Education & Skills

Words: Simon Bucknall

In this new series, Conduit member and public speaking expert Simon Bucknall shares his top tips for avoiding awkward moments and coming across as your best self during online meetings.

I’ve always found the weather forecast baffling.

On the rare occasion I do watch it on television, I never retain what’s forecast. It’s as if my brain is set to default.

“Receiving weather related input… Eject.

But what did fascinate me as a child was this idea… That the weather presenter couldn’t actually see the map they were pointing at.

I remember a school teacher trying to explain ‘green screen’ technology to us. Alas, I was back to ‘in one ear and out the other’. But it was my first exposure to virtual backgrounds.

Nowadays, they’re all the rage, aren’t they?

In recent months, you’ll have seen countless variations. I’ve observed presenters in outer space, above the Golden Gate Bridge, or, in one case, parked in front of an immaculately sculpted, pristine cocktail bar. As if I didn’t already miss The Conduit bar enough!

What’s clear is that when communicating online, your background does matter. You and I have, in effect, become domestic television broadcasters. But compared to a ‘real world encounter’, this new channel of communication is:

  • More narrowly focused
  • More intense
  • More intimate

When speaking online, we face two enemies: distraction and fatigue.

So, what can we do about them?

1. Go real, not virtual

If you possibly can, avoid using a virtual background.

Yup, I’ve said it.


Because too often, your image will be pixellated by the background. If you want to appear like a Ring Wraith, watch Lord Of The Rings.

Even if the picture is clear, you risk triggering a question in the mind of some, more cynical, observers:

“What’s he or she hiding that they don’t want me to see?”

Find a wall (preferably blank – see below). Ensure there’s some decent light. You’ll come across just fine.

2. If you must go virtual, have a good reason

A client of mine works in the same room as his fiancé. To preserve the ‘illusion’ of confidentiality for market sensitive calls, he has opted for a virtual background. Fair enough – that’s a good enough reason for me.

By contrast, I heard of one senior executive who reportedly had a photo taken of their workplace office and then used that as their virtual background! Not so good.

That’s just trying a bit too hard, isn’t it?

3. Have a talking point

If you’re going to have something behind you, make it one thing and be happy to talk about it.

This tip was suggested by a friend of mine who works in a leadership role in big tech. She’d chosen a Pride flag – which, needless to say, she was very happy to talk about.

Another good example is a client of mine who’s clearly a fitness enthusiast. Giant ‘Ironman Event’ poster on her wall. Great!

It’s clear, it’s personal and it’s a talking point. It certainly sparked my interest.

The trick is to keep it simple. One talking point is plenty. If you clutter your background with too much clobber, you’ll distract people.

It’s fun to have a talking point but remember the real focus.


Not the book shelves. They’ll only distract people.

4. Plain is good!

What if you were to have… nothing at all?

No distractions.

Just you.


Twice winner of the UK & Ireland Championship of Public Speaking, Simon Bucknall helps high-achieving professionals, leaders and opinion formers to connect, influence and inspire through the spoken word. Since placing in the top 20 out of 26,000 speakers at the 2007 World Championship of Public Speaking Finals in the USA, Simon has helped more than 25,000 people from all walks of life with their communication, including FTSE 100 & Fortune 100 executives, politicians, entrepreneurs, MBAs and academics as well as leaders in the not-for-profit sector. Learn more about Simon’s work via his website.