevelgem.’

Chances are that Evelien has already turned on her camera. Others who log in afterwards notice that a conversation is going on and will generally follow suit. (Smalltalk is also important online 😊)

Second, you can say, ‘It’s nicer if we can see each other. So, if it’s alright for you, you can certainly turn on your webcam. (…) Ah, thanks Bruno (who turned on his camera).’

But don’t panic if not everyone or maybe even no one responds to your question. Because let’s be honest, at times each of us would rather attend a presentation anonymously, even without having a baby on our lap.

So as a speaker, can you also turn off your camera?

As a speaker you have no excuse and should definitely keep your camera on while speaking. Just a voice with slides in the background? That is a surefire way to lose your audience in seconds.

So, if you are suffering from the black hole feeling during your online presentation: encouraging words will go a longer way than the use of force.

Translation: Leslie Van Ael